How to make the holidays work when you're divorcing

Some families manage this time of year with little conflict

It’s the time of year when stress runs high for divorced or divorcing parents: the holidays. Emotions run high and feelings get hurt. Old family traditions can fall by the wayside as families try to find ways to move through the holidays juggling two households instead of one, sometimes with new stepparents and step siblings in the mix as well.  

Yet strangely, some divorcing families are able to manage this time of year with little conflict. From the perspective of a divorce attorney, these families are making the type of parenting choices that will help their children grow up enjoying the holidays instead of seeing them as a source of trauma.

What is the best holiday parenting plan?

There are many ways to divide the holidays.  Many people alternate holidays every other year, assigning the holidays to one parent for even years and to the other parent in odd years. Some parents, especially those with younger children, prefer to split the holiday in half so that the children can spend part of the day with each parent. This plan works best where the parents live in close proximity so that the children don’t have to spend holiday time in transit between households. 

Other parents find that the actual day of the holiday isn’t as important as the celebration itself.  Those children get to celebrate the holidays at both parent’s houses every year on different days.  However you decide to share your holiday parenting time, it’s best to focus on making a holiday parenting plan that allows your children to create happy holiday traditions with both parents.

What can I do to keep conflict to a minimum during the holidays?

If there is a parenting plan already in place that will resolve one potential source of conflict:  who gets to spend the holiday with the kids.  However, where the divorce is still in process, families can sometimes find themselves facing the holidays without a Court-ordered parenting plan.  This can be stressful for both children and adults alike.  Whether you already have a parenting plan, or are facing your first set of holidays as a divorcing parent without the benefit of parenting time orders, here are a list of suggestions to help your family through the holidays with a minimum of conflict and even some holiday cheer:

Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is a new world and you have to work with what you have. If it’s your year with the children, take the opportunity to make it a special time of year. If it isn’t your year, take a trip out of town and have a blast with friends. Your holidays will be exactly as good as you decide to make them.

Where you have an alternating holiday schedule in your parenting plan, remember that you reap what you sow.  If you are late to transition the children to your co-parent on Christmas morning this year, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a tardy transition next year.  Making an extra effort to be respectful of transition times during the holidays will go a long way towards ensuring that you will receive the same respect from your co-parent during your holiday time with the children.

In households that celebrate the holidays in more than one religious tradition, working out parenting can be tricky.  For example, in 2016 the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve and it ends on New Years Day.  If you don’t already have a parenting plan in place that takes into account the possibility of holiday overlap, its time to think outside the box.  Consider which parts of the holidays are most important to each of you and try to work around these in fashioning your parenting schedule.  There isn’t any reason why children can’t spend Christmas morning at one parent’s house and then spend that night at the other parent’s house to light the Menorah.

Make your children the focus of the holidays, not your conflict with your former spouse. The holidays should be a magical time when children feel safe in both your households.  It shouldn’t be a time when your children have to choose between you.

Instead of retreading old family traditions, make some new ones. Do a “Secret Santa”, attend a midnight mass, make new holiday ornaments at the local ceramics store, or wrap presents for the needy. Instead of a traditional goose or turkey try a new recipe and let your kids help out with the cooking.  Divorce is a great time for refocusing the lens on new ways to do things.

Don’t forget to help your children make presents for their other parent. Everyone wants to be remembered during the holidays and making this a priority will help smooth the conflict and also show your children that you can support the other parent’s relationship with them.

Don’t bash the new traditions of the children’s other parent. I remember being so disappointed to find out that my children had spent Thanksgiving one year with their father in a Denny’s restaurant in Idaho and thinking that their holiday had been ruined. Turns out that is one of my kids’ favorite Thanksgiving memories.

While good communication is one of the keys to effective co-parenting, don’t overindulge. Nothing says “Grinch” like drunk-texting your ex during the holidays.

Finally, be kind. . .both to yourself and to those around you. Its good advice throughout the year, but its especially appropriate during the holidays.  If your children are celebrating at your co-parent’s house this year, make sure to surround yourself with a supportive group of family or friends to help you through the holidays.  Also, remember that your children’s grandparents and other extended family will want to be able to spend time with your children and will likely be relieved if you are supportive of the children maintaining relationships with them.

(Editor's note: This sponsored content was provided by Gutterman Griffiths Family Law.)


Kristi Anderson Wells is a Shareholder at Gutterman Griffiths Family Law. Kristi focuses her practice on complex financial issues such as the division of executive compensation, retirement assets and stock rights. She can be reached at 303-858-8090 or at

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