What Children Want Their Divorced Parents to Know About the Holidays

Posted by: Shel 31 Comments

What Children Want Their Divorced Parents to Know About the HolidaysChildren 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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  • Sara

    As a divorced parent with an 8 year old daughter, this all resonates!
    Great article, wise words, thank you!

  • Wouldn’t it be great if kids weren’t made victims.

    • Shel Harrington

      It would be an absolute dream-come-true, Linda. And, unfortunately, a miracle!

  • I am a child of divorce, and while all of them hold truth for me, #1 and #4 resonate the most. I takes a strong parent to keep his/her bitterness and hurt away from a child, especially when they think what they are doing is letting the child know how loved he/she is.

    • Shel Harrington

      “Logic” sure gets twisted in the midst of divorce, doesn’t it? Sorry for your painful times, Wendy. I appreciate your comments.

  • […] Shel Harrington on What Children Want Their Divorced Parents to Know About the Holidays […]

  • I don’t have children of my own, but I’m a child of divorce, and this really hit home in that regard. I’d like to share this on every bit of social media I can find. I marvel that more people don’t realize what a long-lasting impact situations like you described have on a child, not just in their here-and-now, but in their forever.

    • Shel Harrington

      Nobody gets it like somebody who has lived it! I’d be honored if you shared it – thank you!

      I was delighted to connect with you through Chicago Files. Most of this blog is dedicated to pro-marriage topics – appreciating each other more and enjoying marriage. I feel that divorce is absolutely necessary at times, but many times divorce is an unfortunate permanent solution to what could be a temporary problem. My philosophy is we should focus on prevention because it’s easier than trying to fix something after the fact! And besides, it’s fun!

  • Great, timely article, Shel. I will definitely share it! Sometimes its hard to look beyond our own pain, to see things from a child’s perspective.

  • Susie

    Thank you Shel, for this informative post. I lead a support community of divorced/separating parents and would like to share this link.

    Also, could you please comment on what to do when you have parents who will/can not speak to each other because it is too contentious or their attorneys said so? Parents in our group will read this but their spouses or ex’s won’t because they “just don’t get it” or they think that they know what is best for their child. Do you have any tips for those situations.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks for sharing the post, Susie. You can probably tell, it’s a subject I’m pretty passionate about! I think some parents act out of vindictiveness with regard to items on the list, but I also think some of the behaviors are done with the best of intentions – in an attempt to be “fair” to both parents – without realizing the effect on the children. Or noticing on how the children are trying to make sure things are “fair” for both parents instead of focusing on being a kid!

      I always tell my clients they can only control their part in the interaction. If they are trying to communicate with the other spouse for valid reasons and in a reasonable manner and the other party chooses not to respond or responds nastily, they must keep taking the high road. Not to be confused with the high-and-mighty road.It is amazing how many people think they are communicating in a reasonable manner, when, to an objective eye, they’re coming across bitter, angry, condescending, self-righteous or like a victim. I’ve read numerous letters that “convey information” in a way filled with barbs, digs, and long-suffering, then ending with a “wishing the best for you” or “praying for you.” In a time when everybody is hypersensitive and hurting, choice of words matter. And when they’re used matters. Sometimes when people I work with change how they say things and when they say things, they get a different response from the spouse who previously was non-responsive. Now that you have me thinking about this, Susie, it is a topic that probably deserves its own post – so you may see this again!

      Sometimes attorneys instruct their clients not to speak to the other because they are not able to do so in a way that will be well-received (thus, get them in trouble in court) or because it invites harassment. Good calls. Sometimes an attorney routinely instructs their clients not to communicate with the other party because they want to control the situation and “win” versus focusing on what’s best for the parties. That scenario always frustrates me. It impedes potential reconciliation. It also limits communication that can potentially result in less attorney fees! There’s not much that can be done about what the spouse is being told by his/her attorney, but if one’s own attorney is trying to control the dialogue and contact without a good reason, they may want to evaluate whether or not a different attorney would be more effective in helping them achieve their goals – which, hopefully, is getting through the process with the least amount of damage done as possible.

