Psych Services The divorced parent’s guide to the holidays

Sonia S. Burlingame

Editor’s Note. Dr. Sonia Burlingame joined HPD Psychological Services in August. Her considerable expertise in individual, marital and family therapy has already proved a significant asset to the Department. She has been a psychologist since 1992, after earning a Ph.D. at Penn State University and completing an internship at Baylor College of Medicine. Married and the mother of two, Dr. Burlingame is a proud native Texan.

Few issues are more sensitive and emotionally charged than trying to negotiate holiday visitation with your ex-spouse. Sharing the children with someone who put you through significant suffering is no small matter. Throw in a new spouse or two, a blended family with step- or half-siblings, other relatives competing for time, and you have the makings of a perfect storm.

In spite of this, the holidays can be the peaceful, joyful time everyone wants. A few tips will help it happen.

  1. Have a plan. If you are recently divorced or separated, or if there is a pattern of repeated contention, it is important to stick strictly with the parenting plan or possession and access order already in place. Read the decree, remind yourself of your obligations, and gain any necessary clarification well in advance of the holidays. Then, stick with the program.


  1. Be flexible. Consider making concessions to accommodate out-of-town relatives, family reunions, or other special events. Remember, if you are generous, your ex-spouse is more likely to respond in kind later. The best interests of the children should guide your decision-making.


  1. Avoid surprises. Communicate, keep your promises and try not to introduce last minute twists, such as a new schedule or a new girlfriend. Children are more comfortable when they know ahead of time what to expect. Planning ahead also allows both parents to make proper childcare arrangements and any necessary changes to work and travel schedules.


  1. Take care of yourself. The holidays are likely to trigger memories and bring about some sad feelings, particularly as you see other families enjoying celebrations together. Feelings of loss and loneliness are not uncommon. Newly separated or divorced parents are often struck by the realization that they may be spending a holiday without their children for the first time. Try to fill the void with family and friends.


  1. Create new traditions. Having two holidays for the children–one with you and one with your ex-spouse’s family–is often a positive solution for extended families. This arrangement reinforces the idea that they now have two homes and cements new holidays traditions. The fact that you celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving on a different day will not matter to the children. They just want to be with you.


  1. Don’t spoil the kids. Communicate about gift-giving and do not overindulge the children. Divorced parents sometimes respond to their children’s pain and guilt over the divorce by lavishing their children with expensive gifts. This is unhealthy. Make sure you resist the temptation to compete over who gives the children the best or most expensive gift.


Try instead to spend time with the children, reassuring them of your love, and listening closely to their concerns and feelings. Consider giving gifts that promote time together or an activity or hobby you can enjoy with them. Examples may include tickets to an event, gear for a family camping trip, a fishing pole, or a chess set.


  1. Let your child love both parents. At Christmas, this means encouraging your children to make or select small gifts for the other parent and grandparents. Allow your children to have quality time with your ex-spouse and don’t make them choose between the two of you. Respect the fact that your children still love your ex-spouse and resist making negative comments about them.


Be mindful that the children may miss your ex-spouse, particularly if they are very young or have never been away from the other parent. Allow them to call and stay in contact as necessary without feeling offended or perceiving this as a competition. The divorce was a loss to your children too and they need the support, love, and comfort of both parents.


  1. Declare a cease-fire. Unresolved issues and resentments get in the way of negotiations. For the sake of the children, give these battles a temporary rest and make the kids your priority. Keep transfers and contact with your ex civil.


Remember, the best gift you can give you children is a peaceful holiday.