Holiday custody arrangements can either build up or break down relationships. This is true not only between the parents but also with the children. Rather than planning for a holiday custody battle, think about winning hearts and minds by treating the other parent with dignity, care, and respect and having a strategy for the best possible outcome.

How to Avoid the Holiday Custody Battle

When considering a holiday parenting plan, it is helpful to focus on specifics rather than talking in general and off the cuff. Identify which specific holidays are special days for you and your family. Think about if there is a particular holiday or event that is more important to the other parent than it is to you. Specify the times that constitute the holiday, as in a specific time as to when it starts and when it ends. Factor in travel time as part of the custody schedule as well.

Holiday custody plans need to be discussed well in advance, so consider and plan for when will be a good time to discuss the plans with the other parent well before the holiday.  If either parent wishes to travel for the holiday, you may find yourself agreeing to holiday plans months in advance so that plane tickets or other travel arrangements can be made. The goal should be to present a united and happy front to the children so that they can enjoy the holiday without stress or feelings of guilt. The children will take their lead from the two of you. By focusing on acting with dignity, care, and respect, the sting can be taken out of difficult situations and you can avoid the need for court action. Remember to keep what’s in the best interests of the children the priority.

Further, planning well in advance gives you time to get before a mediator or a judge if you can’t reach an agreement.  If you wait until too close to the holiday and can’t reach an agreement, you will likely be too late to have a mediator or judge assist with the holiday schedule.  Many mediators and court schedules can fill up a month or more before major holidays, such as Christmas.

Open Communication

Depending on your relationship with the other parent, it may make sense to start the holiday plans discussion either in person or in writing.  If you have a good relationship with the other parent, it probably makes sense to start the conversation in person or over the phone and then commit your agreement into writing after an oral agreement is made.  In some cases, a parent may misinterpret the tone of the communication is started in writing.  Thus, for many parents, a phone call or face-to-face discussion to start is best.  A real-time conversation is an opportunity to explain and elaborate how you would like to split the holidays, why you’d like the time you are requesting, and to work out details faster than texts or other written communications going back and forth.

On the other hand, if your communication with the other parent is relatively poor and can include name-calling, old issues, and other communication pitfalls when talking in person or on the phone, it may be best to use text or another written communication method instead.  This way, each party has a chance to think and edit their response before sending and each party has proof as to what the other said.

No matter the format of the communication it is important to have an open dialogue.  Be specific with your concerns and your wishes so that there are no surprises on the day of the holiday.

Also, don’t forget the value of having a relatively neutral friend or family member assist when you can’t agree and communication between the parents has broken down.  Even in relatively amicable situations, many parents continue to use a grandma or mutual friend who has relatively open communication with both parents and is able to effectively communicate with both parents to help resolve a disagreement.

Involve the Kids

If you and the other parent are on the same page, share the holiday plans with the children. Your children have every right to know what is happening, even if they may not like it. Telling them in advance may help them come around to the idea. When age and circumstances are appropriate, keep in mind what the children’s wishes are when developing your holiday plans.  That being said, it is ultimately a decision between the parents and children shouldn’t get to choose or dictate the holiday plans for a family whether their parents are together or separated.  If the parents can’t agree on holiday plans, don’t put your children in the middle.  It is never fair to your children to ask them to choose between their parents when the parents can’t decide.

Honor the Court Order

If the parents can’t reach an agreement for the holiday plans, study the court order. Avoid a holiday custody battle altogether by establishing a parenting plan and custody order well before any holiday.  Then abide by the court order in a dignified, polite, and humble manner. Even when you have a custody order that includes a holiday schedule, confirm with the other parent well in advance that you are in agreement as to the meaning of the order and the specific dates/times for exchanges for the upcoming holiday.  If there is any doubt as to the meaning, consult your attorney before responding. This will help you to avoid knee-jerk, emotional reactions.  Any changes you have agreed to for an upcoming holiday should be put in writing, even if in a text.

Newly Divorced

Is this your first holiday season of custody sharing? If so, remember that whatever anxiety and apprehension that you are feeling is more than likely being felt in some ways by both parents as well as the children. A court order is a helpful roadmap to follow; however, it cannot legislate thoughts and feelings.

Keep in mind that it is normal and expected to feel some anxiety and sadness when your children aren’t with you on a holiday.  For example, even in very amicable divorces, a parent will likely feel sad or upset when it is the other parent’s turn to have the children on Christmas Day.  Even if you have an alternative time to celebrate, it isn’t the same as having the children with you on the actual holiday day.  If you are in this situation, it is likely time to start some new traditions.  There are many possibilities if you plan ahead.  For example, take advantage of discounted flights that often are available on the holiday day itself.

Plan an adults-only Christmas Day cocktail hour.  Splurge on a fancy restaurant that you wouldn’t take your children to.  You could also spend the time to serve your community and assist those less fortunate.  For example, volunteer at a homeless shelter that might be hard-pressed to find volunteers to serve meals on holidays.  Contact your Church to see if there are homebound folks in your community that would enjoy a visit on the holiday.  Having your own holiday plans will minimize some of the stings of not being with your children and also help your children enjoy the holiday and not feel guilty for enjoying themselves while being away from you.

Holiday Traditions and Gifts

Although you will likely start some new traditions after your divorce, keep in mind that you may want to try to preserve some of the traditions your children know and love.  You may be able to agree with the other parent on what traditions could still be celebrated together. For certain holidays, mutually important traditions can be celebrated by both of you together with the children or with each of you when you each have the children.  For example, each home may start a new tradition of putting up ornaments on their Christmas tree, but both parents and children all meet up to view the town’s Fourth of July fireworks show together.

For birthday and holiday gifts, you may want to try to agree to purchase a gift together or set a budget as to what each parent plans to spend on the children.  You may at least want to coordinate so both parents don’t give the same gift if the child really wants a particular item.  Some gifts can be given jointly.  It can be extra special and comforting to a child when the gift they open still says “With Love from Mom and Dad” even after the parents are no longer together.

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