Obligatory family gatherings reign supreme over the holiday season. And the pressure to channel the spirit of togetherness hits divorced or separated co-parents particularly hard. The good news is that we got some solid advice from family counseling experts on how to navigate the holidays while co-parenting—you know, so there will be more cheer and fewer tears this season.
Meet the experts
What makes the holiday season so fraught for divorced/separated parents
Dr. Kibby McMahon explains that co-parents often find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place at this time of year. For starters, those who choose to celebrate together in order to spend the occasion with their child will find themselves putting on a big, happy family act—and that can be confusing and uncomfortable for all parties. Alternatively, co-parents who celebrate separately will likely still have to coordinate and interact with each other more than is desirable and miss out on time with their kids when they’re with their ex. In other words, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’
Needless to say, any arrangement can get pretty dicey if you’re in a toxic co-parenting relationship. But even folks who have established a relatively stable child-rearing plan can be thrown for a loop at this time of year—namely because “the holidays might bring up painful memories of when the divorced/separated parents used to be together…which would make interactions with each other feel triggering,” says McMahon. That said, here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to making holiday plans and keeping your cool.
How to decide between celebrating together vs. separately
Celebrating together can be tricky—after all, you separated from your co-parent for a reason—but under the right circumstances, it can be a very nice thing. Per Kelman, it’s important for parents to consider “the age of the kids and where they are in accepting and truly understanding where things stand between their parents” before signing on for together time over the holidays. Specifically, “if the kids are young or hold out hope that [the parents] will reunite, then it isn't a good time to celebrate together. On the other hand, if the kids are aware that both parents have moved on, may even have new partners and all parties get along well, a holiday together could provide a very loving and warm environment for all,” says Kelman.
How to identify toxic co-parenting behaviors
Still, it’s not always easy to accurately predict how hunky dory things will be, since a positive outcome requires that everyone rise to the occasion. For that reason, it’s wise to also be on the lookout for any of the following red flags in your co-parent’s behavior (or perhaps your own).
1. Problematic marital dynamics are resurfacing
If interactions with your ex play out like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, it’s not a good sign. According to Kelman, holiday planning can provide a context for parents to reenact some of the issues that existed during the marriage. So, if you find yourself making passive-aggressive, score-keeping comments about how much more effort you’re putting in, for example, or your co-parent starts casually referencing unpleasant memories (like that time you hurt your MIL’s feelings by returning a tacky gift), you both better check yourselves.
2. A co-parent resorts to triangulation
Ideally, co-parents should work together to negotiate the details and settle on a plan that pleases everyone. If one parent undermines this process by involving the kids in the conversation such that they feel like they have to choose sides (i.e., “your father treated me so badly, why would you want to spend the holiday with him?” or “tell your mother I refuse to speak to her unless she agrees with my travel plans”) it’s called triangulation—and Dr. McMahon says it’s a major deal-breaker. In fact, research, like this 2016 study published in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, confirms that triangulation has a terrible effect on a child’s sense of well-being.
3. Disrespectful treatment occurs in front of the children
If one or both co-parents can’t resist the temptation to get a dig in when the kids are within earshot, you need to find alternate ways to make holiday plans. McMahon says this can range from somewhat subtle jabs and mean-spirited jokes (“See? I told you your father was bad at planning”) to outright ad hominem attacks (“Your mother is a crazy narcissist—that’s why this is so difficult.”) Trash-talking a co-parent is never a good look and pretty much precludes the possibility of a festive family affair. What’s more, the psychologist tells us that, when done to the extreme, it can result in something called parental alienation syndrome, which is essentially a form of emotional abuse that children should be protected from at all costs. So, as the adage goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
4. The celebration turns into a pissing contest
Co-parents who try to one-up each other by giving the most lavish gifts or planning the more extravagant vacation will likely struggle to emulate peace and joy at a joint celebration. It’s also a zero-sum game, since “many kids see through this behavior and may even feel pulled to caretake the other parent,” explains Kelman. Bottom line: Kids should never be used as weapons or tools to make one parent look better than the other, so if your co-parent is engaging in this behavior, your best bet is to just not play ball and let the offending party be their own undoing.
Strategies for handling toxic behavior over the holidays
You might know what not to do, but ultimately, you can’t control how ex acts; the best you can do is try to set healthy boundaries and lay the groundwork for good conduct. As such, McMahon recommends the following strategies for starting the season off on the right foot and handling toxic behavior when it arises.
1. Separately identify concrete requests or goals
Before you start collaborating with your co-parent over holiday plans, be sure to independently identify a goal and any requests that you have in order to achieve it. Most likely both parties will agree that the goal is to make the holiday celebration a memorable and positive one for the children. Now figure out what that looks like to you: Maybe what matters most is keeping the tradition of taking them to the Thanksgiving Day Parade, or perhaps it’s that the kids get to spend Christmas Eve with their grandparents. Whatever the case may be, if you both enter the conversation prepared with concrete requests, it’s less likely that you’ll end up squabbling over minute details.
2. Deflect and ignore toxic behavior
News to no one in this situation: Negotiations between co-parents can quickly go awry—particularly when one or both parties feels defensive and, well, trigger-happy. If your co-parent tries to get your goat with any of the aforementioned toxic behaviors, “just briefly acknowledge what they say and then keep the conversation focused on the goal—and be aware that you may have to keep coming back to that repeatedly,” advises McMahon.
3. Take a break when needed
So you tried your best to ignore your ex’s shit-stirring contributions to the conversation, but it’s not getting any better and you’re to boil over. “If emotions run high and your co-parent gets too upset to collaborate, take a break from the conversation,” says McMahon, adding that it’s important to “make this break collaborative, respectful and explicit.” A sample script may go something like this: “It’s important we figure this out for the kids’ sake, but I think we’re getting a little too heated to do that right now. Let’s take a day to cool off and revisit this conversation tomorrow after work.”
Co-parenting over the holidays really isn’t that different from co-parenting at any other time of year, except that the combination of added stress and high expectations tends to exacerbate bad behavior. Prepare yourself for this reality, remember that the unpleasant aspects will pass and, above all, let the greater holiday goal be your guide.