Good holiday ex-etiquette

When a family is fractured by divorce, it creates added stress during the holidays with regard to child visitation, gift giving, and attending children’s programs. But it doesn’t have to. If parents will let go of their differences and focus on communication, cooperation, and compromise, the season can be a little less stressful for everyone. Here are 10 tips to help:

1. Pursue the big picture. Although you and your ex may have past disappointments and present disagreements, set aside negative thoughts and feelings for your child. Look, instead, at the bigger picture and consider how it will affect him in the long run. Don’t think, “What do I need?” Think, “What does my child need to have a good holiday?” Pursue that.

2. Communicate and cooperate. Establish a good working relationship with your ex on behalf of your child. You don’t have to be buddies, but you do need to be team players. Talk early in the season about how you are going to handle special days and events. Create a schedule for visitations and be respectful of your ex’s time with your child. When transitioning from home to home, arrive on time and keep goodbyes short to avoid extra stress. If, in the planning stages, the conversation gets heated, stop and arrange another time to talk. Equally important, do your own communicating; avoid making your child the messenger.

3. Call for a compromise. Discuss with your ex items your child has asked for with regard to gifts, and look for ways to compromise so you can both participate in giving those “prized possessions.” Avoid competing for your child’s affections when buying gifts. Focus your efforts on quality time rather than quantity of gifts.

4. Be gracious with gift exchanges. Helping your child make or choose a gift for his other biological parent models thoughtful, generous behavior you ultimately want to see displayed in him. In high-conflict situations, however, participating in these gift-giving endeavors may be too difficult. If so, don’t deny your child this privilege; find a neutral adult who will step in and help.

5. Extend courtesies to relatives. Recognize the importance of your child’s relationship with extended relatives on both sides of the family. Keep grandparents and other family members central in his life during the holiday season.

6. Partner for programs. Holiday concerts, plays, and other programs are a time to celebrate your child’s accomplishments, so it’s important for both parents to be in attendance. You don’t have to sit together, but you should be cordial and courteous to one another. Come with other family members or attend alone; this is not the time to introduce casual dates. Each parent should also be given time alone to interact with your child. For example, coordinate schedules so one parent takes him to the event and the other brings him home.

7. Set clear expectations. When parents of young children who have recently separated are willing to come together peacefully during the holidays, it gives their children the opportunity to experience the celebration as an intact family. If you decide to go this route, set clear expectations and communicate them to your child so he doesn’t misunderstand and think you are permanently reuniting. It can be confusing for a child, who may already be dealing with reconciliation fantasy. Keep the time together fun, easy, and stress-free. Focus on your child, not on the relationship with your ex.

8. Be a sounding board. Give your child the opportunity to discuss past holidays, if he desires. Most kids grieve the loss of an intact family with every holiday and at each stage in life. Be sensitive to this and keep an open line of communication so he can freely share his thoughts and feelings.

9. Be reasonable. The first few years after a separation and divorce can be the hardest time to enjoy the holidays. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Create a few new traditions, and bear in mind it takes time to heal wounds and adjust to a new family unit.

10. Set the stage for the future. Bear in mind you are in this parenting partnership for the long haul. There will be graduations, weddings, grandkids — even great grandkids. So set the stage now for a good relationship with you ex in the future. And remember, the best gifts you can give your child is your unconditional love and acceptance, and the freedom to express love to his other parent.

Denise Yearian is a former educator and editor of two parenting magazines, whose personal experience prompted her to write this story.

Subject-related resources for parents


• “Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior after a Divorce or Separation” by Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe.

• “Families Apart: Ten Keys to Successful Co-Parenting” by Melinda Blau.

• “Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce” by Elizabeth Hickey.

• “Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child” by Isolina Ricci.

• “Stepwives: Ten Steps to Help Ex-wives and Stepmothers End the Struggle and Put the Kids First” by Lynne Oxhorn-Ringwood and Louise Oxhorn with Marjorie Vego Krausz.

Websites An organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between separated or divorced parents and their new families. This websites contains a listing of local DivorceCare support groups for adults and children. Groups meet weekly to help people face the challenges of divorce and move toward rebuilding their lives. This organization offers tools to help families get to know each other better and communicate more effectively.