When mom and dad are separated and living in different homes during the holidays, keeping things running smoothly for the children is challenging–but certainly possible! It’s worth putting in the extra effort to put aside any differences and bad feelings with your ex to ensure that you create joyful experiences and happy memories for your little ones during the holiday season. Here are some great tips for putting maximum happy into the holidays for you and your children.

Recitals, School Events, and Other Social and Family Gatherings

This time of year often has more events and celebrations where both you and your ex will be in the same room. You may feel some anxiety about that, and it’s natural. If your separation or divorce is relatively recent, you may even still be dealing with some negative feelings like anger and resentment toward your ex. Again, this is natural–but it’s critical that you learn to put those emotions to the side while you support your children. Kids of all ages need to know their parents’ love for them is bigger than their discomfort with the situation. Remember, your children are dealing with a lot of tough emotions too, so anything you can do to give them a pleasant and conflict-free holiday season is an act of selflessness that they will appreciate now and down the road. 

Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to communicate at an age-appropriate level with your children and ask them what they want. If you and your ex will be attending your children’s band or theater performances, ask what their preferences are and accommodate them if possible. For example, some kids want their parents to sit together. Others want them to sit apart, but on the same side so they can see them both at the same time. Others might want parents to come to different showings, practices, or rehearsals, while some kids don’t care one way or the other. Ask them. Be clear that you want to know what would make them most comfortable, but also be clear that you as parents will make the final decision.

Another good tip for parents attending performances year round is to promise your kids you won’t embarrass them! Have the kids make a list of things that would make them uncomfortable. You might be surprised to hear that standing up and clapping when no one else is, cheering loudly or shouting their name, waving, whistling, or asking for way too many pictures before or after the performance make them feel embarrassed. Your kids may also worry that you and your ex will fight or argue at the event, but they may not be able to express that. Always be reassuring about the fact that you are there to support them and you’ll do everything possible to make sure they have a good experience.

When it comes to parties, family gatherings, church socials, and other holiday events, you and your ex should engage in open communication about what would be best for your children. If you’re not comfortable being in the same room together yet, be honest about it. Then get creative. Perhaps you can attend the same event but at different times, one earlier and one later. Maybe you can split up the events so there’s a parent at each one. Be upfront with your kids about which events you’ll each be attending, but don’t overshare–children don’t need all the details and reasons their parents make the decisions they do. It’s a fine line and you’ll learn as you go–just take care never to speak ill of their other parent or make your discomfort your kids’ problem to worry about.

Be Flexible with Family Traditions

Treasured holiday traditions need more flexibility now. If you’re able to continue with specific traditions when the kiddos are at your place, that’s fantastic, but remember they may be struggling with bittersweet feelings that are difficult to articulate and deal with. Be sensitive to the fact that even though you’re making sugar cookies as a family like you always have, the whole family isn’t together, and that hurts. Check in with them and ask how they feel about continuing traditions that previously involved the whole family unit and be willing to make adjustments. Perhaps you can take an old family tradition and put a new spin on it. If you always baked and decorated sugar cookies together, maybe this year you can make gingerbread cookies instead. Or make the sugar cookies as usual but deliver some to the police station or elderly neighbors. 

You won’t necessarily have your children with you on specific days tied to specific traditions, so be willing to be creative with the calendar. Maybe you won’t be able to watch the Christmas parade on December 25 or the New Year’s Day parade on January 1, but you can record them and watch them together another day. Again, communication is key. If they watched the parade with their other parent already, ask if they want to watch it again or if they’d rather figure out something else fun to do. 

You might feel disappointed about losing some of your treasured traditions to the other parent, but don’t make your kids feel bad or guilty. It’s okay to tell them how you feel. For example, you might say something like, “I watched the parade and even though I wish we could have seen it together, I knew you were watching it at your dad’s place and that made me happy. I bet you really liked the huge Paw Patrol float, didn’t you?” In this way, you’re being honest about missing them while still staying positive and connected.

Don’t make assumptions about which traditions your children may want to keep versus modify or surrender completely. Talk to them. Ask them what they want. The conversations might be a little difficult, but they’re important. Even if they have a hard time expressing their feelings, you should trust they will appreciate knowing their opinions matter to you.

This Is the Ideal Time to Start New Traditions

Now that the family unit at your place is “new,” this is the perfect time to start some fresh new ways of celebrating that won’t have any of the melancholy that might be attached to your old established traditions. Let the kids help with coming up with new ideas by looking for holiday events online or in the newspaper. There are probably tree lightings, craft fairs, Santa visits, and holiday plays and concerts in your area you’ve never attended before. Now is a great time to explore some of them! 

While you’re brainstorming together about new holiday rituals, thinking of ways to incorporate service will help all of you get your minds off your own troubles as you bring joy to others. Take handmade cards to convalescent hospitals or senior centers. Participate in a Toys for Tots drive and let them take the toys to the fire station and meet the firefighters there. The possibilities are endless. If you or your kids have social media accounts, you might enjoy taking pictures to post online to encourage others to experience the joy of generosity and service. 

The Bottom Line

Celebrating the holidays after a separation or divorce is fraught with challenges but also has the potential for creating wonderful new traditions and memories. Remember that while you’re dealing with lots of complex emotions, your kids are too, and they might not be able or ready to talk about them. Communication is key–between you and your children and between you and your ex. Do what you can to create positive experiences that will result in lasting memories of love, celebration, and giving so that the holiday season continues to be one you and your family look forward to.