Surviving the holidays can be tough enough, but it can be especially challenging for families that are dealing with divorce or separation. Plus, lingering COVID-19 restrictions in some areas make co-parenting during “the most magical” season even more complicated.

The best gift those in this situation can give this year? Making it a point to make the holidays happy and joyful for their children. The trick? You and your ex-spouse or soon-to-be ex-spouse need to work together NOW to figure out logistics and other important details before the holidays begin.

“The holidays can be a battleground – a tug-of-war between the parents,” says Alan Plevy and Kyung (Kathryn) Dickerson, principals of SmolenPlevy in Vienna, VA. Among the issues: 

  • The question of who will celebrate which holidays where? The son at Mom’s on Christmas Day? Daughter at Dad’s on Christmas Eve?
  • Deciding and handling travel arrangements during the children’s winter break. Who goes to which house and by what time? What if one parent wants to take the kids away on holiday vacation but the other isn’t comfortable yet with travel due to COVID-19?
  • Parents buying elaborate gifts to one-up one another. “You get a car,” “Here’s that dog you always wanted.” “Enjoy the drum set I sent over to your mother’s house for you.”
  • Children telling one parent they heard the other talk unkindly about him or her.  

With over 60 years of combined experience as family law attorneys, Plevy and Dickerson share 6 key tips for parents to make surviving this holiday season easier:

1. Plan Ahead: “It is imperative to create a plan ahead of time that includes when and where your children will be to avoid confusion and/or an argument,” says Plevy. The added challenges of the ongoing pandemic may require you and your ex to compromise especially if travel is involved. Dickerson adds “Your ex may not want you to travel during the holidays with the pandemic raging on in some parts of the country—but if the court order allows you to do so, it’s within your right.” Having a record of what is being said and agreed upon can avoid any future tension. To do this you should confirm the plan in writing via text message or email. Don’t forget to keep the kids updated on where they will go and when. This will prevent any anxiety they might feel from being kept out of the loop. 

2. Avoid a gifting competition: One of the main issues divorced parents face during the holidays is wanting to give their children the better gift, according to Plevy. The competition can leave the parents in debt and feeling overwhelmed. “Don’t go into competition with the other parent. It doesn’t work. It hurts,” says Dickerson. It is important to keep in mind the other parent’s financial and housing situation while picking out presents. Sometimes, a parent will buy a dog for their child, even though they know the dog will not be able to live at the other parent’s house. As a rule of thumb, children prefer spending time with the parent over an outrageous present.  

3. Behave like an adult: Maintain your composure and remain civil and businesslike with the other parent. Remember your children still love them, and speaking rudely about the other parent in front of your children will upset them and exacerbate their stress. Make sure their aunts, uncles and grandparents follow the same rules. Children would rather feel at peace, so avoid the bickering. Otherwise, when they grow older, they might not want to visit. 

4. Put your children first: After a divorce or separation, there is often a mixture of negative emotions: sadness, anger and disappointment. Make sure you listen to your children’s concerns and let them know that it is okay to share these emotions, especially over the holidays. Plevy says letting them vent can be a big help.

5. Create new traditions: The holidays are a time for family traditions, but for divorced parents, it may be time to start some new ones. “This is a new chapter, this is a new family. It’s the time to start a new tradition with the children,” says Dickerson. New traditions can alleviate stress by helping children focus on the fun instead of the fact their parents aren’t together. You could go caroling, decorate the Christmas tree, or bake cookies for police officers and firefighters. Holiday traditions can make the season special for children, even during this difficult time. 

6. Give yourself a gift: Divorced or separated parents may feel sad, alone and stressed. Because of the established visitation schedule, a parent might find they have more free time when their child is with the other parent. Plevy advises while children are learning to adapt to an established structure, you should too. Use this time to do something special for yourself. By prioritizing your happiness, you will be more upbeat during the time you do get to spend with your children for the holidays.