One of the toughest situations to deal with in the aftermath of divorce is holiday visitation with the children. As if the holiday season by itself wasn’t stressful enough, dealing with only having the children for part of the holiday in addition to making sure they get to where they’re suppose to be for the other part of the holiday can send stress levels right off the chart! As a Family Law attorney who often represents children, I field a lot of calls from frustrated parents this time of year – and here’s what I tell them. Whether there are hard feelings to or from your ex or you both get along great, these five tips can make the holiday visitation less stressful for you, your ex, and – more importantly – your children.
1. Transition your child before the doorbell rings. I’m often told by parents that the child just doesn’t want to go to the other parent’s for the holidays, they want to stay right where they are. This may be true, and/or there may be a legitimate reason the child feels this way. But often the reluctance to go is because they are enjoying what they’re doing or are afraid they’re going to miss out on something. To overcome the latter two, prepare ahead of time. Watch how you talk about activities the child won’t be a part of – don’t tell him “how sad” you will be that he can’t be there for them. There’s nothing to be sad about (on the outside!) because he gets to spend time with the other parent, too. Make sure the game being played or movie being watched ends a substantial amount of time before the other parent picks up to avoid the child ending up being resentful that he has to “stop having fun” when it’s time to go.
2. Have the extra packing done, too. Most people don’t wait until the last minute to pack up the child’s visitation suitcase with clothes, nightwear and toiletries. But those little last-minute round-ups that leave the ex cooling his or her heels at the door (deliberately??) are unnecessary. Make a checklist as you think of things the child needs to have with her (medicine, gifts for the other family members, that book for the report she has to write over the break) and make sure they are packed and ready to go well ahead of time. Give your child the gift of a stress-free (or at least less-stressed) transition – one where they don’t start out with an irritated parent annoyed at them or grumbling about you.
3. Limit incoming phone and text message interruptions. Unless there is a court-ordered (or previously agreed-upon) phone visitation time, you don’t have to answer phone calls from the other parent during meals, gift exchanges, movies, family gatherings and other events where it would be disruptive to the child. I am not suggesting you don’t allow phone visitation during your holiday period with your child. On the contrary, I’m suggesting you plan for it. Have the child call the other parent, or answer calls, during times when the child is not engaged in fun events. Initiate (or take) the calls in a quiet place or room free of distractions so that the child can enjoy his chat with the other parent and not “just get through” it.
4. Limit outgoing phone and text message intrusions. Assume your ex has read the paragraph above and try to be sensitive about the intrusiveness of your own visitation calls. While negotiating prior to the visit for set times to speak to the child via phone may seem like a good idea, psychologist Arlene Schaefer says that arrangement is “all about the parents.” She says kids don’t like to be ripped from what they’re doing to have a conversation they often don’t feel like having – which can leave the calling parent feeling slighted and resentful toward the other parent who is perceived as not encouraging the contact. The better arrangement includes flexibility – maybe an agreement for the child to call “after her shower” or in the morning while breakfast is being cooked.
5. Anticipate and plan for the obstacles. Two complaints I hear often from divorced parents is that their ex is always late for exchanges and/or the the child is tuckered out upon arrival. Whether it’s deliberate sabotage or just insensitivity, the result of chronic lateness or turning over sleep-deprived children is the same – conflict, more stress, and potentially ruined plans. You have no power to change the offender – but you can prepare for the offense. Don’t create tight deadlines on yourself by making plans that you can only be timely for if the other parent is timely. Allow plenty of time between pick-up and any event – it’s easier to “kill time” if you’re early than dealing with stress, frustration and resentment that accompany rushing to make it to wherever you’re headed. If your child routinely is tired when she arrives from the other parent’s custody, plan ahead so that she has time to take a nap before heading out for the evening’s entertainment. Or factor in some down-time on the first day of visitation. Or plan for an early evening on the night of arrival so that on the first full day of visitation everyone can hit the ground running. While it may not seem right that you should have to construct your plans around the other parent’s offending behavior, doing so totally annihilates you ex’s power to ruin your plans or create a stressful start to your holiday time with your child.
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