Dear Divorce Coach: I’m struggling to figure out how to coparent and connect with my kids, 9 and 6, when they spend holidays with their dad. I feel isolated and it’s hard to spend a longer time away from them than usual. They also tell me it’s hard to be away from me for a long time. I’m dreading the upcoming holiday season. With them right around the corner, what should I do?

– Co-Parent Holiday Blues

Dear Co-Parent Holiday Blues,

The holidays can be a very difficult time of year for split families especially when you have young children like yours. You want to create the best holiday experience for your entire family, but our notion of that experience often centers around a family unit that is still intact and shared traditions that we repeat year after year. While recreating those treasured memories may seem unattainable, with some careful planning and communication, you can manage and even enjoy the holidays whether together or apart.

Plan Your Holidays Early and Thoroughly

It is essential that you start planning what the holidays will look like now. Coordinating your holiday approach well in advance will avoid last-minute disputes and surprises. Talk with your co-parent about what you’re thinking and why and give them some time and space to reply in kind.  The holidays can be stressful and weigh on even the friendliest of co-parent arrangements.

As you’ve noted, it can be very hard to be away from your child for an extended period of time. When parents are divorced, there will have to be some give and take involved, so both parents will have to make compromises and that may include time apart. To the extent you’re able and geography allows, it would be most ideal split the time equally between you and your ex. This approach allows for your kids to share the holiday experience with both of you.

If that’s not manageable because you live in a different state or farther, you can consider alternating years. This option allows for you to still enjoy Christmas or Hannukah with your kiddos every other year.  Because your kids have expressed concern with the length their time away, if you live close to your ex, consider giving the night before or after so the time apart is not as long. This could look like your children spending Christmas Eve with you and Christmas Day with your ex.

Once you come to an agreement, ensure it is documented. I often advise my clients to include a holiday section within their custody agreements.

Check in with your Children

Your kids are still young, so it may be asking too much of them at this age, but as they grow older, I recommend seeing what they would like to do. Including them as part of the process can also help them navigate their emotions and the change in what they may have been used to when you were still with your former partner. Ensure they understand the plan you’re working towards and the impact it will have on their routine for the upcoming months. Answer their questions and reassure them if they raise any worries. Talk to them several times as the holidays approach so they’re prepared and feel ready for what’s to come and how it may be different. Preparing them ahead of time will make them more comfortable when the holidays kick-off. It may take more than one holiday for them to adjust, but preparing them through communication and thoughtful planning should help make a positive impact in the long run.

What do your kids need when they aren’t with you?

Whether you spend a short time or a longer period of time away from your children, it’s important to consider what they may need when you are not with them. In my coaching practice, it is often the case that a parent who has the kids may need a few things from their co-parent:

  • Information;
  • Supplies;
  • Support for themselves or the child(ren)

Depending upon your parenting plan, and level of cooperation, it may be easy or really hard to do these things even for the benefit of your child(ren). Of course, it is terrific if you can communicate easily with your co-parent for the benefit of your child(ren) to facilitate their development and create emotional safety in both homes for them. So, first, figure out if you can do these things, even remotely, as needed. If it’s more difficult than you imagined it might be, a more parallel parenting approach, as discussed previously above, may be needed. But, in terms of what the child(ren) needs, it is crucial to function as a team in their eyes so they can know you “have their back” and have good boundaries for their behavior and development too.

The less tangible concept of how you manage without your children, the emotional component of coparenting, especially when the kids are far away for a holiday or otherwise, is really work for you to do on your own. You may notice, for example, that your kids, when reaching an age when they have their own electronic device are asking to talk to or see you frequently. The way you handle these requests when the child(ren) is with your co-parent matters for you and for them. It is developmentally reassuring to make sure their needs are met and to let them know they can rely on your co-parent for what they need. Mentioning when you will see them next and validating their feelings, “I understand it’s hard not to be together,” may also help. It gives them a sense that you hear them and understand the difficulty. You can also remind them of why they have shared it’s good to be where they are too to reinforce a positive experience. This can be hard when you miss your child(ren) but it is good for them and being child-centric means focusing upon this too.

What can I do to feel better about not being with my kids

In addition to focusing upon the child(ren), you can also manage what you need too. This is an important component of co-parenting, especially long distance, so that you can cope better as you interact with your child(ren) and co-parent too.

What does this look like for you? Are you busy working when the kids aren’t with you? If so, make sure you  schedule time to relax, if possible, too. Self-care and doing what’s good for you matters to the co-parenting system. When you feel good, and relaxed, you will function better as part of the co-parenting system which is really good for your kids. Consider these ideas for your self-care:

  • Exercise that you enjoy as it can give you a mindset for feeling better;
  • Mediation or mindfulness practice;
  • Fun activities, like shopping (window or otherwise) or game playing that you enjoy, with a friend or partner
  • Plan some relaxing afternoons for just you whether at home with a book or scheduling a spa appointment;
  • Reach out to extended family or friends and create some new traditions with them – go on a short hike, do a cookie exchange, have a movie night;
  • A hobby or volunteer opportunity that allows you think about something or someone other than yourself and your kids and co-parent;
  • Consider taking a trip of your own to unwind and refresh and take advantage of the activities the hotel or resorts schedules

If you struggle in this space, coaching support may help provide the right tools and framework, to build a plan for success for you too. In sum, you can think about these ideas and decide if you do these things with or without outside support:

  • Can I communicate in a neutral way with my co-parent to support my child(ren) even when I’m away from them?
  • Can I practice self-care and emotional regulation to cope with separation and long-distance?
  • If I need to build support, what plan do I have to do so?

It’s ok not to be ok and to ask for help. The main priority is to remain focused as you plan for co-parenting long distance and during holidays when you may be away from your child(ren) for a longer period of time. Doing so means taking care of your needs too and not making it harder for your child(ren) to cope too.

At the end of the day, holidays can still be a really difficult, stressful time. You and your family are creating a new normal and it’s natural to feel upset and overwhelmed. Set expectations with yourself; don’t pressure the holiday to be the best one ever. Even the most planned will run into some hiccups. Stay child-centric, full of self-care and compassion, and neutral in your communication with your co-parent and you will find, in my professional and personal experience, long distance co-parenting and parenting a bit easier when it occurs.

–  Cherie Morris