Psychology Today: The Holidays Are Almost Here

In Custody, Divorce & Separation

Some radio stations are already playing holiday music. It’s another reminder that the “season” is coming: and while the holidays bring some people great joy, they might also stir emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and feelings of anxiety.

If you have recently gone through, or are going through, a divorce, particularly if there are children involved, you might be very cognizant of how your divorce has changed the holidays for you and your family including many holiday traditions.

Typically, significant sources of pressure, particularly in a recently established separation or divorce, are issues related to custody. Here are a few basic legal matters to consider as you embark on this “new normal.”

Who has the children over the holidays?

If you are already divorced and have a settlement agreement, refer to that document if you have questions regarding who has the children when, and for how long.

In my legal practice, I set out very specific provisions regarding the holidays, including who will have the children, when and where pick-up and drop-off will occur, and a requirement to share itineraries if the children are traveling with a parent. Typically, the “holidays” are alternated or divided by the parents every other year.

If your agreement does not contain this level of detail, or, if you are separated without any paperwork as of yet, it would be wise to reach out to your former or soon-to-be ex-spouse and discuss the holiday plans so that everyone can make arrangements and the children are not left wondering how they will be spending their holiday and vacation time. Likely, their friends are already talking about their plans and your children should be able to do the same.

Keep in mind it is reasonable for you to have one holiday, and he/she the other. Simply, if you get Thanksgiving, he/she gets Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza, or whichever combination applies.

That said, many couples can be more flexible. Sometimes, for example, one parent can have Christmas Eve and another Christmas Day. The parents can also agree to divide Thanksgiving in such a way that one parent has the children for the meal and the other for dessert. Or, they might agree to split Thanksgiving Weekend, so that the children can travel to see both sets of grandparents. There are countless ways to make these case-by-case arrangements.

The critical part of this is that both parents must agree and that you both have it in writing, preferably a legally-sound agreement in the event that there is an unexpected change in point of view.

How are the children responding?

No matter how carefully and evenly you plan out your holiday arrangements, you might still face challenges regarding how the children respond to the first few holiday seasons when their parents are living in different homes.

I work with many therapists as a part of my practice, and their consistent advice is to do everything you can to avoid conflict in front of your children, not speak ill of that parent in front of your children, and, whenever necessary, do everything you can to put your children’s needs ahead of your own.

This may mean not having your children at your family’s traditional annual gathering. Or waking up on Christmas morning without your children.

Of course, this can be gut-wrenching, but it is important to remember that your ex-spouse is still your child’s parent, and in order to be happy and healthy, children need to have access to both parents. Further, each of you needs to have an opportunity to build new traditions with your children in a new family unit.

Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children.

Enjoy the holidays, and ensure that your children do as well, particularly as you proceed through your divorce.

These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area.

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