Happy holiday images depict a perfect family, home and hearth. Norman Rockwell perfected this idealized holiday with a mom, dad, and those above average children gathered around the Christmas tree or lighting a menorah. Of course there’s a nice fire crackling in the fireplace. Children are spellbound by lights, ornaments, wrapping paper, and gifts.
This ideal is far from reality for many families after a divorce. Unfortunately, some parents make the circumstances much worse than they need to be. One child of divorce confided in me recently. She lamented years later as an adult how the holidays were the worst part of her childhood. Her divorced parents seemed to fight even more than normal.
Do you really want your kids remembering the holidays this way for the rest of their lives? Do you want your kids to celebrate all the joys of the season, or suffer through the Nightmare Before Christmas – and after Christmas, too!
One big source of friction after a divorce during the holidays revolves around buying gifts. Some folks really struggle with holiday shopping. It’s something divorced parents don’t often think about. But it is important to figure out how to coordinate presents for your kids from both of you and both sides of the family together.
Here are some tips from an experienced family law attorney who has seen divorce parents at their worst during the holidays.
Don’t turn Christmas into a competition
The holidays are meant to be a special time for families. You’re missing the point if you turn it into an ugly war between parents trying to outdo the other and literally buy your kids’ affection. If there’s a really special gift your child would like, try to agree to go in on it together and make it a joint gift. It could mean the world to your child if the tag said “from Mom and Dad.” This is the greatest gift to the child of divorced parents.
Make a list together for holiday shopping
I know, it was a monumental struggle to agree on the holiday shopping list when you were married. How can you possibly work together now? I assure you it’s possible. Make a point before the season starts to exchange ideas about what gifts you’re going to get the kids. It will be a mess if you both buy the same things. Agreeing on a shopping list goes a long way to reduce awkward moments.
Discuss what gifts are appropriate
Don’t assume you agree on what gifts are appropriate or not appropriate for your child. Talk about it. I’ve seen many occasions where one parent who wants to limit screen time is upset when the other parent bought a smartphone or Xbox for a child. In one case, a parent bought an “M-rated” video game against the other parent’s wishes. Parenting confusion with different expectations confuses kids. You may have different values, but you need to figure out a way to meet in the middle and compromise. This is hard enough for married couples! If you get stuck and can’t agree, consider meeting with a mediator to find solutions.
Agree on a budget
I’ve seen too many co-parents compete with one another about who can outdo the other parent. Agree on a budget and stick with it.
Consider opening gifts as a family together
Consider opening presents together with your kids. Children appreciate time with both parents. This might not be a choice for everyone. If it’s too difficult and you can’t keep it together, you may need to decline. There is no shame in this. But if you can pull it off and put your differences aside long enough to get through the holiday, it can really be special for your children. Many years later when they are adults, perhaps parents themselves, your kids will understand the real gift you gave them.
Holidays after a divorce blow up the images of the perfect holiday, making the painful changes in your life even harder to cope with. It’s hard for your kids, too. But this is the season of ‘Peace on Earth.’ With some effort – maybe a LOT of effort – you can make the holidays into special memories rather than a nightmare haunting your kids for the rest of their lives.