Holidays can be tough for parents who are separated. The emotions of the season become compounded by the emotions of the breakup; stress tends to snowball into an avalanche of conflict. If that happens, it ruins the magic of the season for everyone—especially the children.

Your best hope at avoiding negativity when co-parenting around the holidays is to plan, plan, plan. While there is no such thing as a one size fits all parenting plan, reasonable minds prevail when parents agree to make the holidays about their children.

If you’re newly separated, or thinking about separating, here are 10 tips that will keep you and your kids happier around the holidays.

Make the holiday schedule a crucial part of your parenting plan. Creating a parenting plan is the most important part of the separation process for parents, and the holiday schedule is a high-priority item in the parenting plan. In creating one, both parents should write down all the holidays and birthdays the family celebrates. Use a school calendar and a church calendar so you don’t forget anything.

Expect to share the holidays evenly. The courts recognize that holidays are meant to be shared between moms and dads. You and the other parent will come to an agreement about how you to divide up holiday time. Just like any part of a parenting plan, the best agreement is one that fits the unique schedules and circumstances of the parents.

Be real about limitations. Parents that are separating often get too concerned with “winning” the time share. As parents work through mediation and CCRC (Child Custody Recommending Counseling) it’s important to have a clear picture of what each parent’s schedule allows with respect to caring for the children. We challenge our clients to adopt a child-first mindset, and prepare to defend against any power plays if other side does not take the same approach.

Detailed orders reduce conflict. It’s the holidays and everyone is crunched for time and dealing with stress. Now is not the time to “wing it” with the other parent. That’s asking for a fight. Put more detail than you think you need into the holiday schedule so you have something to fall back on and keep parents on the same page.  

Alternate holidays every year. One of the most common timeshare arrangements involves parents trading holidays every year. If mom had the kids Christmas Eve this year, and dad gets Christmas Day, the following year, mom and dad switch it up. Do the same for all of the holidays you’ve acknowledged in the parenting plan.

Avoid splitting a holiday if you can. As a parent, I would rather celebrate New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving every other year with my children. Cutting a holiday in half is not enjoyable for your kids. Nobody wants to leave early from one family party to arrive late at another. Behavior changes, traffic, different family dynamics—it’s just not pleasant for anyone involved.

The date is just a title. Celebrate holidays with your children whenever you can, whatever your timeshare arrangement is this year. If that means celebrating a birthday a few days early, or opening presents on December 23, who cares? Christmas Day is only a title. Enjoy family time whenever you have it.

Be flexible, be cool.  Is it annoying when the other parent is late dropping off your children? Absolutely. You didn’t make a detailed plan for nothing. However, there is never a reason to send a barrage of angry texts, or start screaming upon their arrival. That will only cause your child anxiety and make you look bad in court. Traffic is bad around the holidays. Delays happen. Expect it and deal with it using polite communication: When can I expect you to be on your way? End of story.

Channel frustration into documentation. If one parent is consistently disrespectful of the agreed upon drop-off times, log it on a calendar kept in your home. Showing patterns of behavior is useful if you want to modify custody orders that are better in line with what the other parent can or cannot handle. Keep a journal to track digressions, and communicate with your ex with a co-parenting app. Save texts and phone calls for urgent situations.

Be real about celebrating with the other parent. It’s great if your children can celebrate holidays with both parents present. But understand that is a huge step, and one that the vast majority of people are not prepared to take right away. Be real with yourself and your emotions, and know that it’s OK if you’re not ready. Kids know when parents aren’t getting along, and they know when it’s forced. If that’s your scenario, it’s better to create two sets of new normal.

By Custody Queens attorneys Kristen Holstrom and Samantha McBride