Co-parenting is challenge enough. Add the stress of the festive season, and it can be overwhelming.
How can you best navigate co-parenting at Christmas and make choices that reduce your holiday stress?
1. Get it all in writing.
Texts are short and can be misunderstood – switch to email while making arrangements and ask good questions until it’s crystal clear you are on the same page.
Other things to get in writing now are the following:
- agreements over parenting styles
- holiday flexibility over rules around bedtime, diet, pocket money, etc.
- who the kids can and can’t be left with, should the need arise
- money, money, money – who will pay for what and limits on present budgets.
Stick to holiday plans only for this month. Christmas is stressful enough and your other ongoing conflicts can wait until the new year.
Take time to prioritise in advance on what your main parenting concerns are and be willing to negotiate the rest.
Getting a promise that your ex won’t let your preteens drink alcohol, for example, might be more worth fighting for than, say, a consistent bedtime.
Prepare for loneliness, too. Make plans now with friends and other family members for the days you are without the kids.
If you are sure you want to be alone, be ready. Instead of ice cream at hand, consider a journal and tissues – it can be an opportunity to process emotions you haven’t had time to yet. Or a rolling pin and pillows, if that is more helpful!
3. Kids first, ego second.
Arrange things when the kids are not listening in.
Conversations like “you take them in the evening, I’ll take the back the next day” might feel innocuous to you, but it can leave a child feeling unwanted. Ditto for things like, “well I paid for their train tickets, you pay for their new winter coats” which can see kids mired in guilt.
Never, ever use the children as weapons of war, no matter how angry you and your ex might be with each other. This means you do NOT:
- ask the kids for the lowdown on what people said about you
- put down the other parent in front of them
- compare your holiday plans to your exes
- try to ‘outdo’ your partner with your festivities and presents
- incessantly call or text the kids when they are with the other parent.
While it is important to listen to how your children feel about the holiday arrangements and have their feedback, be very sure you are not actually manipulating them. Asking your child at the last minute after everything is arranged if they are ‘sure’ they want to go see the other parent is making them choose between you.
Encourage your child to be honest with you on one hand, but be clear that you do understand it’s important for them to see the other parent.
4. Acceptance goes a long way.
Accept that you can’t control how the other person parents when you are not around.
The best you can do is try to agree to as many ground rules as possible, and perhaps both agree the children have constant access to another reliable relative at all times, such as an aunt or grandmother.
Accept that things might not go perfectly. Your ex might be late with the pickup, he or she might spend more on presents than agreed on, and the turkey might indeed burn. Your kids might not always be well-behaved, and you might drink too much punch.
But also accept that co-parenting is a learning curve. If things don’t work well this year, you can learn what is needed for the following one.
5. Set the mood.
Your children will take their cue from you. If you are complaining and angry, they will feel stressed and anxious, even if they try to hide it or pretend they are fine.
Something as simple as changing perspective can be powerful, especially when combined with gratitude. Help your child focus on what they do have instead of what they don’t. They get two Christmases, for starters.
This Christmas might look messy in your eyes, but what matters to children is feeling safe and loved. Yes, you no longer love your ex-partner, and you can be honest about that, but make sure your children are reminded that your love for them is as strong as ever.
6. Can’t stand each other?
If it’s truly impossible for the two of you to communicate, consider a third party go-between over destroying the holidays.
It’s rarely a good idea to ask someone in the family, no matter how kind they are. This often leads to a larger war involving more people, or alienates those you love. Hiring an impartial stranger to organise things, such as a PA, can nowadays be done over the internet (called a ‘VA’, or virtual assistant).
Or consider a few sessions with a family therapist who can help you communicate without tearing each other apart, and can give you tools for co-parenting that will serve you for years to come. Nowadays you can even do couples counselling over Skype, meaning it’s achievable even if you live in different cities.
7. Single parent doesn’t have to mean all alone.
If you feel low and overwhelmed, reach out to a friend. And know that helplines like the Good Samaritans do stay open over the holidays, as do many counselling services.
Have a tip for co-parenting at Christmas we’ve missed? Share with your community by commenting below.