Dear Dr. Jann:
Now that my ex and I have finally decided to call it quits, we are really struggling as the holidays approach and figuring out how to coParent during this time. Thanksgiving is up next, and we have absolutely no idea how to how to celebrate. Together? Apart? With friends? We asked the kids, ages 8 and 9, what they want to do and they can’t give us an answer. What’s good ex-etiquette?
coParenting is no easy feat, especially around the holidays. My biggest concern? You said, “We asked the kids what they want to do.” I understand you’re looking for ideas now that you and Dad are no longer together, but asking 9-year-old kids to make that decision is really bad ex-etiquette. coParents often feel guilty — they can’t make it work and bend over backwards trying to do what they think the kids want to do. The truth is, most kids just want to feel protected when their normal routine is disrupted by a break-up, so when their parents look to them for answers it makes a child feel uncertain of their destiny — that often comes across as anger or fear.
Don’t misunderstand. Checking in with your child is great, but looking for them to make decisions you can’t make will make them feel insecure at a time they’re looking for order. A simple way to initiate order is by making the transition from house to house as stress-free as possible. Some divorced parents opt to split the day, while other’s alternate the entire holiday each year. Whichever you choose, coordinate efforts with your coParent well in advance. Agree on an exchange time and do your best to stick to it. Scrambling around at the last minute will just make both you and the kids more anxious.
Holiday traditions are important and divorced parents and their children often complain that they had to give up their “old” family traditions once they met someone new and combined families. Now that the family configuration changed, they couldn’t celebrate the same way. This can be very disappointing, but it’s not necessary to completely abandon former traditions when combining families. Look for ways to make things new by integrating past and present. You don’t have to do things in the same order or even exactly the way you used to do it. You just have to acknowledge the origin of the tradition and then consciously alter it to make it fit.
A really simple example — every family makes certain foods for their Thanksgiving celebration. In my case, creamed corn was always at the table. One time it was forgotten, and all hell broke loose. When polled, no one knew why creamed corn was even part of our holiday dinner until we figured out that it was my sister’s ex’s favorite — and they had been divorced for years. It was quickly replaced by a new bonus family favorite and that became our new traditional side dish. Each year it prompts a lot of laughs — and that is a tradition, as well. He was the only one who liked creamed corn.
The holidays can be wonderful, but they are also a very difficult time of year for families in transition. Give the changes some serious thought so you can guide your children through the holidays with as much grace as possible. Following the ten rules of good ex-etiquette is a good start. They begin with “Put the children first” and end with “Look for the compromise.” Useful tools during stressful times. That’s good ex-etiquette.