Dear Divorce Coach: These are my first holidays post-separation and I’m trying to figure out how to go about a plan with my ex for giving gifts to our young children. Do you have any tips you can share?

– Stressed Fa-la-la-la-la 

Dear Stressed,

I receive a lot of questions about how to successfully handle the holidays with your children when you’re divorced. And for the holidays where gifts are involved (and also birthdays), there’s an additional layer of complexity that many separated parents overlook until it’s too late. If you’re newly divorced and even when you’ve been divorced for several years, the holidays can often be stressful if you don’t put some time into pre-planning and communicating with your former partner about gifting expectations.

As parents, you both want to maintain the magical nature of the season, especially if your children are younger. Holidays are often some of our earliest memories and the foundation for many traditions we carry into adulthood.  I encourage you to keep in mind their significance to your children as you work through the logistics with your ex, because to accomplish this will require some coordination and compromise on both sides.

It’s important to note that if you have a former spouse who isn’t interested in cooperation, you may be forced to parallel parent even young children during the holidays. This isn’t ideal but this situation can and does exist. If this is true, remind yourself what you can control (what you do) and let go what you can’t (your former spouse).  However, I’ve included some ideas below if your co-parent is willing and able to cooperate for your child(ren).

Plan and Coordinate Your Holidays with Your Co-Parent

I encourage planning and coordination with your ex well in advance because it’s better to handle it before you are both swept up in the chaos of the holiday season. Couples tend to be more emotionally neutral and because they are a bit removed from the whirlwind, they’re able to have more positive and productive discussions. As you share what you’re thinking, try to find common ground with your ex and be respectful of their opinions too. Below I’ve outlined some tips as you start to build your plan:

Determine who is giving what and where Santa (if applicable) fits into all of it

As you sit down to plan, you will want to consider your approach to the actual gift-giving process. Are you going to give gifts together or separately, or maybe a bit of both? I have clients who have tried all options, but the key here is to work through this with your co-parent and arrive at a solution that works for your family.

If you have particularly young children who still believe in Santa, I recommend discussing this too.  Santa can actually help with this difficult transition to a separated household. He can provide some stability for your children through a familiar seasonal tradition even though this year is going to be different than prior ones. He should not be used as an excuse to over-gift; similar to what I review below, agree to a limit on how many gifts Santa will bring to either one house or both.

Avoid a gift-giving competition by setting a financial limit

This being your first holiday season in your new normal, you may feel like there is a lot at stake for you to make a “perfect” Christmas or Hanukkah. For some former couples this sentiment shows up in the gifts they purchase. Whether in quantity or quality, they go overboard; oftentimes, they don’t even realize what they’re doing. You’ve probably seen it in movies or heard anecdotes about “double the presents,” and this stereotype exists because enough divorced parents have behaved this way.

Do not create a present war because the gifts are not about you. As part of your plan, I recommend working with your ex to set a budget. Agree on the amount, and either purchase the gifts together (with one person picking out the gifts) or plan to gift separately. Either way, this approach sets clear boundaries similar to other ways you’re navigating co-parenting. It can also help parents who may not be on the same financial footing after the divorce.

Be flexible about the gifts you give

You may be inclined to have the gifts you give stay at your house and vice versa, but I recommend to my clients that they do not put conditions on their children’s presents. Rather, you should let your children lead here and take the gifts to whichever home they choose. It is their gift after all and reminding yourself of this keeps the holiday focused on them, which is critical.

Share what you’re planning to give your children in advance

Reviewing what you’re likely to purchase your kids with your co-parent has a couple of benefits. First, it avoids you unknowingly purchasing the same presents if you both are working from one wishlist. I’ve coached parents who are extremely escalated after discovering on Christmas Day that their co-parent bought the same gift; it’s upsetting for the parent and also for the child who may not understand the miscommunication. By discussing what you’re planning to get, you’re setting the limit I referenced above and avoiding disappointment on the holiday.

Collaborating on your gift list also gives you a place to voice concern if there is a gift you or your co-parent don’t want purchased because for example it’s too mature for your child’s age. Respect your co-parent’s opinion here, and avoid future conflict if either of you try to take the gift away. I know this part can be hard if you were particularly excited about the present; try taking a step away if you’re upset and resetting on what is important to / for your child. They will likely be happy with any number of gifts and perhaps in a few years this gift will resurface. Keeping the focus on your child and the spirit of the season can serve to mitigate the tension around gift-giving.

The holidays are about your children

I’ve covered a lot here, but I emphasize to my clients that planning ahead and open communication are the keys to successful holidays after a divorce. It may still be a tough time, but so many of the frustrations and escalations I see this time of year stem from co-parents lacking a documented plan and shared approach for the holidays. With these tools in place, I then remind them that the magic of this season is filling their children’s days with love and comfort. So while we focused a lot on gift-giving because of its complexities during this time of year, I hope that you also take some time to enjoy the non-material moments of the season. Create some new traditions, embrace old ones that you still cherish, and your family will end up happier and more fulfilled come January.

–  Cherie Morris