Insight

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Being a separated parent with kids can add stress to the holidays. These five tips can help you navigate the season, maintain your sanity—and ensure that the focus remains on the children’s happiness.

Couple drinking glasses of wine
LH

Lindsay Heller

December 19, 2022 12:00 AM

It seems as though the holidays come upon us ever faster as the years pass. I went shopping just before Halloween, hoping to find some Halloween themed paper goods for an event, and much to my surprise, all Halloween merchandise had been cleared out and Christmas decor occupied every aisle. It felt as if Thanksgiving had been passed over, with everyone now focused on the gift-giving holidays.

While I was disappointed in my own (clearly delayed) holiday decor search, the reality is that society starts planning for the holiday's months in advance—and if you don’t, you should. Especially if you are separated or divorced and have children.

We can’t take lightly the ways in which a marital split can change holiday dynamics."

Kids appreciate knowing their plans and need consistency in their schedules. Children whose parents are separated or navigating an ongoing divorce deserve to have advance notice just like their friends whose parents are together and who therefore likely know where and how they’ll celebrate the holidays.

While this time of year often stirs up fond memories and warm feelings, it can also be difficult for anyone experiencing hardship, whether financial, familial, recent loss of a loved one or, of course, divorce. We can’t take lightly the ways in which a marital split can change holiday dynamics. The goal of the tip list below is not to induce sadness but to increase the chances for a successful season for parents and kids alike, so family can be the focus—whatever that means for each individual—and not acrimony.

Whether this is your first separated holiday season or the latest of many, take a look at these pointers and consider incorporating them into your plans. They might seem logical, sure, but sometimes logic escapes us—especially during a busy, emotionally fraught time of year.

1. Be sure the holidays are about the kids! As adults, we can rationalize that the holidays come and go. Some are great, some less so, and in any case they’ll be back next year. Kids often don’t understand this, so try to switch your focus as best you can so the holidays remain a happy time for them.

2. Plan time-sharing arrangements in advance. Why not follow the approach I encountered above and plan before Halloween? There’s no better time to schedule Thanksgiving and the December holidays. Keep in mind that courts do not love an emergent application about scheduling on the eve of the holiday. Such an application lacks urgency given that the major holidays are always on or around the same date. Planning will also give your children the peace of mind of knowing where they’ll be spending them.

3. If possible, discuss gifts with your former (or separate) spouse. All parents have their own ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate in terms of volume and cost. Try to avoid duplicate gifts and stay in the same price range if you can. When kids get a duplicate from friends at a birthday party, that’s understandable; at Christmas it might show the kids that Mom and Dad aren’t on the same page. Some parents choose to jointly gift, but this works only if both agree. It can’t be forced and will not be required.

4. Save your comments about how happy you are not to have to see a member of your separated spouse’s family. Do so when you’re within earshot of your kids, anyway; feel free to tell your friends if you need to vent. Your children are building memories with both sides of their family, and this should be encouraged from everyone on each side. In the same vein, if you hear an extended family member speak ill of your child’s other parent, step in and change the tune. Also, without interrogating, show interest in what your kids are doing with their other parent.

5. Have fun! Try your best not to let a separation, divorce, new stepparent or any combination thereof get in the way of enjoying whatever is your favorite part of the holidays. Children are generally the priority at all times of year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a little self-care as well. There is light at the end of the tunnel: If this is your first post-divorce holiday, you’ll never have to contend with that again. Enjoy, reset and get ready for the new year.

Not all these tips will apply to every parent, and not everyone will have a co-parent who cooperates with your efforts to adhere to them. Remember, though: You can control only your behavior and your side of the aisle. Incorporate these suggestions to the best of your ability, particularly when you don’t need the other parent’s cooperation.

Wishing everyone happy holidays no matter your circumstance, and increasingly happy ones as the years go on!

Lindsay Heller is a partner in the Family Law Department of Fox Rothschild LLP. Based in the firm’s Morristown, NJ office, she can be reached at lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Headline Image: iStock/Dusan Stankovic

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