Halloween has come and gone, and in a few short weeks, Thanksgiving will be here, with Christmas and winter holidays scooting right on in behind it.
Many children will be shuttled back and forth between homes for the holiday season, visiting with their non-custodial parents (the parent that they don’t live with most of the time). Parenting plans vary: some children will keep their usual weekend visitation schedule but spend Monday through the middle of Thanksgiving Day with one parent, then spend the end of Thanksgiving through Friday with their other parent. Other children will spend all of Thanksgiving with their non-custodial parent.
Similarly, there are quite a few different Christmas visitation schedules. In some counties, judges will not allow children to travel on Christmas Day, and one parent will not have the children until the day AFTER Christmas. In other counties, children split Christmas day with both of their parents. And in still other counties, children spend Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas day with the other parent. Generally, whatever the Thanksgiving and Christmas visitation schedule, it will alternate back and forth from year to year.
How do you know which visitation your child will have? You can always ask your child’s other parent, or check in your custody papers. If neither one of you are sure of what the plan is, you can contact the courthouse where your child custody case was handled, or your attorney’s office, and ask them for assistance in getting a new copy of the custodial papers.
The needs of the children should be the first consideration in any plan for holiday visitation. If you and your child’s other parent can come together to celebrate the holidays as one, it is a remarkable accomplishment, and certainly in your child’s best interest. But if you can’t manage the holidays together (and no one would blame you for that), you can try your very best to put your child first.
Regardless of what kind of visitation plan your child will have for the holidays, and whether you are the parent with primary custody or the parent with secondary custody, you will want your child’s holiday visits to be a success. It’s important that children have the best relationship possible with both of their parents, and even when it is difficult to do so, it helps your child to have your support and encouragement of their relationship with their other parent. The primary custodian (the parent who a child lives with most of the time), especially, plays an important roll in preparing children for holiday visits.
Communication is always the most important element in co-parenting. Of course, if communication were easy, many parents wouldn’t be working out their child’s summer schedule of visitation through the court system; nevertheless, if you put it in the framework that what you are doing is for your child, it can be a bit easier. Even if you and your child’s other parent have not gotten along or maintained positive communication in the past, it is never too late to start.
If you are the secondary parent, and your child will be spending more time in your home than usual during the holidays, reach out to your child’s primary custodian. Ask about your child’s typical schedule: what time your daughter goes to bed, what time your son wakes up, what kinds of bedtime routines they might have at home. During extended summer visitations, it’s easy to fall into a habit of letting your child stay up super late, but over the shorter Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks, getting kids out of their bedtime routine can mean grumpy moods, poor impulse control, and shorter tempers. Additionally, it can make for an awful return to school when your son won’t wake up on time for the bus!
If your children usually only spend the night on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s easy to skip story time, but if they’ll be with you for a week at a time, or more, then it’s an opportunity to interact with them in a way that’s emotionally and educationally fulfilling. Even if your child’s primary custodian doesn’t read stories to your child, you should consider starting this tradition: children whose parents read to them when they are not in school (or children who read to their parents, if they are old enough) are better readers in general. Board games and card games that involve numbers and counting are also a fantastic way to spend time with your children and keep their math skills sharp.
If your child will be traveling to a different county or state to visit their non-custodial parent for an extended (more than one week at a time) visit, prepare your child for the time apart. Discuss your child’s hopes and fears for the visit, and include your child’s other parent in the conversation. Discuss both parents’ expectations for telephone or video chat time with the child during their visitation. For children who can write, send paper, pens, envelopes, and stamps with your child so that she or he can write to you if they want to do so (but don’t push it, especially with older children), and send them mail that lets them know you are doing well without them, and that you hope they are having fun.
Be sure that you help your child pack clothing that is weather-appropriate, including some of your child’s most comfortable outfits. Many parents struggle with clothing more than any other issue: brand new clothes get lost, stained, or forgotten; children grow in big spurts and a secondary custodian may have a hard time anticipating what size is the right one; a parent who pays child support often struggles with the feeling that they are already spending “their fair share;” and the parent who receives child support often feels the same. Compromise: send some favorite outfits that are well-fitting and in good condition, and be prepared that when your child arrives for the winter holidays, you’ll need to make a shopping trip. Remember, especially in the south, winter temperatures can be really cold one day and positively spring-like the next
Children’s tastes, allergies, and sensitivities change frequently. If your child has food allergies or seasonal/environmental allergies, makes sure that the secondary custodian knows what allergies your child has developed and how to treat them. If your child has had a scary experience with a dog or pet, be sure their other parent is prepared for what may happen when Rex the Dog runs up to her. When it comes to likes and dislikes, though, encourage your child to keep an open mind to new foods, new activities, and new experiences during his or her winter visitation.
One of the most frustrating experiences that I face as a family law attorney is the dreaded topic of gift giving. I’ve had clients come to me upset because they shared with their child’s other parent the really awesome gift idea they came up with…only to have the other spouse swoop the gift up and purchase it for the child. Other times, I have had children tearful because they received wonderful presents at their non-custodial parent’s home, only to be told that the toy could not go home with the child. Parents, be good to each other. Be good for the sake of your child.
Whether or not your child’s holiday visitation is a memorable experience is up to you, the parents. Placing your child’s best interest first means communicating with his or her other parent, sharing expectations, and compromising.