Managing Holidays in Separation and Divorce

December 6, 2021

Dear Divorce Coach: 

I’m am very stressed about the upcoming holidays with my ex and our young children. I feel like they’re going to be a mess and I’m just going to spend it fighting with him about everything. What can I do so that I can actually enjoy the season the way I used to?

– Miserable Holiday Mom


Dear Miserable Holiday Mom,

Perhaps you’ve just separated. Or, maybe you’re in the middle of a difficult divorce. It’s even possible you’ve been divorced for a while but are still negotiating holidays with a difficult ex-spouse. In any of these scenarios, you are not alone in that you’re anticipating the upcoming season with dread instead of joy.

How can you navigate the season for you, and your children, without despair? As I tell my clients often, it’s simple but not easy. However, with a few shifts in perspective, and good planning, it is possible to create a holiday season that works for you and your children. It is necessary to plan and it is important to prioritize yourself too.

Change your perspective and define what you want this holiday season

I’ve advised the majority of my clients through this difficult time of the year, supporting those navigating separation and divorce during the holidays. Many have had diverse backgrounds and experiences in separation and divorce but all had a common underlying concern: they anticipated difficulty for themselves and their children during a season that was “supposed to be” full of joy. They couldn’t imagine how they could make the season what it “used to be” for themselves and their families. It was, in fact, way too much pressure.

Rather than allowing yourself to be “stuck in the story”, I recommend focusing on what you want from the season. Notice I don’t emphasize recalling “how it used to be,” rather I encourage clients to define “what it could be.” With this subtle shift in perspective, I want them to own the outcome they’re looking for. When I ask them to share their thoughts, I often hear lots of comments about simplifying and not trying to do everything which is a great way to limit the pressure and subsequent feelings of frustration or disappointment. Instead, select a few key meaningful ways you can engage with your children and do not allow the demands of others to intrude upon these plans. Really, this approach is not so different from the intentions many of us had before separation and divorce; you just may have done these subconsciously. The difference now, it seems, is that you have to account for and plan time with the other parent, and their family, and you may need to spend time figuring out how to make the moments you have with your kids fulfilling.

Planning and setting intentions can limit escalated emotions during the holidays

Below are a few tools to lower the heightened feelings around what may occur:

  • Start planning now: reach out, by email, to the other parent unless there is already a specific plan in place so you can anticipate when you and they will have the kids.
  • Start letting go now: don’t try to tell the other parent how to spend their holiday time with the kids; instead, focus on what you want to do with them.
  • Reach out to family and friends who may also want time with you and children and decide, with your values and priorities, what makes sense. People learn what we will tolerate based on how we teach them to treat us–even if you haven’t set good boundaries historically, you can do so now. Ask for what you need and discard what you don’t.
  • Expect sadness for what has been lost but also allow for new feelings of anticipation around what may occur too. Creating a new tradition can be one way both you and your children get excited.
  • Set realistic expectations for the season and remind yourself of them throughout, and recognize that there are going to be bumps in your plans, no matter how well thought out they are. Give yourself some grace and do your best to go with the flow to avoid stress on yourself and your children.
  • Understand yourself: If you need to be busy when you don’t have the kids, make plans; if you prefer time alone and some peace, plan for that as well. Self-care is critical, especially during this season where there are routine changes, emotional triggers, and general holiday stressors.
  • Plan for the support you need: Often, a divorce coach can remind you, gently, of the values you have set out together and bring you back to acting in line with your priorities. If you need help going neutral with an ex, get it. Avoid texting as it can create too much temptation to say things you may later regret. Instead, craft neutral email about plans and leave out the rest.

Spend some time with this alternative perspective, and see what new insights you might do to support yourself and your children for the holidays. Most importantly, recognize you cannot return to what was and remember, after all, that it may not have been as perfectly satisfying as you first believed. It is easy to romanticize the past which can cloud the unknown future if you let it which is why perspective and driving towards positive activities can actually create better experiences than your past ones.

By anticipating change, I’ve had clients share that they were able to create the space and time to try new ideas and build in downtime that provided focus for their self-care. Now, along with the loss of separation and divorce, was the real possibility of positive change too. The holidays could become something they had perhaps never envisioned but now could at least consider because they defined it: they created a plan for themselves and their children, together and separately.

Remember, you are a part of your holidays, so carve out time take care of yourself

After we spend time discussing this approach, I ask my clients to share what they might take away and utilize in their holiday planning; I’ve shared a couple of their thoughts below:

  • The most common response I hear is they’ve thought about themselves and what they want, sometimes for the first time. And many acknowledge that in years past so much of their energy went to making the holidays special for everyone else that they lost sight of themselves in the chaos.
  • They wanted to prioritize the needs of their children, absolutely, but they also wanted to remind themselves of their value too. Many are not certain how that looked, yet, but they were determined to find out.

I encourage my clients to “check-in” with me as they make their plans, and communicate with family and ex-spouses too. I support them as they try to change their perspective, build a plan, and take care of their needs. You may stumble and find it really hard, but I continue to see success when intentional focus is applied to how you plan the holidays (or really your day to day). With a plan in place, even as new challenges arise, you will start to see the promise of new possibilities arising and the weight of your divorce will lift.