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The Best Way to Co-Parent During the Holidays


My specialty (if you want to call it that) as a psychologist is family law matters. It slowly evolved into my practice and now is the majority of what I do. I see children, parents, family, extended family, and more all regarding impending, current, or past divorces. There is also an influx in the past several years of parents who have never married but have children together. In 2016, the Census Bureau reported that 69%, roughly 73 million children have two homes in the U.S.

In my practice, I see a very small percentage of those as I tend to only become involved with the ones who the family law community has dubbed, “the high conflict ones.” There are many, many reasons that cause parents to separate. However, the emotional pain for a lot of the children with parents in two different homes who cannot get along is what motivates me to continue working in this difficult arena.

I have heard several people say that in divorce, there are no winners—only losers, with the greatest losers being the children. Why is this? In reading a lot of research over the years on family law and observing families in my clinical practice, the greatest issue that stands out is not the divorce. It is the conflict between the parents post-separation and beyond. Research shows that divorce itself does not necessarily have a negative effect on children. There are millions of children in divorced homes that have turned out to be successful adults in healthy relationships. However, when we research the ones who are struggling as adults—those who are in trouble with the law, drop out of high school, become teen pregnancies, become victims in domestically violent relationships, and so on, we can trace it back to one thing: fighting parents.

The greatest issue for children that stands out is not the divorce. It is the conflict between the parents post-separation and beyond.

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When do I see the most conflict? Why the holidays, of course! You know that jolly, joyful time of year when we are supposed to be spreading goodwill and love? Yes, that is the most conflictual time for parents who have to share their children. This is because there is so much hype and expectation built around the holidays that everyone has this idealistic dream of what it should look like. And it’s not just the parents; it’s the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. There is so much pressure on the holidays that it is like a boiling pot waiting to overflow.

So how do we deal with our ex-partner and all of these pressures as we are trying to coordinate the holidays to determine that we each maximize our time with the children, while still making everyone happy and ensuring everyone gets to see them?

Here are 5 of my top tips to help you:

1. Have realistic expectations.
Don’t have a “Martha Stewart” expectation of the holiday. Realize you may not see your children on the exact holiday. This means you may have to celebrate Christmas on December 26 or New Year’s with your children. Know that children do not care which day they get to celebrate. It is more important that it is a peaceful and joyful day than it be exactly on December 24 or 25. Also, realize that you may not be able to ensure your children see every relative for the holidays. Great Aunt Betty might need to see them another time because it is more important for them to have some time with each parent.

2. Have some empathy for your co-parent.
He or she is dealing with the same pressures as you are: financial, relational, emotional, and more.

3. Do not make assumptions for your co-parent.
That age-old rule that my 8th grade English teacher taught me holds true today: what does Ass-U-Me mean? Ask nonjudgmental questions and talk it out. Do not assume that your co-parent is trying to keep the children from you. He may have honestly forgotten that you told him in August that your parents would be here for the holidays. When communicating with someone you do not get along with, I am a big fan of the BIFF method. The term is coined by Bill Eddy, LCSW who started the High Conflict Institute. In emailing or texting, keep this in mind: Be Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. This means be to the point in your message, informative with the important facts, friendly with your correspondence (not accusatory), and focused on the issue at hand (not bringing up past issues, etc.). If you are able to do this, you will decrease a lot of the tension.

4. Be the bigger person.
Practice the same concept you teach your children. This is your opportunity to be the example. If it means keeping your children out of conflict, it might be better to just let the issue go. I am even going to push you a little; maybe take your children to pick out a Christmas gift for their parent. You do not need to spend a lot of money, but a little reminder to show your children that it is important that they honor both of their parents.

5. Last and most important, keep your children out of the conflict.
Please do not tell your children “dad won’t let me see you for Christmas” even if it is true. It just makes them feel bad and they cannot fix the problem. Make sure they hear that we both love you and are working it out. Make sure that they know that their job is not to mediate between their parents. This is the biggest one. If you ignore any other advice I offer, please hear this one loud and clear: do not discuss or include your children in the disagreements.

The stress during the holidays is immense and when there are two families that are vying for children, it can be extremely difficult and overwhelming. Try to work together to the best of your ability, keeping in mind that grit and grace are your top priority—the grit to keep forging ahead for your children and the grace to do it peacefully even if the other side is being anything but peaceful.

How do we deal with our ex-partner and all of these pressures as we are trying to coordinate the holidays?

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Dr. Christina is a licensed psychologist in a private practice who mostly specializes in children issues as well as family law. She’s a Midwestern native, wife, and mom of two living in Florida who travels north often to enjoy the beauty of the seasons.

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