How to Split Christmas Between Divorced Parents

woman and boy writing a letter
Two Healthy Homes | Co-Parenting Classes

by Dr. Erica Ellis

Founder of Two Healthy Homes. Licensed psychologist, best-selling author, and a leading global expert on co-parenting and child centered divorce.

With the holidays quickly approaching, you may be starting to think about the gifts you want to give your children. An iPhone 15? The new video game they have been begging you for? More Pokémon, Barbie, or monster trucks that your youngest have been wanting? 

The Best Gift Divorced Parents Can Give

I want to suggest an alternative gift idea that you might not have considered if you are divorced with children. The single greatest gift that you can give those children is the ability to spend time with both of their parents over the holiday, without any of the parenting conflicts that they have previously been exposed to and have come to expect. Being stuck in the middle of separated parents is one of the most painful effects of divorce on children, and they often feel that even more so during this time of year. Your divorce is not their fault, and they deserve to have a Christmas holiday that is not ruined by your parental battles.

Family law requires that divorced parents create a parenting plan that details living arrangements. These plans also typically specify how to split holidays between parents. Research shows that children do best when they spend quality time with both parents on a predictable and consistent schedule, and this pertains to the holidays as well. This of course assumes that both adults are capable of being safe and loving parents for their children. 

Options for Holiday Celebrations for Co-Parents

So how exactly do you help your kids cope with the stress of divorce and Christmas? The first step is to remember that your children need to be with both of their parents, and they should never be used as pawns in your battles with each other, especially over the holidays. These scheduling decisions need to be based on your children’s ages, their feelings, and what is in their best interest rather than on your desire to win a battle with, or taking something away from, your former spouse. There are many options for achieving that goal.

Alternating Holidays

Many parents agree to a plan where they alternate years spending Christmas eve and Christmas morning with the children.  Specifically, on even years one parent will have the children on Christmas eve and the other will have them on Christmas morning and they will do the opposite on odd years. This allows each parent to have quality time with the children for at least some part of the holiday. This schedule is very important for young children who want to share the magic of Christmas and Santa with both of their parents but is also what most older children hope for as well, even if they a reluctant to share that sentiment with you.

Alternating Years

An alternative plan is for children to spend the entire holiday with one parent on even years and do the same with their other parent on odd years. This plan clearly has its pros and cons. On the positive side, it gives each parent an opportunity to travel out of town with the children for the holiday every other year. However, it deprives the children the opportunity to celebrate any of the holiday with one of their parents. This is generally easier for older children to manage but can still be very difficult for some to handle. Their feelings must be carefully considered when exploring this as an option. Your dream vacation with your children can quickly become a nightmare if they are feeling angry and resentful that you took them away from their other parent. 

Celebrating Together

There is one other possibility that is only appropriate when divorced parents can spend time with each other peacefully and without conflict. In these amicable divorces, the parents and children can celebrate the holidays together and engage in many of the family rituals that they had prior to the separation. Never attempt to do this if there is any chance that your children will be exposed to tension or conflict between the two of you since that has the potential to be emotionally damaging to them.  

How to Ensure a Happy Holiday Season

Regardless of the plan that you create, it is essential that you explicitly give your children permission to enjoy their holiday celebration with their other parent. There are very subtle and explicit ways that parents do just the opposite. Here are a few real-life examples from my clinical practice:

  1. Telling your children that you will be miserable without them
  2. Telling your children that they only have one home and that they should be there with you for the entire holiday
  3. Telling your children that their other parent does not deserve to have them spend the holiday with them due to their bad behavior
  4. Telling your children that Santa will not come to their other home since it’s not their real home

While you may have these thoughts and feelings, it is not appropriate to share them with your children. It will put them in the horrible position of being stuck in the middle of their parents and knowing that whatever they do, one of their parents will not be happy. And it can easily ruin any chance of them having a truly merry Christmas. 

Your happiness is not your children’s responsibility, but their happiness is yours!

Gift Giving Advice for Divorced Parents

One other thing to consider is how to best deal with gift giving in a way that is in the best interest of your children. Do not turn it into a competition for who gives the most expensive or numerous presents. Do not try to take advantage of the other parent’s limited financial means by over-buying yourself. 

What would be better? Ideally, talk together with your former spouse to create a gift giving plan that best meets your children’s needs. Identify things that they want and need and split them between the two of you. Try to spend an equal amount of money and each get them a similar number of gifts. If one parent is financially unable to purchase gifts, the other parent can provide financial assistance so the children can get gifts at both homes (yes, really, I have seen that done within healthy co-parenting relationships where decisions are made in child-centered ways). 

Christmas can be a magical time. However, in divorced families there is a lot of potential for heightened conflict and tension. Following the suggestions detailed above will give you the greatest chance of creating the best possible Christmas for your children and subsequently for you as well. 


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