Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men. Jolliness. Mirth. According to the carols of old (and the Hallmark movies of new), these are the sentiments we’re meant to feel during the holiday season.
But for many of us, the holidays usher in other not so merry feelings — especially when we’re forced to deal with exes. So how do we keep things magical and jolly for our little ones while also planning how to split their time between houses?
Considering that 40% of all births in the USA are to unmarried parents and that almost 750,000 couples divorce each year, according to data from 2019, finding ways to co-parent peacefully is more important than ever.
Why is it important to co-parent peacefully?
According to Erin Levine, CEO and founder of Hello Divorce — a modern breakup service that provides low-cost and DIY options for divorce — it’s not necessarily the “splitting up” part that hurts children.
“If there’s one thing we know about divorce and separated parents from the mountains of research, it’s that divorce is not what truly harms kids,” says Levine. “In fact, kids can thrive after their parents separate – especially when both parents are modeling healthy relationships.”
So what does damage children whose parents are no longer together?
“When ex-couples continue to fight without constructive resolution, and/or when parents put their kids in the middle of their conflict. When parents can co-parent peacefully, children thrive,” says Levine.
According to a study published in 2017, the trauma caused by living in emotionally unhealthy homes can have lifelong effects on children — such as low self-esteem, difficulty forming and sustaining relationships, inability to trust others, distress in control loss, and even substance abuse.
How can co-parenting exes keep the peace and make things fair?
“Most of the time, parents are fighting about what they want, not what is in the best interest of the children,” says Doares. “A lot of times, this is because the parents haven’t dealt with their own issues around the split. And when all they have left in common is their children, that is what they will fight about.”
This situation often forces children to take on the role of peacemaker — a “recipe for people-pleasing and conflict avoidance that will create havoc in their own relationships,” says Doares.
Communication, compromise, and planning are key to keeping the peace — both for parents and their children.
Here are some tips to help you and your ex make the holidays functional and fun for everyone:
Make your own rules
The 24th, the 25th, the 31st… These are all just numbers. Don’t be afraid to go rogue and celebrate the holidays whenever it works for you and your ex!
“If your ex really wants Christmas Eve this year, it might be better for everyone’s mental health if you say yes. Remember, the actual date of the holiday is just a date,” says Levine.
Make a plan and stick to it
The holidays are inherently stressful and crazy. Don’t add to the chaos by not having a plan.
Communicate clearly with your ex, and plan out all the little details — pickup location, drop-off time, all those logistical headaches.
Once you’ve agreed on these plans, stick to them, and communicate them to your child.
“Keep routines intact as much as you can. Routines and rituals help kids feel stable and secure, safe and loved,” says Levine.
Communicate clearly about COVID protocols
Since your kids will be moving between different households and gatherings, be sure everyone’s on the same page regarding vaccine and testing policies.
“Because many generations tend to gather to celebrate holidays, the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk and keep your family and friends safer is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible,” says the CDC in their latest statement regarding holiday get-togethers.
Don’t get petty
Even in the best of times, holidays are peppered with emotional landmines.
For the sake of your kids — and your own well-being — sidestep those explosives as best as you can by taking the high road.
Remember, it’s meant to be a fun holiday, not an aggressive competition.
Call in for backup
If communicating with your ex gets too tricky, don’t be afraid to try new tools or seek professional help.
How can you ensure kids are emotionally healthy during the holidays?
Holiday logistics can be easy to plan — but holiday emotions? Perhaps a little trickier.
Make sure your kids are in a healthy, happy place by creating a loving atmosphere for them, no matter what you’re going through with your ex.
Don’t put your kids in the middle
When your kids get home from celebrating the holidays with your ex, avoid drilling them for intel. Remember that they aren’t spies or middlemen.
“Don’t probe your children for information about what happens at the other parent’s home. If your child wants to share, it will come out naturally,” says Levine.
“You can only control what parenting looks like at your home. The happier, healthier home you provide, the better your kids will do.“
Your ex may no longer be your partner, but they’ll always be your child’s parent.
Save the trash-talking for a night out with your friends, or a private phone call when the kids aren’t around.
“Model your best, most respectful and mature behavior with your ex in front of your children so they can enjoy their childhood, especially at this time of year,” says Rosalind Sedacca of Child-Centered Divorce, an online network intended to support parents going through or moving on from divorce.
Keep things positive
Let your kids enjoy the holiday season by keeping things light. Avoid burdening them with heavy grown-up feelings.
“Encourage your children to have fun at both homes. Point out the positives. ‘Aren’t you lucky? You get two Christmases! Bonus!'”
Give them access to your ex
Even if it’s “your” day with the kids, let them share it with their other parent if they so choose.
“If your child wants to FaceTime with the other parent, let them!” says Levine.
“Kids can’t feel like they have to compartmentalize their emotions… Just because they have two households doesn’t mean they have two lives. It’s important for them to have flexibility.”
Check in with them
Help your kids learn how to identify and express big feelings by making time to check in with them.
“Checking in with your children every day is important — though during the holidays, it may become even more important, as children may feel more emotional at the idea of new traditions,” says mental health counselor Jaclyn Gulotta.
“Each parent should make time with their children for them to ask questions or just express themselves, as this allows them to feel validated and supported.”
Keep the holiday spirit in your heart all year round
While it’s important to make the holiday season magical for your kids, strive to keep that spirit of peace and goodwill all year round. After all, our kids make life-altering memories every single day, not just on holidays.
“Remember: it’s about the kids,” says Levine. “If things are tense between the two of you, keep the focus of your interactions on the kids. Their well-being will always be the one thing you can agree on.”
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