      You may get a sense of deja vu when you read a post in the near future! Thanks for what you do – it’s not a job everybody could do well. I appreciate and welcome your insight – you see a type of interaction that I’m not privy to.

  • Mag-B

    GREAT, GREAT post Shel. No matter the age, children of divorce have it tough. Anything the parents can do to make things easier and remove some of the internal stress they are feeling is critical to helping create healthy, valued, free to be themselves adults! Thank you for sharing this – let’s hope those that need to hear it will!

    • Shel Harrington

      I agree with you Mag-B – the parents have a LOT to do with the stress level of the children. No matter how old the ‘kids’ are! Thanks for your input on this – nobody gets it like someone who lived/lives it!

  • Oh my! That list breaks my heart & stresses me out, AND I am a 60 something Grandma with no divorce dealings in the family. Keep up the good work Shel; it is extremely important.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Tricia – how fortunate you are that divorce is not something you have to factor into your family functions. It can be very challenging!

  • Val

    I agree with most of the points dealing with holidays. However, when it comes to not telling the child they have to leave certain gifts at the home of the parent they received them from, I have to disagree. Everything our gkids take back to mom’s place, never comes back…even little crochet clothes I’ve made for their stuffed toys. Things have a way of disappearing or getting completely broken…even a llaptop. So the electronics we are giving them this year will most definitely have to stay at dad’s home. Our son, nor ourselves can afford to keep replacing these gifts when they disappear at mom’s.

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m sorry to hear that your grandchildren (and your family members!) have to deal with that, Val. I agree that there are times when to protect the children’s possessions they have to be closely tracked. There are other times, however, when a parent makes that decision for less than noble reasons – such as knowing that the child will whine to come home so they can play with that new game they have waited months for, thus undermining the visit with the other parent. It’s hard to imagine such behavior if it has never occurred to you to use the children in your life as a pawn. While it sounds like you may be dealing with less-than-noble behavior on the other side, I’m glad you can’t relate to feeling that way personally! Thanks for taking the time to comment – I’m sure there were others nodding as they read your note!

  • Stephanie


    My grandbaby will be 2 years old in December, her parents never married, and are no longer together. She stays with the maternal grandparents most of the week with her mom leaving in a little apartment on their property. I get her every Thursday and most weekends from Saturday to Monday. My son pays child support to the mother, but the maternal grandparents refuse to let him have her overnight unless she stays at my home. Their are no court ordered vistations set at this time and the maternal grandfather states he will fight for custody if my son tries to establish his rights in the court. The maternal grandfather thinks both parents are immature and incapable of taking care of our grandchild. Neither are unfit, but are immature in their attitudes toward one another. What should my son do at this point and can the mother’s father get custody?

    • Shel Harrington

      It sounds like your grandchild is very fortunate to have a grandparent like you, Stephanie, who is willing to look out for her even though it sounds like a very difficult situation. The laws differ from state to state regarding child custody and visitation. Your son’s best option is to contact a good local Family Law attorney regarding what his parental rights are and how to legally establish them. You may also want to contact a Family Law attorney in your area to inquire about what, if any, rights grandparents have with regard to grandchildren in your state. I wish you all the best.

  • Brad

    I really needed to see this. Thank you. I am currently facing a divorce and it’s something I never thought I would have to experience. I want to work things out, and our kids deserve both parents in the same home. I truly appreciate any perspective that shows the affect a broken relationship can have on my kids.

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m glad you found the article helpful, Brad. I’m also very sorry that you and your family are going through this. I join you in hoping that things work out in the best possible way for your whole family.

  • Jessica

    Wow… I am so grateful for your insight. Currently I am in the middle of a difficult divorce and we are going to court this next week to have a guardian ad litem appointed for our children. It was my idea and I really have felt like I have been the “better parent” because of all of therrotten things my ex does that I have risen above. What I didn’t realize though, is that so many of these things listed above are things I was inadvertently doing! I know that I am also doing a lot of the right things too but, gosh, how eye-opening this was to see how I need to improve! I can’t wait to see my children tomorrow to apologize for my mistakes and work on being better about these things! I am going to definitely mention this list to the GAL that gets appointed to the kids and see if he has anything similar for my ex and me to review and work on. Thank you so much!!

