November 20, 2018 Practice Management

Practicing Family Law with Civility: Holiday Co-Parent Civility

By Elise F. Buie

The holiday season is upon us. This time of family and togetherness can be stressful for many families, let alone recently divorced families. Working in a co-parenting relationship can easily double the stress, particularly in the first years of divorce. For many, deviations from and the elimination of shared family practices, and the creation of new traditions, elicits difficult feelings. Mixed emotions of sadness and regret can be overwhelming and compounded by the stress of having to “share” these special moments in the children’s lives. Because the added stress of the holiday season can lead to amplified conflict between co-parents, it is especially important that parents make a concerted effort at civility during this time.

Civility is defined as “a set of attitudes, behaviors, and skills that call upon us to respect others, to remain open-minded, and to engage in honest and constructive discourse” (civilitycenterforlaw.org). In the co-parenting context, choosing to engage in civility is the greatest gift co-parents can give their children.

Co-parents choosing to work together during this time can reduce the stress of special occasions and the holiday season. This makes the decision to practice civility one of the most important decisions this time of year. Why? Because children are more sensitive around the holidays, and the tone of holidays can set the family tone for the following year. Children’s holiday memories last a lifetime. Although no two divorced families are alike, some common civility skills can be applied in any situation to encourage an excellent holiday season for the children and the parents. Keep in mind, the choice to do what is best for the children (as opposed to what might feel justified to the adults) is the greatest act of civility.

How do co-parents practice civility during the holidays?

Civility: Time Together at the Holidays

Being civil within the context of time is important for co-parents. The holiday season is ripe with family traditions and special events with years of history. Using civility practices to navigate these traditions and events is a great starting point. It may mean spending time together for a tradition or family event as co-parents. Sometimes it means creating new traditions that incorporate a new family dynamic. Co-parents remaining open-minded and respectful when approaching this special time think of their children’s best interests first and foremost. Don’t make college-age children decide who to spend the holiday with; follow the parenting plan that has been in place!

One of the best opportunities to practice civility with a co-parent during the holidays is at shared family events. When co-parents find themselves at family events together, it is an opportunity to guarantee that the children have a strong and united sense of family. Parents will need to set the tone for the children and the extended family. An open and honest discussion ahead of time with the children will help with the children’s expectations and curtail any hopes of reconciliation because you are attending together. Additionally, consider speaking to extended family about the idea of civility and respecting the other parent’s presence at family gatherings. Children thrive when spending time with both parents and extended families, especially during the holidays, so every effort spent working on civility increases the benefits. The family Christmas dinner is not the time to discuss difficult issues—it’s the time to remember that you share a very important role as co-parents—you are the co-leaders of “Team Child.”

If the co-parents decide it is not possible to attend holiday events together, they are encouraged to use civility skills and make a conscious choice to adjust expectations, be flexible, and create a magical holiday season for the children.

Start New Traditions While Maintaining the Cherished Ones, If Possible

Sometimes, the old traditions are just not possible. Co-parents can use civility skills by discussing these issues ahead of the holidays. Make a list of what traditions will not be possible and what events might not work for joint attendance. If necessary, parents can ask the kids what their favorite traditions are while making it clear that some may change. Communicate with the other parent to attempt to keep the children’s most valued traditions. With that in mind, some adjustments might need to happen.

Again, being flexible and open-minded and communicating with each other will help the children feel supported and excited to add new traditions. Maybe celebrate a holiday on a non-traditional day—yay, more parties and more presents! Or if the parents decide that being together is not going to work, each parent can include the children in coming up with new rituals for each home. If starting a new tradition, make sure that your new magical holiday idea does not interfere with something the other parent is establishing.

Focus on Giving: Gift Giving and More

A focus on giving can mean many different things in the context of civility during the holiday season. One important consideration is gift giving. Maybe it means sharing the cost of a large gift that your child needs, such as a computer. Maybe it means taking into consideration the financial situations of both parties when planning gifts for the children. Importantly, however, it means communication regarding the process. Remaining open-minded and flexible in how gifts are given is important. Practicing civility entails encouraging equity between parents and understanding that even gifts to the children require communication and respect.

Another way to practice civility is by encouraging your child to buy a present and/or do something nice for the other parent and former extended family. Depending on the age of the child, help facilitate a kind note or a homemade gift for the other parent or grandparents. Help the children think about the likes and needs of the other parent in order to make a more thoughtful gift. Intentionally supporting the children’s relationship with the other parent allows the children to love the other parent and family freely. Hopefully, this act of civility will inspire the other parent to do the same.

Challenge Yourself to Participate in Acts of Kindness with Your Children

Public shaming and embarrassment imposed on a parent negatively affects children. The holidays are a great time to practice moving through anger and frustration and focus on the well-being of the children. Choose civility. It is good for our health and our children. Challenge yourself to work on steering your attitude and behavior to that of respect and flexibility. Choose to be kind to your co-parent to set an example for your children that you will do what is best for them, not what is best for you.

Being civil takes planning, maturity, and a focus on the best interest of the children. Parents must be willing to put forth effort to make this happen. When co-parents work together to enrich their children’s lives, everyone benefits. The lines of communication must always be open, and parents need to make the other parent feel welcome to share information about the children. What matters is that you find a way to get along. Thinking about civility and using those skills to create a supportive and happy holiday season for the children will only lead to a positive and healthy year ahead.

Remember, you agree on one thing: Team Child! Your actions and attitudes during this holiday season will form your children’s childhood holiday memories. Make the holidays magical—your children will deeply appreciate your efforts.

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Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC (elisebuiefamilylaw.com). Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, and guardian ad litem work. She strives to help clients resolve disputes outside of court action and also educate clients on effective, respectful co-parenting skills.