Sharing Your Kids With Your Ex During the Holidays

Divorce, it’s not a topic we usually think of when we’re considering holiday plans, but for children whose parents live separately, holidays can be both wonderful and complicated.

I know they were for me.

My parents divorced when I was five and optimist that I am, I could be heard saying things like, “I’m glad my parents are divorced, now they don’t fight so much!” or, “I get two birthdays, two Christmases, and about four Thanksgiving dinners!”

But the truth is, it was hard for me, even though I never would have admitted that at the time.

It’s stressful to be moving from one home to another or to travel across town or across the country just to visit with your own family for the holidays. And though we all feel the pinch since most of us live far from our families of origin, I think this time is especially stressful for children of divorce.

I can feel my stomach tensing up as I write this. It’s hard to say goodbye to one family and jump into a whole new environment with different people, different rules and expectations, and all the while, missing the family you’ve just said goodbye to. I’m not sure anyone can fully appreciate the experience unless they’ve been through it themselves.

I’ve been there.

I have a few close friends and some clients who are currently separated, divorced, or in the process of divorcing and when I talk with them, I can hear their deep concern for their children along with their relief at having made a decision that will make them happier, better parents overall.

If you’re one of those parents, congratulations on choosing what will surely turn out to be best for you and your kids. Even if it doesn’t seem like it right now, you can help your child have a happy, healthy childhood AND keep yourself sane by creating some distance with your ex.

Underneath the surface questions like how often should he see his dad or should I ask for full custody, I often hear deeper questions like, will my child be OK and how can I make sure he grows up happy and well adjusted?

So, here’s what I know about what works and what doesn’t when you’re sharing your precious child with someone who you no longer want to share a life with.

1)     Protect the child’s relationships with BOTH parents.

The relationship with the other parent MUST be fiercely protected, cared for, nurtured, and supported by BOTH parents. If my mom hadn’t tucked in her own angry feelings toward my dad and made sure I spent lots of time with him, I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationship with my dad that I have today.

And if my dad hadn’t generously agreed to share custody when he wasn’t legally bound to do so, my relationships with my mom and step-dad would have suffered greatly. One thing my parents did right after their divorce: they made sure I had MY OWN relationship with each of them.

What this means for you: Resist the urge to vilify your ex and instead, share the things you appreciate about your ex with your child. Make sure your child has as much time with each of her parents as possible. And always be available to help your child process and work through any negative thoughts or feelings she might have about her other parent. Remember that you and your co-parent are your child’s best example of emotional maturity and responsibility. And if you need help processing your own stuff about your ex, seek professional help. Don’t rely on your child to help you work through your own feelings toward her other parent.

2)    Make transitions smooth and predictable

Transitions between households are difficult, there’s no way around that. It’s completely bewildering to switch homes, so do your best to provide consistency and clarity during and after the transition (and before the next one).

Here are a few suggestions for how to ease the transition:

  • Be there for the hand-off. It’s hugely important to be present at major transitions like picking up or dropping of your child at the other parent’s house. Don’t send a proxy for this important job.
  • Be on time. Don’t make a child wait around for you to pick them up. Children are extremely self-centered which is developmentally appropriate, but that means that they take things very personally too. When you’re late for a pick up, or you send someone else, a child might interpret that to mean that they’re not important to you.
  • Create a short ritual around welcoming the child back to your home. This can be as simple as a hug, a kiss, and helping your child unpack his bag. Or it could be something more elaborate like lighting a candle and saying a prayer for his other family. Ask your child what he would like to do.

3)    Celebrate the benefits and talk about the drawbacks

It was pretty awesome to get twice as many gifts on birthdays and Christmas. More gifts at holidays is a tangible benefit of having divorced parents that a child might want to celebrate. So go ahead and let her revel in her good fortune!

But also remember that even if your child seems “well adjusted,” it’s also important to talk about the drawbacks and downside of having multiple families. It’s a lot of hard work to pack a bag and move to a new home every so often, adjusting to new expectations and enjoying time with this family while simultaneously missing the other one. It would be a lot for anyone to process, and it’s especially overwhelming and confusing for a child.

The best way I know to process emotions is to talk about them. “Wow, I bet you’re having a lot of feelings today. You might be feeling excited to be here, but you’re also feeling sad about leaving your other home, huh?”

A little bit of empathy can go a long way to helping your child understand what she’s going through.

4)   Get professional support for your child

My parents were always big fans of therapy, so I never felt badly about getting professional help to work through my feelings. I went to therapy several times throughout my childhood, usually for short stints. It was reassuring to know that if I needed someone to talk to, my parents would provide me with someone well trained and impartial.

During the custody dispute my parents had when I was seven, my dad and step-mom sent me to group therapy for kids going through divorce. It was called “Kids in the Middle” and I loved going! It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone and that other kids were experiencing similar difficulties.

So, if you’re co-parenting with an ex, I hope this information is helpful and I’d be happy to share more about my experiences growing up with divorced parents. All you have to do is ask!

I hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend and can you believe it’s almost December already?!

Warm hugs and love, Shelly

4 comments
deemarie
deemarie

Boy do I ever wish I had this information 18 years ago ! This is such a common mistake I see people make. I should have gone to parenting classes after my divorce 10 years ago, to think of all the feelings of anger and bitterness towards my ex. That my children were exposed to on both are sides breaks my heart :( I know I can't change the past, but I am very grateful for articles like this that help me grow, even now, and give me the information to discuss past mistakes with my children and hopefully heal some of the hurt. Isn't it Ghandi that said " Anger does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored, then the object on which it is poured " Yes, I know everyday is a learning experience for us all, I think I've just been a slow learner. Tomorrow however is a new day :)

JM_Cook
JM_Cook

Shelly,

 

Wow, great post! I wish I'd had it when you were growing up.

 

I have to comment about multiple Christmas celebrations. The first year you were in my life you had 4 parents and eight sets of grandparents - all of whom wanted their own Christmas with you and all of whom seemed intent upon lavishing you with presents. It took a few months before you quit expecting gifts every time you left the house.

 

Us: "We're going to Grandma and Grandpa's"

 

You: "Will I get presents?"

 

After that, you celebrated the holidays with each set of parents and whatever grandparents might be around but we didn't have major celebrations a month later to accommodate out of town relatives.

 

You still got extra gifts (which later made your brother jealous) but it was over a few day period not a month or more.

 

Which brings me to my point: As parents, we screw up. As much as we'd like to, we can't make every day or even every holiday of our children's lives perfect. And, during the holidays, it's easy to blow our mistakes out of proportion and get down on ourselves. But kids are resilient and, as long as we keep doing our best and learning from our mistakes, they tend to turn out alright.

 

I know one overstuffed Christmas didn't cause you to grow up to be greedy and I know there were other far worse mistakes we made that you survived (and even claim not to remember). So parents, do your best but also relax and enjoy your holidays along with your children's. It's less stress for you and less stress for your kids.