The holidays are a season of merriment, rest and family time. At least that’s the song that’s sung. In reality, it’s a flurry of shopping and cooking and counting down the days left to get things done!  If the holidays are stressful in general (and let’s admit it, they are!), they can be even more so for separated, divorced and never-married parents. Because nothing casts a light on how much things have changed in an evolving family than a time defined by family tradition.

The good news is that, with a mindful approach, the holidays can be a way to determine just how well your coParenting is going. If the relationship with your coParent can survive the full-on intensity, excitement and anticipation of the holiday season, you can bet you’re on pretty solid footing.

Here are some things to consider when planning a child-centric and stress-free (ish!) holiday season.

Plan your schedule wisely – and well in advance

It’s natural for any parent to want to spend as much holiday time as possible with our children. But we all know sharing is easier said than done. Especially at a time when the expectation for creating “epic family memories” is unreasonably high.

But if there’s one time of year to put your differences aside, this is it. Don’t let scheduling become a battle of who gets the most time with the child; focus on what’s best for them. Because no matter which parent they’re with, creating a loving and conflict-free environment is what they need most.

Another consideration for holiday planning: don’t get so hung up on the name of the days.  Unless you’re religious, Christmas Day (for example) is just another day, when it comes down to it. Spending quality time together is way more important that ensuring it hits a specific square on a calendar. It also frees you and your coParenter up to make plans that work for both of your schedules, and eases the stress of butting heads over a single, specific day. Plus, no one says you can’t have an all-out Christmas dinner with all the fixings on Dec. 28 – and what kids is going to scoff at two Christmases (or two birthdays for that matter)?

So, resolve to make a plan early and then stick to it. That way the kids (and you) have ample time to prepare themselves for being away from one parent, because they likely wish it could be “the way it used to be.”

Create new traditions

The urge to have things they way they were is strong with kids, and can be an especially sore point during the holidays if the parental split is new. That said, this is a great opportunity to create new traditions. It gives kids something to look forward to at each parent’s house rather than focusing on what has changed or is gone.

Did your coParent grumble when you incessantly sang Sinatra’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?  Make a tradition of belting carols out with your kids. Were you averse to your former partner’s favourite holiday treat (rum cake, anyone)? Deem your holidays a rum cake-free zone and appoint a new treat as the “best ever.” Small gestures like these can be fun for kids, and can subtly define two new households without being explicit. Little kids will likely relish silly holiday decrees; older kids will likely roll their eyes, but we all know the eye-roll is 13-year-old speak for “I love you, you embarrassing parent.”

Make spending appropriate for the child’s needs

The holidays can be a gift-giving minefield. You know how it goes: one parent gets the kids a reasonably-priced sweater; the other gets them the designer sneakers. It’s an age-old tale of coParents and one that should be candidly and openly discussed before the holidays.  

It’s extremely important to set and agree upon a gift-giving budget at the holidays, especially if there is financial disparity between coParents. First, it’s a sure-fire way to stoke the flames of conflict between coParents. But more importantly, it sends a negative message to the kids, one that equates money with love. Which is certainly not a good lesson.

While it can be hard to curb spending if you’re the one with a more secure financial situation (“But … just think how much they’ll love this?”), remember it’s about the child, not you. Escalating a gifting arms race doesn’t benefit the child.

So set a fair budget that works for both coParents and stick to it. After all, showering kids in an avalanche of gifts won’t fix the fact that their parents are no longer living under the same roof. Remember: what they really need is you more than they need stuff.

Introduce significant others gradually

Not all new traditions are met with open arms. That’s often the case when there’s a new significant other in the picture. Remarriage and new partners are often tough for kids to accept, as they often interpret the addition as a replacement of their other parent.

If you have someone new in your life, be sure to discuss the new influence on the children with your coParent. Create an open dialogue, away from the children, to ensure the new person is incorporated fairly. Gradually introduce the new person well before to the holidays, if possible, and discuss any “new” traditions or holiday plans that may now be involved. For example, if a new spouse celebrates Hanukkah, talk about how best to introduce that holiday. Celebrating not one but two holidays can be an exciting concept for the children.

The key is communication. You may not always have time to prep ahead and properly introduce a new person into your child’s life before an event like the holidays, but by including them in the conversation shows them respect and improves your chances for a smoother acceptance of your new partner.

Be flexible to last-minute changes

As much as planning is great, we all know life ‘happens’. Last-minute changes around the holidays can be especially difficult, as it might result in cancelled plans or missed visits with relatives.

This can spark a bout of bargaining between coParents. Try to avoid the blame-game and remember, it’s all about the kids and their happiness. Don’t bargain in front of them; instead work out a new schedule that accommodates both parents’ ability to spend time with the children.

The Holidays are all about The Golden Rule

This may seem like a no-brainer — ‘tis the season of giving, after all — but nerves are often frayed and raw in the midst of difficult times. And that’s only exacerbated by the intensity of the holiday season. So keep the phrase “be kind” in mind as you navigate the season (and for the rest of the year!) Your kids are watching, and if they see you treating your coParent with kindness, respect and civility, they will learn that even when dealing with conflict, they should always treat people kindly.

As coParents, we’re faced with all kinds of stressors that others are spared. Simply being aware of that can improve the way coParenting decisions are made. During the holidays, it’s worth the extra effort as it will help ensure that your kids’ holiday memories are marked with joy and happiness, not conflict. And as any parent knows, the joy of  watching children grow up to be happy, content, and secure, is the biggest de-stressor of all.

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  • Jonathan Verk is the CEO & Co-founder of Hyphenus, the pioneering provider of Intelligent Dispute Resolution (IDR) technology. Their flagship product, coParenter, helps separating, divorced and never-married parents predict, prevent and resolve conflict, allowing them to make better coParenting decisions for their kids. Prior to founding coParenter, Jonathan spent more than two decades in different leadership roles in the entertainment, media and technology industries.  Most recently, Jonathan was Executive Vice President at Shazam where he spearheaded the company’s television practice. Prior to that, he was CEO of PromaxBDA, where he grew the organization it into an international brand serving over 20k media & entertainment marketing executives with more than 30 conferences & events around the world. In addition to his day jobs, Jonathan has devoted himself to social justice organizer, CMO of Nicholas Negreponte’s One Laptop Per Child and an advisor to Vice President Al Gore. He founded Hyphenus after experiencing the impact family litigation can have on families.
  • Judge Sherrill A. Ellsworth (RET) is co-founder of coParenter and Past Presiding Judge of Riverside County. After 20 years on the bench and 10 in a Family Law Department, Judge Ellsworth saw the potential of CourtTech to fill a void and retired from the bench to focus on having a greater impact on today’s families by making our courts more accessible, effective, and efficient. Judge Ellsworth is a nationally recognized judicial educator on subjects such as domestic violence, child custody, family law, and child well-being issues. She has received many awards for her Judicial contributions and innovations over the years including the American Business Women’s Association Woman of the Year for Judicial Leadership, J Reuben Clark Lawyer of the Year Los Angeles, California Consumer Lawyers of California Doug E Weathers Award, Western State University Hall of Fame inductee.