Family Mediation: Creating A Child Parenting Plan For Holidays
Updated: Jun 29
Father’s Day was this past weekend. For parents who are separating or divorcing, developing a child parenting plan around holidays and special days can be extremely challenging. Parenting plans, AKA custody/visitation plans, lay out which parent children will reside with during the week, month and year (including holidays and special days like Mother’s and Father’s Day). Holidays can be a challenging piece of the parenting plan. In this blog post, I discuss some tips on how divorcing or separating couples can approach this issue and do so productively.
Why is this particularly challenging? I want to think about your own childhood for a moment. Holidays are a special time for adults and children. Often, families have rich histories of elaborate traditions around religious, civil (e.g. July 4th) and other special days (e.g. Halloween). As adults, many of us possess sensory memories of how we celebrated holidays when we were younger -- the wallpapers in our grandmother’s apartment; the smell of freshly-cooked food; laughter. Holidays represent unique instances during the year when the usual rhythms of life -- of being a family-- changes, if only for a few hours.
For parents who are separated or who are in the process of separating, there is a lot of anxiety around how that time will be observed now that the nuclear family is residing in two different places. During the transition of a divorce or separation, there is so much change that needs to be considered including the change of how to celebrate special parts of the year differently. It’s not always easy for parents how that will look. When it comes to parenting time around the holidays, conflict can develop quickly.
Moreover, the fight over where kids spend time for the holidays gives expression to significant internal and external pressures. For example, during the mediation process, many parents tell me privately that celebrating a holiday with their children is an important value to the “family.” They feel that their extended families expect them, as a parent, to argue with the other parent about where the child is going to be for Thanksgiving or Christmas, for example.
Similarly, I often hear privately, that a parent’s suffering from significant internal, self-generated pressure. The internal pressure is that, as a parent, they need to do very special things with their children and that they are not a good parent if they don’t. They judge themselves harshly if they believe that the children, because of the separation or divorce, will not have an extraordinary Christmas, a fabulous Halloween or a picture-perfect Thanksgiving. It’s as if there’s an internal, social media feed and that feed really changes in a separation - especially as it relates to children. What will they post to their mind's eye if they do not see their children for the holidays?
When approaching the discussion of how you and your partner will share the holidays and special days with children separately, let me suggest some ideas that might help to reframe some of these challenges.
When Family Mediation is Needed
Typically, if parents cannot agree, a judge or a lawyer is likely to suggest that parents split the holidays and alternate years with the children. For example, if parents do not come to an agreement, it is presumed that children will spend the holiday with one parent in odd years and the other parent in even years.
Don’t fight with your ex or soon to be ex-partner over every holiday unless it is important to you.
Dividing time with children 50/50 is very fair, on its face, but it overlooks an important consideration which is what’s important to you and your children. For example, it is possible that one parent is more religious than the other and has strong feelings about celebrating Christmas. As likely, the other parent may not have those feelings and does not attribute the same level of personal importance to the holiday.
If that is so, then maybe there is no need to divide that holiday in a 50/50 split. When considering where children will spend the holidays, the first question to ask oneself is what special holiday time is important for me to spend with my children? Also, what do I believe is special time for the children and my ex-partner?
The answer to these questions focuses much less on time and much more on the relationships between children and parents.
Do Not Force the Moment.
Before getting knee-deep into an argument with the other parent about how to share special and holiday time with the children, ask yourself what your children really want. Children can sniff out inauthenticity with precision. The faintest hint that a moment is being manufactured is a complete turn off for children. For anyone who has a preteen or teen child, you know exactly what I am talking about. Taking, again, Christmas as an example, if you do not have a family tradition of celebrating that holiday and your ex partner does, think about how it will appear to your children when you demand that they spend Christmas with you instead of with your ex-partner. Remember, consider the children first.
You and the other parent will be more satisfied with the choices that you make in connection to parenting time when you have considered these issues, thoughtfully.
Is There a Time Beyond Traditional Holiday Time that is Special for Me and My Kids? Finally, parties in family mediation get stuck on traditional holidays and special days. For example, divorcing couples get very hung up on Thanksgiving, the winter holidays, Father's Day and Mother's Day.
Make Other Times Special
In looking at time with children, why not examine ways to make a usually ordinary time special? For example, is there a special trip that you like to take with the children on an ongoing basis? I have seen families for whom hiking, camping, fishing, the beach, spring training are yearly traditions that seem to primarily fall with one parent more than the other. What would make more sense?
Spending time doing what you enjoy and communicating that enjoyment to your child or trying to make a particular day or evening special when everyone, including you, does not feel it to be so?
In one instance, during a mediation, after several minutes of listening to a couple argue about how to split the holidays, I changed the topic. I asked each one to tell me something special that the other parent did with the children. The father reported that the way the mother and her family celebrated Christmas was one of the reasons he had married her. The mother reported that the father was an avid outdoor person and that that was one of the reasons she had married him. Over the course of their marriage and the birth of their children, each had dedicated special time to their children that celebrated the Christmas season and the outdoors. After what felt like a long silence, I asked them if I could make a suggestion.
The suggestion was that the father have some extra parenting time in the summer to go camping and hiking with the children and that the mother have some extra parenting time during the Christmas holiday with the children.
Your family and your children are uniquely and forever your own. How you approach that in a separation, communicates a lot of messages to your children. Communicate to them that part of your job is to share with them what time, rather than just days on the calendar, are most special to you.