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Co-parenting on special occasions

The holidays can be tough for separated parents. This blog offers guidance on creating flexible parenting plans that prioritise your children’s well-being and your own needs. We’ll explore whether spending holidays together is always the best option, offer tips for talking to your kids about their worries, and provide strategies for managing your own anxieties during this emotional time.

What is the best parenting plan for the holidays?

When parents begin their separation journey, managing special occasions can be one of their biggest shared-care concerns.

There is no one way to do this – no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Arrangements made within families will differ according to traditions, culture, work commitments, ages and stages of children, whereabouts of extended family and your circumstances as parents.

When discussing Christmas and other holiday plans, try to focus on what feels right for your situation and block out the noise of other people’s opinions and experiences.

One of the many benefits of pursuing a low-conflict, fair and reasonable separation is that arrangements can be flexible according to your family’s changing needs. You don’t need to have all the answers now. If it doesn’t work this time, you can adjust things next time.

Should separated parents spend special occasions together?

Change is difficult, and a lot of change at one time can destabilise everyone. You may be hopeful that you can spend Christmas or birthdays together. Reflecting on the following questions might help you decide.

  • What is the motivation to have the day together?
  • What is the relationship like between my ex-partner and me?
  • What have special occasions been like in the past? Are we aligned in how we see the day unfolding (from family visits to traditions and the order of the day?)
  • What tensions might arise that could get in the way of us being our best selves? How can we make the holiday period peaceful?
  • How can we put aside any separation matters that may still be ongoing?

If your answers to these questions raise red flags, consider spending the day apart. Just as ‘staying together is best for the kids’ is a separation myth, so is overemphasising the importance of spending every special occasion together.

According to research by Early Childhood Australia, what children want over birthdays or the Christmas period, even over and above the gifts (believe it or not!), is quality time with loved ones, connection, a slower pace and time to engage in play.

Your physical presence on a special day is not enough to create a joyful experience. Suppose there is an underlying hum of resentment, discomfort, sadness, anger, hostility or anxiety. In that case, it will impact your ability to relax and be emotionally present, and your children will likely pick up on it.

So make sure you tell yourself:

It is ok to place importance on my emotional needs & well-being.

I am not a failure if spending every special occasion together is impossible.

Whatever your decision for this year, remember that your relationship as separated parents will evolve. The right decision for you now does not have to hold true every year from now on.

Being flexible around special occasions might feel scary and uncertain. Still, it provides you the freedom to re-evaluate what is in everyone’s best interests as time progresses and individual needs change.

What should I say to my kids if they are worried about being away from me?

Like most things with children, this conversation is a balancing act between saying enough and not saying too much. Remember that your children’s understanding of the situation will vary greatly depending on their age, and they don’t see your separation through the same lens as you.

Even if your children don’t bring up worries about the first Christmas or birthday between two houses or the first time away with their other parent, start a conversation and invite them to share anything that might be on their mind.

Try to keep it light and conversational, and be mindful not to project your feelings onto the situation – don’t assume they feel the same way you do.

Be careful to hear what they are saying and to separate their feelings from any sense of loss you are feeling. Stay curious and explore with them their fears from their perspective. Listen, acknowledge and validate any worries they have about being with their other parent or family.

Your children might be worried about you – let them know that you will be ok and miss them but that you want them to enjoy themselves. You could share a little about your plans for the time you are apart without making it seem like they are missing out on anything. Remind them of the plans that you have together when you reunite.

The main thing is that they are acknowledged, feel heard and understood and know that no matter what, they are loved.

Speaking to a counsellor or separation consultant or divorce coach who can support you in understanding your experience and guide you forwards is an option that may help when difficult experiences like this come up.

Thank you to Kelly Luisa Bagshaw for her contribution to this post.

The Separation Guide aims to make separation and divorce simpler, more manageable and less stressful. To find out more about how one of our Network Members could support your separation, take our free three-minute Q&A.

Disclaimer
The information in our resources is general only. Consider getting in touch with a professional adviser if you need legal, financial or well-being support.