Children anticipate the holidays eagerly – gifts, special food, no school – what’s not to like? They are often oblivious to the stress adults may experience this time of year. Unless they have to divide their holidays between two warring parents. Nothing sucks the joy out of the season for a child faster than having to listen to divorced parents bickering about whose turn it is for visiting days, when the time should start, when the time should end, what their expectations are, and what their current (less than pleasant) opinion is of the other parent.
When I serve as a Guardian Ad Litem (an attorney who represents the best interest of the children during a custody dispute), one of the duties I am charged with is recommending custody and visitation plans to the Judge. I have had more opportunities than I would have liked over the years to hear about what stresses out children during the holidays that are split between two households. When talking to my children “clients” about their concerns, I often ask: “If you could tell your parents anything you wanted about this, and you knew nobody would get mad or have their feelings hurt, what would you tell them?” Following are some of the answers I hear often.
1. I don’t want to have to pick. It’s not your child’s job to come up with a holiday itinerary. Get with the other parent and have a plan that takes into account the special events you know your child would enjoy participating in even if it requires a deviation from the formal custody plan. Children are often very aware of the tension between the two parents. Asking them to select what activities or time frames they want to be at one house or the other sometimes makes them feel they are being asked to declare which parent they would rather be with. And they don’t want to. They don’t want to hurt feelings, tick somebody off, or create further conflict between the adults.
2. I don’t want to hear you say mean things about my other parent. Truth is not a defense to this selfish act. Badmouthing the other parent or making snarky remarks about their bimbo or controlling significant other is always harmful for your child. Doing so in conjunction with holiday plans robs the child of the joy that should come with such preparation.
3. It hurts me when you tell me what I’m missing out on. If you know the child can’t be with you for a particular event, whether it’s because it just doesn’t work out or the other parent is being totally unreasonable, buffer them from the hurt. Telling them how much they’ll be missed while the others are having fun, or how “but for” that other parent they could join in, doesn’t hurt the refusing parent – it hurts the child. It’s a cruel thing to do.
4. You make me feel guilty for wanting to spend time with my other parent. You should be encouraging a good relationship with the other parent. Undermining the value of that relationship with carefully crafted sentences such as “you have to go to your mom’s” or “we’ll do that when you get to come back home from your dad’s” does not go unnoticed.
5. You make me feel guilty about what I cost. Hearing references (digs?) about the limited gifts/festivities because you pay so much child support out, or don’t receive the amount you are suppose to receive, could have the desired effect of alienating the child from the other parent. But it could also result in the child feeling bad about himself, guilty about the lack you are suffering, and sad that he has to spend more time at your house feeling bad and guilty. Don’t talk about your child support gripes to or within the hearing of your child. Feel free to extend this rule past the holiday season.
6. When you’re late, it causes problems for me. You may not care how long your ex sits parked somewhere waiting for you to show up to the visitation exchange, but your child does. You have created a frustrating transition – your child now gets to hop in the car with a (potentially) angry parent who may be in a position of having to rush to get to specific plans. Not fair. Potentially not safe. Sure there are emergencies and weather issues that cause delays. But often being late is just a result of poor planning or vindictiveness.
7. I don’t like having to leave in the middle of things. Stop the tug-of-war over dividing the actual day if it is not easily divided or breaks into main-event activities. Instead of cutting the celebration short at the other parent’s house, celebrate the holiday before or after the calendar date. Your child does not mind having two celebrations. In addition, being considerate of your child’s time with the other parent gives you an opportunity to emphasize the spirit of the actual holiday – joy, thankfulness, generosity of spirit – that is being observed.
8. It’s not fair that you give me stuff then tell me I can only use it at your house. If it’s new, they want to wear it, use it, play with it and show it off. Having them take it off or leave it behind so that it “doesn’t get left” at the other parent’s is like taking the gift back. It’s either theirs or it isn’t. You refusing to allow them to take it with them (so they look forward to coming back? to ensure the other parent doesn’t benefit from it in any way?) is more about you than the child you gave the comes-with-strings-attached gift to.
9. Sometimes I’m super tired after leaving your house. But then, maybe that’s your intention? Do you want to start your own holiday visitation with a child who is so tired she’s dragging or crashes half-way through dinner, missing out on family festivities? Probably not. Don’t schedule so much while she is with you, or keep her up so late the night before the exchange, that she can’t enjoy the beginning of her visitation at the other household.
10. I don’t always want to talk to you when you call. He knows you love him. Calling him every day when he’s with the other parent or, worse, calling multiple times a day, intrudes on the activities of the other household. Setting specific times for daily calls has everybody watching the clock instead of enjoying their time together. I’m not saying never call. I’m saying make it reasonable and recognize sometimes (often?) the call is more for your sake than the child’s.
While most of these points are true at any time, the holiday season often evokes feelings that heighten the usual sensitivities when having to co-parent children from two different households and, possibly, with someone you don’t like. When in doubt about any behavior or words you are contemplating with regard to holiday visitation, ask yourself the following questions: Which course of action benefits my child more? Which creates the best memory for him?
Allowing your children a conflict-free holiday season – one where they are free to love and celebrate at both households – is the best gift you can give them.
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