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Five Co-Parenting Tips for the Holidays

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Holiday Rituals Matter

The holidays are a time meant for love, joy, laughter, shared meals, and time spent with family. This is just as true for non-traditional families as it is for families with both parents living at home. Even for families from cultures where it’s not customary to celebrate the same winter holidays that many families in the U.S. celebrate, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the period of time from late November through the beginning of January is special here. Schools close, businesses shift to holiday hours, festive decorations line the streets, and people travel near and far to visit friends and relatives.

Our society is structured in such a way that these holidays virtually take over normal life for a month. Almost everyone gets involved in some way or another. Small cities and towns across the country go all-in. New York and Chicago are alive with rituals and traditions, for example. New York’s Rockefeller Center has its enormous tree and ice-skating rink. The lights of Chicago’s Downtown Loop capture the imagination and inspire feelings of awe and wonder.

A Magical Time

Of all the people in this country who love this time of year, there’s one special group of people who are especially in tune with the holidays: children. For children, holidays and the rituals that surround them give life meaning. For them, rituals are alive. They’re something they can rely on. In the minds of children, holiday rituals mark the passage of time and give significance to the regular march of the seasons. The hours spent eating, laughing and talking with close friends or extended family help kids situate themselves in the big picture of life and teach them where and how they fit in. Children – even teens –  believe in magic. And the winter holidays can be an incredibly magical time.

To keep that magic alive, it’s vitally important that people in non-traditional, co-parenting situations learn to work together to make the holidays, as the song says, “The most wonderful time of the year.”

Holiday Tips for Co-Parents

Every family situation is different, and every family has its own set of traditions passed down from generation to generation. The operating principle for creating and maintaining holiday rituals in a co-parenting situation is respect. No matter what has gone before, consider it water under the bridge. Kids come first, and for their sake each parent must do their best create the atmosphere of love, charity, gratitude, and kindness that characterize the winter holiday season. The following five tried and true suggestions offer ways to achieve this goal. Use them to stimulate thought. They’re ideas, not rules written in stone. But they are good ideas.

1. Shared Time. 

This may be the single most challenging thing to accomplish, but kids revel in being in the same place at the same time with both parents. It doesn’t have to be at Thanksgiving dinner or on Christmas Eve, but if kids can see their parents together even for just a little while, treating one another well, it will mean everything to them. In addition to giving them a sense of completeness, it teaches them that adults with differences can work things out.

2. Neutral Territory.

If shared time at one parent’s home or the other won’t work, then plan shared time out at a restaurant or at a mutual friend’s place. Divorced co-parents can also consider doing things like visiting a mall Santa together or attending church-related activities as a unit.

3.  Double Up.

Some families do both a “Dad Christmas” and a “Mom Christmas” as well as a “Dad Thanksgiving” and a “Mom Thanksgiving.” It takes some cooperative scheduling, but one great thing about this approach is that kids get to celebrate each holiday twice.

4. The In-Laws.

Oftentimes, divorced parents learn to work through the issues that led to their divorce in productive and positive ways, and it’s their parents who end up holding grudges. If this is the situation, then there’s a simple fix: if there’s any shared time planned, leave the former in-laws out of it. This may sound a little harsh, but if the goal is to create a healthy, loving experience for the children and there’s a chance that it could be ruined by a misplaced word or negative attitude, it’s a good idea to proactively prevent this from happening in the first place.

5. Be realistic.

While giving yourself and your former spouse the chance to move forward and create wonderful co-parenting approaches to the holidays, there are limits to everyone’s psychological and emotional capabilities. Know yourself and know your former spouse. At the beginning, keep the shared time limited to manageable chunks that you know both of you can handle. Stay optimistic, but at the same time be sure to set yourself up for success.

The Spirit of the Holidays

As every parent learns very quickly, children are much more likely to value something if their parents value it, too. In terms of the winter holidays, there’s a simple way to say this. For kids, Santa Claus exists exactly to the extent that the parents pretend he exists. There’s also a way to say this that is not specific to cultures that celebrate Christmas. Holiday rituals will have meaning for children if parents fully commit to them with positive intentions in their minds and love in their hearts.

During the holidays, kids learn that the things in life that matter most can’t be bought with money, can’t be found on the Internet and, can’t be watched on a television set. They learn that  what matter in life is other people. What matters, in the end, is how we behave toward other people. What matters most is that we learn to treat other people. our families in particular—with love, respect and kindness and that we learn to view our lives on this earth with humility and gratitude. And finally, what matters most is that we teach our children the one fundamental lesson that exemplifies the spirit of the holidays: giving is a far greater act than receiving.

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