Split families should stay open and flexible 

Holidays often demand compromise and tolerance—two good lessons of the season. Whether you are divorced and figuring out how to share holidays, or splitting the season between different relatives and in-laws, likely you will come up against situations that require you to compromise on a desired tradition, holiday activity, or even your own values when it comes to gift-giving or religious ceremonies. Add in that you have to get the kids on board with it all and the holidays might start feeling more stressful than merry. Going into it with an open mind and knowing you’ll have to be flexible, helps—as does holding on to a few, meaningful traditions of your own.

Take a practical approach on sharing the holidays

If you’ve divorced, you likely have rules outside of your control that determine your holiday schedule. This may feel hard, but do your best to accept them. Doing so will help your kids do the same—and lessen the tug-a-war they might be feeling.

As matter-of-factly as you can, make sure your kids are aware of the ‘have to’s’ like court-ordered visitations, relative visits and school events. Then, discuss the flexible time in between. Offer them choices during this free time. Letting your kids lead on a few, choice activities helps even out the obligations and make the holidays happier for them. Remember that a younger child’s ability to sort through endless choices is limited, so help by giving simple choices, as in: ‘We have a few days before you have to go to your dads (or your grandparents), would you like to go see the light displays or have a cookie decorating party with friends?

Keep plans flexible and don’t get hung up on the day

If you are sharing your kids with an ex, try not to focus on the date on the calendar. The same holds true if your relatives determine how you spend the actual day, and you really want to do something on your own with your family or friends. Remember, you can have a celebration the next day or the next week. Kids don’t care what date a holiday falls on as long as they get the goods—eating a big meal, seeing cousins, spending time with you, and receiving and giving gifts.

If you can, avoid splitting the specific day. Transitions can be difficult and in a heightened emotional state, they can be worse. Plus, splitting the day means travel and logistics, which takes the focus off relaxing. While flexibility is key to making things run smoothly, oftentimes younger kids are relieved when someone else makes the big decisions, like going to which house, when.

To ease your kids’ stress about going back and forth between houses over the holidays, give them a sense of control with mini choices—like which pair of pajamas they want to pack for their grandparents or their dad’s house. Also, keep your own comments in check about resenting the time apart or having to travel.

Keep the focus on connecting

Holidays might mean sharing your kids with grandparents, relatives or your ex, so make the most of the time you have with them by being fully present and engaged. Don’t worry about creating the perfect holiday meal or event. Instead, keep it simple, and focus on connecting with your kids and your family and friends.

“Simply spend time together. It doesn’t have to be a big event. If you have teens, they may act like material things like gifts matter most, but studies show that it’s really connecting to family and friends that they value,” says Kristin Glenn, parent educator with The Women’s Clinic of Northern Colorado.

Handle conflicts with grace

If you and your ex have points of contention, now more than ever it’s important to set them down and cooperate. Of course this is easier said than done, especially if the divorce was recent, extremely painful or one-sided. Maybe your ex hurt you, but divorce is about two adults and as much as possible, the kids need to be left out of it. They can’t be asked to be go-betweens, or endure spats, especially during the holidays. It helps to stay conscious of putting your kids first—and always thinking what’s best for them.

If you happen to get into a heated discussion during holiday planning, or at the dinner table with relatives, take a break. Step outside to call a supportive friend, or take a quick walk around the block. Then, go back inside and own your part. Regardless of who was right or wrong, it’s important that your kids see you resolve conflict.

“It’s inspiring to see parents admit their own mistakes and allow their kids to make mistakes. That’s unconditional love,” Glenn says.

While it is often the exception and not the norm, having an ex over for a holiday meal is usually positive. To avoid giving your kids the wrong impression, just tell them up front: ‘Dad and I are divorced. It was the right decision for us, but I know it is hurtful to you. He will be here for the day and we are going to enjoy spending time together.’ It’s healing for your kids to see you and your ex getting along and laughing together.

“It can help to remember why you picked each other in the first place and keep humor in your relationship,” Glenn says.

Keep some old traditions, create some new

As a couple, you each bring your own traditions and religious beliefs into a marriage. As you grow your family, you’ll likely establish a hybrid of these traditions—which takes compromise. Be thoughtful about what traditions hold the most meaning to each of you, and incorporate them in your own family. Then, create some new traditions of your own.

It’s a similar process when you get divorced. If you always went sledding as a family on New Year’s Day, do it, but this time with friends. Also, continue to display those special seasonal knick-knacks and decorations that say Hanukkah or Christmas—and if you are divorced, give some to your ex to display as well. Having these items at both homes will bring comfort.

Allow the grandparents to also share their traditions with your kids. If you don’t hold the same religious views, don’t worry about them overly influencing your kids with their beliefs. Studies show parents remain the main influence in their kids’ lives when it comes to values and beliefs. Kids are savvy enough to separate your beliefs from those of your parents or inlaws.

As your kids grow older, be respectful of their own budding views on religion and spirituality. Try not to force your beliefs on them, or require they practice all of your religious traditions. Of course, if it’s important to you to attend midnight mass as part of your holiday tradition, you should still require your kids to come along. But be open if they don’t want to attend every church event with you, or skip some services into the teen years. It’s natural for older kids to question religious beliefs and decide if they still fit.

“Today’s youth seem freer to find meaning and spirituality in their own ways. They are not so confined by the boundaries of their parents’ or grandparents’ sense of religion or spirituality. It’s important for kids to be given permission to find spirituality in their own way,” Glenn concludes.

By staying open and flexible this holiday season, you’ll keep the focus on joy and meaning.