    • Shel Harrington

      You are exactly the type of parent I like to work with, Jessica – one that is so focused on the well-being of the children that they don’t think twice about changing how they’re doing things if they learn an alternative that better serves their children. I’m glad to hear your children will have a GAL to buffer them from the process a bit and be a voice for their perspective. I am putting a link here to another short post about helping children through divorce. I don’t know where you’re located, but you might ask your GAL if there are any services locally like what I describe in Number Two of that post (support groups for children): https://shelharrington.com/5-ways-to-help-your-child-through-divorce/

      I”m sorry you are having to go through this, Jessica. It is a painful process. I wish you, your children, and their father the best. And thank you very much for taking the time to comment here – much appreciated.

  • Legitimate points. For 5 1/2 years I was a Divorce Recovery small group counselor. If I learned one thing about divorcing parents and altercations it’s this: there’s no satisfactory solution for children; they want both parents there, together, happy and permanent. It’s just a hard time no matter how well intentioned.

    • Shel Harrington

      That’s my experience, too, Marylin. The children don’t care that the parents don’t like each other – they just want their world to stay intact. With the children I represent, I have found when they process that’s not going to happen, their next “top” desire is for the arguing to stop – they just want everybody to be nice to each other. Not that much to ask, is it? There are situations when a divorce really needs to happen, but rarely do the children think they are better off because it does.

      Hope you’re enjoying your holiday weekend, Marylin!

  • I had divorced parents. They did pretty well in terms of not getting us in the mix of opinions, decisions, etc. Honestly, they weren’t best friends, but things were amicable and mature. Perhaps there was some passive-aggressiveness at times, but I honestly don’t think it was mean-spirited or intentional. They are/were both good people. I can’t say that these things on your list were intentionally done or said, but at the same time so much of it seems to seep through the cracks, even if the parents don’t intend it to. I’m with Jill – give this list to your clients who need to know it and encourage them to think about them. Hard.
    We did have one parent who subscribed to the “these are for you to use here” theory and we hated it. Hated. It. Such BS, if you ask me. Like really, what’s the point of that?

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks for your insight, Lisa. I think many of the parents I deal with are good people who are just caught up in their own hurt and, in some cases, righteousness. But being right – or the wronged parent – doesn’t make it OK to share such info with the children. There is such a short amount of time to enjoy childhood, I get really frustrated with parents who share adult information because “their child has a right to know” or “they asked so I told them the truth.” In my opinion, there is no such thing as “THE truth.” Each party has their own interpretation of what the truth is and, no matter how genuinely they believe in it, it doesn’t make it accurate.

  • This is great stuff, Shel! If you provide your new clients with any kind of informational packet, this should definitely be included.

    • Shel Harrington

      I hadn’t thought of that, Jill – thanks for the suggestion. When I serve as a Guardian Ad Litem, I might send a copy to both parent along with the original questionnaire. Hope you have a blessed holiday, my friend.

  • Well said! In my teaching days many hours were spent with warring parents trying to get them to understand what they were doing to their children. Many didn’t care, they were so intent on hurting the ex and the kids became part of the strategy. I still have residual anger over some situations I observed and was powerless to do anything about. Warring parents should know this however. Their children grow up. They will eventually make their own decisions and the parent who has misused them will lose them.

    • Shel Harrington

      The same parents who don’t get how damaging the game-playing is for their children are the ones who think nothing of asking (demanding?) that teachers send two of everything out – one for each parent – and write out daily reports about a child’s status as if the teacher had nothing else to do but help supply ammunition for a custody battle. We yank teachers out of school to come testify in court. No big deal -that’s what unaccredited substitutes are for, right? I can’t imagine how frustrating it was for you, Pauline! Having said that, in my Guardian Ad Litem role, my favorite witnesses are teachers. They are often the one person I can go to for an objective perspective of what a child is dealing with. God bless our teachers!!

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