The holidays present a unique challenge for divorced and separated parents.   For purposes of this article, I am not simply talking about the ordinary stress of separation, divorce, and adjusting to parents living in two separate households; rather, I am talking about the enhanced stresses attendant to the holidays that are experienced by the children of divorced or separated parents.

For some divorcing parents, the further away they get from their initial separation, and divorce, the more complicated arrangements become for the minor children.  This also seems to be true when one or both parents have new significant others in their lives.  For children in those situations, they are not only expected to navigate each parent’s household, and potentially each parent’s extended families, but they might also be forced to navigate expectations and traditions in the homes, and extended families of each parents’ significant other.

In my practice as an attorney, mediator, Parenting Coordinator and Guardian Ad Litem the crises typically start in the week before Thanksgiving, and do not let up until after children return to school following Winter break in January.  Those crises include, but are not limited to some of the following:

  • the court ordered parenting time schedule for the holidays;
  • how the children’s Winter break from school will be shared when the court order allocating parental rights and responsibilities is not specified days and/or times;
  • travel arrangements including:
    • adjustments to parenting time;
    • missing school;
    • missing family events; and/or,
    • passports/travel permission
  • allowing the children to participate in traditional family events that interfere with the other parent’s parenting time;
  • children’s participation in holiday programs at school/church/temple/club/team;
  • parent’s attendance at children’s holiday programs at school/church/temple/club/team; and,
  • the dates, days, times for the beginning and end of Winter break from school when not specified in the court order allocating parental rights and responsibilities.

Generally speaking, the higher the level of conflict for any given divorced or separated family, the higher the stress level experienced by the children from those families during the holidays.

Divorced and separated parents would do well to heed the following advice regarding their children:

  1. Have reasonable expectations. I have witnessed firsthand, cases where parents have expectations that children can keep up with the social, and family schedules of two households without becoming exhausted, overwrought, overstimulated, or overly stressed.  I am talking about the situation where the parents have decided that the whirlwind of transitions, visits, and events will start on Christmas Eve, or the day before, and the child will transition back and forth between two households over the next three days.  Imagine keeping up with a schedule of activities that requires you to shift gears, and switch households every 4 to 6 hours or worse?
  1. Respect the family traditions of your child’s other parent, and where possible, make reasonable allowances so your child can enjoy those traditions. If the children have historically gone to their other grandparents’ home the week before Christmas to bake cookies, and it just so happens to fall on your time, please consider allowing them to continue to participate in this tradition especially if the children enjoy attending that interaction.  Do not deprive them of that experience.
  1. Children’s participation in holiday events changes as they get older. Younger children may wish to simply stay home and play with their presents and not attend family events.  Older children, and teens may wish to spend time with their friends and the peers that have become important in their lives, during the holidays.  This is normal, and does not mean that they are rejecting you, your family, or your traditions.
  1. Try not to compete with your child’s other parent when it comes to gift giving. I have seen many parents fall down this slippery slope, and no one wins in this scenario.  If the child is going to receive a major gift for Christmas, for example, it would be best not to receive the same large gift in both households.  Some parents actually discuss gift giving in advance of the holidays, and agree on what the child will receive.  Keep in mind also, that out of control, and escalating patterns of gift giving can create a situation in the future that no one wants to experience.  Gift giving should not be an “arms race.”
  1. Plan on both parents attending events at school/church/temple/team/clubs. Unless there is a court order that prevents a parent from attending an event in which the child is a participant, both parents are allowed to, and are encouraged, to attend.  Unless there is a court order to the contrary, neither parent has the right to tell the other parent for example, that they cannot attend the Christmas pageant at the school because it does not occur during that parent’s parenting time.  That is not how this works.
  1. Look at your court order for parenting time over the holidays now, and make sure that you and your child’s other parent are on the same page regarding days, dates and times as soon as possible. Courts have limited abilities to deal with schedule conflicts in the days, or even hours leading up to a holiday.  Many court employees take time off around the holidays, as do some lucky attorneys.  If you and your child’s other parent do not agree on schedules etc. before the holidays, do something about it well in advance of the holiday for your child’s sake.

If you want to give a gift to your children this holiday season, a real gift that will last a lifetime, with memories that they will treasure, give them holiday peace, and the ability to enjoy and appreciate all that is good in the households of both their parents.  I wish all of you a truly peaceful holiday season and a prosperous 2019.