Divorced for the Holidays: What to Give the Kids
Show your love by cooperating, not competing
Senior Pediatric Psychopharmacologist; Senior Director of Forensic Psychiatry
Child Mind Institute
At holiday time we're inundated with media images of happy families experiencing the holidays together. But the truth is that about 50% of marriages end in divorce; and of the ones that are intact, at least some of them are unhappy. So if those holiday images were more accurate, they'd reflect families that are struggling. In deference to reality, then, here's some advice for all the families in which the parents don't get along. You don't have to be divorced to benefit. You just have to be unhappy with your child's other parent.
Concept I: Because parents are adults, they need to make sacrifices for their children. And because children are children, they shouldn't have to make sacrifices for their parents. Think of sacrifices for the benefit of your children as holiday presents.
Present Suggestion No. 1: Be more compromising than you've ever been. Give up what you might want or need, and don't tell the children you're doing it. Make them think the world is just a good place. So, in the future, they have the confidence to persist at tasks in the face of life's inevitable obstacles.
Concept II: What's best for children is not placing them in a loyalty bind, so they don't have to feel guilty about loving either of their parents. So instead of thinking about how wonderful it would be for you, and your extended family, to have the kids for the holidays, you have to think about what's going to be best for the kids. And the data here are very clear. The thing that's best for the kids is to not have the parents fighting with each other. So whatever you can do to avoid a fight is what you should do.
Present Suggestion No. 2: If, as parents, you're fighting over the specifics of the visitation schedule, one of you might just have to say, "Okay, fine, you can have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, and I'll make it up next year, because I don't want to put the kids in the middle of a dispute." That's holiday giving. (Plus, you can always consult with your lawyer in January, when things are less hectic.)
Present Suggestion No. 3: Another thing you can do for the kids is to collaborate with your former (or soon to be former) spouse about presents, so there isn't a competition between you over who gives the best gifts. And please don't undermine the other parent. If he or she says, "The kids aren't allowed to have this," don't you dare buy it. Be an adult.
Present Suggestion No. 4: To really let your children know that the holidays are about them, each of you should encourage and help them to buy a present or make a card for their other parent. This sends the message that the divorce really was between the adults, and that each parent really, truly wants the children to have a healthy relationship with the other.
FAQ No. 1: Should I, for the sake of the kids, try to celebrate the holidays with my ex?
It works for some couples, but only those who have relatively comfortable, low-conflict divorces. High-tension situations should be avoided, however, which means that if there's a lot of animosity, don't pretend there isn't. That will just confuse your kids—or even worse, if things don't go well, expose them to conflict. If parents still hate each other, they should definitely celebrate separately.
FAQ No. 2: What about the extended family?
Your parents need to understand that the children are in a difficult situation, caught between two families. If the children want to be with one set of grandparents because they rarely get to see them, the other set shouldn't take it personally. This isn't a competition over which parent (or grandparent) the kids love the most—it's about which parent (or grandparent) most loves the kids. Who is going to make the most sacrifices for the well-being of the children?
FAQ No. 3: Should I ask the kids who they want to spend the holidays with?
If the kids are teenagers that's probably a good idea, but for kids younger than 12, I think it's easier on them if you make the decisions.
How you divide up the holidays depends on the age of the kids. Before children are 4 or 5 years old, what they're going to primarily respond to is the emotional tone of the situation, so what matters is what feels fair, to them and both parents. Kids from 5 to 10 or 12 are pretty literal, so they might be most comfortable spending equal amounts of time with each parent. By the time kids are teenagers, they're able to think about what's best in a much broader, more abstract way, and they're more capable of making their own decisions (not all the time, but most of the time).
So you could think of it this way: For the youngest kids you want to do what feels right, for the next older group of kids you want to do what appears right, and for teenagers you want to do what is right.
Click here for more tips on parenting during the holidays.