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Holiday survival guide for divorced parents

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 7:42 AM EST, Wed December 21, 2011
The holidays can be rough on divorced parents and their children
The holidays can be rough on divorced parents and their children
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nearly 4 million divorced parents in U.S. will be dealing with holidays this year
  • Separation or divorce means giving up the dream of a perfect holiday
  • Don't try to buy off the children with presents
  • Don't force more togetherness than either parent can handle

(CNN) -- David Murphy hasn't started shopping for his two boys yet, and he knows he had better get started. The divorced father of two boys, ages 11 and 14, has custody for a full week around Christmas Day this year and needs to get a tree and start buying presents.

Every other year, Murphy (who didn't want his real name used to protect his children's privacy) doesn't have Christmas custody. So, he tries to do something completely different. Divorced for four years, he has traveled with his mother to visit England, where she was born. He has joined his father and stepmother on a trip to Carmel, California.

He hasn't crashed his ex-wife's Christmas Day plans, even though she lives only three miles away from his home in suburban Virginia.

"We try not to mess with the schedule when we don't have to because it's easier on both parties," said Murphy. "As each party has moved on, it happened to work that way. We try not to interfere with each other."

With the U.S. Census Bureau counting nearly 4 million divorced parents in this country, many parents are facing the challenges of negotiating holiday custody schedules, battles over presents, new significant others and simply the pain of being apart.

Whether you have the children for Christmas or not this year, going through a separation or divorce means giving up the dream of a perfect Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa. With the fantasy of the perfect nuclear family obviously over, it can be lonely even with the kids -- but much worse without them. Facing the first holiday since the split, how do people ever survive this holiday season? And eventually even thrive?

Many like Murphy -- who credits his ex-wife with keeping the focus on their sons' well-being during the divorce -- have found a new way of parenting beyond divorce. Here are some things that work:

Keep it focused on the kids

You may not expect to have a happy holiday but wouldn't you like your kids to have a reasonably nice time? Even if you're right, do you want them remembering you put them in the middle of your battles? And no child wants to feel pressure to choose you over the other parent, whom she loves as much as she loves you.

Parents learn about the payoff later, when their grown children make their own choices about where they spend their holidays. In her book "We're Still Family," about adult children of divorce, psychologist Constance Ahrons learned that some adult children refused to visit either parent if the bickering continued. "The children were happiest where parents at least communicated," said Ahrons, also the author of "The Good Divorce." "They didn't want to get caught in the middle, and they wanted to be with both parents."

Sort out details in advance

Nail down the specifics about who gets which days around the winter holidays, including pickup times and locations. Sometimes the details are in your custody agreement, sometimes not. Put it all on e-mail or in writing and stick to the deal -- at least until it becomes routine. If you're a more casual, less detail-oriented parent, know that you'll score points with your more time-obsessed ex if you're on time at drop-off and pick-up. If you're the detail-oriented parent, plan for your always-late ex to be late as usual and you'll be less stressed. Do not fight about time or anything else with the children present.

"Put aside the warfare that so often accompanies divorce," said Steven Grissom, president of DivorceCare, a Christian-based divorce ministry with chapters around the world. "If that carries into a special time in the eyes of child, it makes the holiday experience excruciating."

Don't out-Santa each other

If you can speak civilly with your ex, talk about a general budget for presents, the number of presents and what Santa is getting your children. Santa knows which address to deliver the bike or the castle or the Wii, so don't screw up his planning by having one at each house (unless you both want one at each house). Don't outdo each other. Remember the spirit of the holidays and avoid trying to buy the children off with fabulous presents. And don't buy that violent video game for the specific purpose of angering your ex. The same goes for grandparents and new significant others. If they're interfering in your co-parenting plan, remind them they are not helping your child. At the same time, accept that parents may have different standards about what are acceptable gifts. If you are opposed to electronic games, you may need to accept they will exist at your ex's house.

Keep some traditions, within reason

Children love routine and ritual, so keep a few family traditions if you can. If you baked dozens of different types of cookies for everyone in your life, reduce the number and type of cookies during your annual baking party but keep your daughter's favorite snickerdoodles. If your family liked to take a trip into the woods in your ex's truck to cut down a tree, you may have to explain that your smaller car can't haul such a tree. "To the extent you can, talk with your children ahead of time and find out what is really important to them," Grissom said. "If that won't be possible, maybe you can create a new tradition."

Don't push too much togetherness

While some ex-spouses can sing carols around the Christmas tree or light the Hanukkah candles together with the kids and both sets of grandparents, that's not the reality for everyone. Some do not want to spend time with people who left them or whom they chose to leave. Some people fight every time they see each other. Do not force more togetherness than either of you can handle, and don't feel guilty about it. (That said, if you haven't broken up yet, wait until January. Don't be the Divorcing Grinch Who Stole Christmas.)

Don't lobby for your sweetheart

Bringing a new significant other to the family festivities can really throw the holidays off-balance for the family, Ahrons said. "One parent will say, 'Are you really going to bring her to this table?' or 'You can come without her.' Avoid if it's going to cause trouble, even if the new girlfriend is serious." Remember, it's about your kids, not you.

The exception to the rule

If your ex is currently a danger to himself or herself -- and/or others -- the safety of your children is more important than cooperating during the holidays. In fact, you're probably trying to break the pattern of your ex ruining holiday celebrations. Elizabeth Jones, who didn't want her real name used to protect her child, isn't letting her ex spend the holidays with their daughter for the first time in years. He only recently contacted Jones a couple of weeks ago after disappearing for months. Whenever he sobers up, she first lets him have supervised phone calls for a few weeks, eventually visits with her and their daughter at a neutral location such as a park, followed by visits at her California home. "If my kid weren't so thrilled every time she got to see him, I would be handling this differently," said Jones, who has sole custody. "It's a lot of emotional work for me to put aside my own feelings."

He's a jerk

If you're a saint and your ex is a sinner and won't take any of your thoughtful recommendations to heart, consider this notion: Safety aside, it's better for your child for you to let your ex "win" sometimes, even if you're right. Christmas can sometimes fall on December 27 or even January 6 (the Feast of the Three Kings). Hanukkah is eight nights of fun, so you don't need to control all eight nights. That doesn't mean you're a doormat. It means you're a good parent.

Your adult child will know you tried to make her life better by trying to compromise with your difficult ex (and yes, children know who was difficult).

"How you react to your ex-spouse is how you are teaching your child to handle conflict, stress and anger," said Alan Kazdin, a Yale University psychology professor and director of Yale's Parenting Center. "Giving up a Christmas here or there means you'll have your child long-term. You want your child to have an ally in you later in life. It's not only more rewarding; it's more worthwhile long term."

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