Advice & Features Articles

Who Gets Custody of the Holidays?

Adding flexibility to holiday traditions can maintain joy for children of divorce


Many view their holiday traditions as “the way we’ve always done them,” but a divorce or separation can throw a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans. It is then that adjustments must be made.

Lon Loveless, Board Certified family attorney at Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson in Dallas, notes that holidays can bring on extra stress. “No matter how much animosity you have against your spouse or ex-spouse, remember it’s all about the kids. Don’t damage the children’s perception of their relationship with that parent,” he says. “The bottom line is that both parents made their children, and if they have a bad perception of one parent, they won’t feel good about themselves.”

Loveless says that arguing about family traditions and divorce in general is hardest on the children. “It’s a matter of working with the other parent to determine which holiday they want the kids to spend with them. Communicate far in advance and in an age-appropriate way,” he explains. “For example, if one parent gets Christmas, the other gets Thanksgiving.” He adds that it’s always good to share information about holiday trips and other events with the other parent, so kids don’t get caught in the crossfire.

While Texas Family Code specifically addresses Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the child’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring and summer breaks, and what is in the best interest of the children, Loveless says it can be adapted for other religions. “For a Jewish family, it might be a discussion about which night of Chanukah is spent with which parent.”

Loveless says talking through the situation with the kids in advance is the best way to minimize stress, and when necessary, counselors can help. Dean Beckloff, PhD, Licensed Professional Counselor of Beckloff Pediatric Behavioral Center in Dallas works with children and their parents to sort out holiday tradition issues. “I focus on the kids and what would be in their best interest,” he says. “For example, perhaps mom or dad can still come over for a while at Christmas. If that situation is too stressful, then they must divide up the holidays.” He cautions that if the divorce is bitter, parents should still try to keep traditions, but perhaps in separate homes to avoid fighting, which is not good for the children. At the same time, if parents can be together at holidays, they don’t want to give kids false hope that they will get back together.

Dr. Beckloff recommends that parents try to keep things as normal as possible: steady and stable, so there’s not a lot of rocking the boat. “I recommend they keep the traditions the same, especially at the beginning of a divorce,” he says. “It’s understandable that some things will change—for instance, dad’s not coming to the in-laws anymore.”

Traditions are important to maintain, says Dr. Beckloff, and most parents try to keep conflict low and not disrupt the holiday. “You want to have some joy on the holiday. If parents can be stable in their own attitudes, that’s the best for the kids,” he explains. “Holidays are about being with family, even in two separate homes. And through the years, there will be new traditions, as children grow up and create their own.”

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