If there is any time of year for parents of children who are separated or divorced to be their most adult selves, it’s Christmas. Whether amicably divorced or still fighting, if you both are looking forward to having time with the children during the holiday season, it’s the time of the year for you to think especially hard about the children’s feelings and needs ahead of whatever plans and wishes you may have.
For young children, Christmas is complicated. Even though the majority of children of divorce live primarily with one parent and “visit” the other intermittently, the cultural fantasy is still that everyone has a two-parent family that is gathered around a comfy fire reading The Night Before Christmas. Once children are in school, they are aware of the “ideal” and must grapple with their belief that they are different and deprived, even though neither may be true.
No matter how well the back and forth between houses goes all year, children are often worried about the parent they are not with on Christmas. They wonder what that parent is doing. They worry that the parent is sad without them. They feel guilty if they forget for a moment that mom or dad is somewhere else. Any unresolved sadness or anger about the divorce gets stirred up again as they deal with when they will go to each home.
Many children manage the day by thinking only about where they are. Others are moody or withdrawn despite the best efforts of the hosting parent to make the day special. If there are step-siblings in the home of the parent left behind, kids often wonder what those kids are doing. It doesn’t matter if they like or don’t like those kids. They think, “Those kids are home with my mom or dad and I’m not.”
How separated parents can make the holiday less stressful and more joyful for the children:
If you haven’t done so already, get on the phone to your ex — now. The key to making the day go well for your children is to plan. If you already collaborate well as parents, this will probably go well, too. If you don’t have a good relationship with each other, this is a time to be your most civil self and to plan for the sake of the kids. Topics to cover include:
When is Christmas?
A huge problem of families’ own making is the emphasis that is placed on December 24 and 25th. Who has the kids on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is only as big a problem as parents make it. Many not-divorced families face the same problem when grown kids have in-laws who are invested in having the actual Christmas Day with the grandkids. Many solve the problem by declaring something like the Sunday before Christmas as the day of celebration for family X and the 25th as the day for family Y. Divorced families can do the same.
Parents need to take the lead to defuse the anxiety about where the kids will be on the “real” Christmas. Christmas is a real Christmas regardless of the day of the month. Parents need to plan when the kids will be where and support the kids’ excitement about the event at each house, regardless of the day it occurs.
Phone Calls on Christmas
Know your children. When they children aren’t with you, think carefully about whether a phone call during the celebration with the other family will be helpful or an intrusion. Some kids welcome a video call. Others find it hard to manage because it stirs up feelings of divided loyalties. Sometimes a text or thoughtful email is less of an interruption.
Do come to an agreement about what to tell the children about Santa. Is he real or just a story? When separated parents have different messages about the existence of Santa, it creates one more thing for the kids to manage. They don’t know who to believe. They don’t want to seem to be taking sides in a disagreement between the adults.
Come to agreement about when it’s time for children to move from believing in Santa to sustaining “Santa” for younger children in the family.
Gifting the Children
It’s confusing to small children if one parent gives them so many presents they can’t carry them all while the other parent gives them one small gift. It’s confusing if Santa gives a kid an iPad at one house and doesn’t show up at all at the other. A good rule of thumb for young children is one thing to wear, one thing to read, and one thing to play with from each home.
For preteens and teens, it is helpful to the relationship you have with your ex and with the kids if you can come to agreement about what is an appropriate and reasonable gift. Ideally, all of the adults are in agreement about what electronics, style of clothing, video games, etc. are okay. If you all can’t agree to the particulars, it’s important to at least agree not to violate each other’s values with gift choices.
Children Gifting the Parents
It’s important for children to learn how to be givers as well as receivers — no matter what the occasion. Christmas is an opportunity to support children in learning the happiness that comes from making others happy. Ideally, each parent should help the kids make or buy a small gift for the other parent.
If there are step-siblings or half-siblings at one or both houses, it’s important to help them all be givers to each other as well. Even preschoolers can make a card or drawing or do a simple craft project. If that’s too complicated, each parent can accompany them to a local store to choose Christmas surprises for those they love. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Little kids can be helped to wrap up a candy bar or an ornament from the local dollar store. Older kids can be included in discussions about whether it’s better to make or buy gifts and how much money is available.
If the children worry about the non-hosting parent being “alone on Christmas”, they do need to be reassured. It’s one of those challenging conversations for the non-hosting parent: “Yes, I’ll miss you but it’s okay for you to have a good time without me.” It’s equally challenging for the hosting family: “It’s okay to miss your mom/dad but we can have a good time while you are here.” Emphasize the importance of the Christmas they will have with each parent. It is often reassuring to kids to know their absent parent will be involved in volunteering at a community event or will be visiting other relatives, not just sitting home alone.
A merry Christmas for children of separated or divorced parents doesn’t just happen. For children to develop warm memories of family Christmases with both of their parents, it takes planning and cooperation. Making Christmas a day of love and emotional connections is the best gift separated parents can give their kids.