Creating a child custody plan that works for the holidays


Attorney Lanae Harden discusses best practices in Indiana in regards handling child custody and parenting time for the holidays.

The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines specifically set out the holiday schedule for divorced parents. However, most court orders provide that the holiday schedule shall be as agreed upon by the parties, and in the event of disagreement, the Guidelines control. For example, the custodial parent receives Thanksgiving on odd years with the non-custodial parent receiving Thanksgiving on even years. Often, parents voluntarily agree that instead of having the child entirely one year and not the next, that each parent will have the opportunity to see the child over the Thanksgiving holiday.

It can be very difficult for kids the first major holiday after a divorce. Parents should do their best to split up the holidays in a manner which will be as least disruptive as possible for the child. Unfortunately, sometimes this is not possible because both extended families may celebrate the particular holiday at the same time. Hopefully, grandparents will understand that they, too, need to be flexible so that arrangements can be made for the child to enjoy celebrations with each side of the family.

Sometimes, divorced parents may feel that they need to provide the perfect holiday for their child because their child can no longer celebrate holidays at the same time with both parents. However, there are no perfect holidays, and I’m sure there weren’t perfect holidays when the parents were still married. I think as long as you show unconditional love for your children and support them through this difficult time, your children will be able to enjoy the holidays. Besides that is the only thing you can really control.

At some point, the new traditions that you celebrate with your children as a single parent will become their traditions in the future, and the children will grow to love them if the emphasis is on family.

It’s very difficult to be up for the holidays for the parent who is suffering through the first holiday without their spouse. I’m sure that most people can’t understand what that feels like unless they, themselves, have gone through such a painful time. It is key for parents to maintain their own wellbeing and manage stress. Children often become more aware of what is going on with their parents during a divorce and observing a parent deteriorate under the stress of the situation will only increase their own worries. Hopefully, the parent can surround themselves with the love and support of their extended family during the holidays to help them get through such a difficult time.

No doubt it is difficult to deal with an ex-spouse and their families concerning splitting up holidays. You would hope that each extended family would behave reasonably; however, there are so many emotions tied up with a divorce that even extended families can behave unreasonably and be unwilling to change their traditional holiday schedules. They think they are doing a favor for the ex-spouse. I think the better way to look at it is that you are being flexible, not to benefit the ex-spouse, but to benefit the child. After all, it’s in the best interest of the child to spend the holidays with both sets of parents in a stress-free environment.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been called right before the start of the holiday season with a frantic client who’s ex-spouse is not cooperating about the holidays. If your settlement agreement or court order is clear, there should be no discussion but just implementation of the schedule. If your order is ambiguous, you should start dealing with the problem months in advance so you have an opportunity to get in front of the court prior to the holiday season. The best way to handle a potential problem about the holidays is as follows: 1) call your attorney well in advance; 2) have your attorney negotiate with opposing counsel to come up with a reasonable compromise; and 3) if the conflict cannot be resolved, your attorney can ask for a 15 minute hearing on the court’s calendar to resolve the issue, if a hearing is requested well in advance of the holidays. It is unreasonable to expect that the court, given their busy dockets, can schedule a hearing immediately before the holidays. However, sometimes it is just impossible given the timing to get in before court. In those instances, be the adult. Make sure the other side understands your position and that you will be addressing this matter with the courts after the holiday if you cannot get into court before the holiday. Therefore, with the threat of future litigation, the other spouse may back down.

I think it’s always a mistake to try to compete with the ex-spouse for the best present or holiday experience. I truly believe that a parent who shows unconditional love to his or her child and spends time with that child will be better served in the long run than trying to buy affection with an iPhone 5. The holidays can be a financial strain, even on married couples, and therefore, it will be an even bigger strain on a single parent. I think it’s perfectly understandable to talk with your children that they may not get as many gifts as they had in the past but reinforce that the holiday season is not about who gets the most or best gifts but to spend time with your family. Understand, that sometimes children will be disappointed. That happens when parents are married as well. Children need to learn how to adapt to different situations; even ones they may not like. It’s a valuable life lesson to be able to feel confident that you can adapt to circumstances whether you like them or not.

I’m sure it can be very tempting to be glad if your child does not wish to spend the holidays with the other parent. However, typically holidays are split between the parents and you do not want to be in violation of a court order. It is important to have a health, strong relationship with both parents. I can’t help but think that if you’re estranged from one parent, that will follow you the rest of your life, not only in selecting a future mate but also how you deal with your children. Therefore, I feel like it is critical for each parent to be positive about the other parent, at least in front of the children, and encourage that child to have a relationship with the other parent. Obviously, there are exceptions in cases where abuse is involved.

Divorcing couples are required, in most counties, to attend a class entitled Children Coping with Divorce. At that class, the parents are taught the importance of being supportive of the other parent to the child and keeping the child out of the middle of any disputes.

Of course, it is impossible for a single parent to always be upbeat in front of their child. At times, the child may worry about their parent. It would be best to be as positive as you can in front of your child. However, realistically that’s pretty much impossible. I think again there is a life lesson here. If your child notices that you are sad, it is perfectly acceptable to talk with that child that it is natural for you to be sad about the break-up of the family and that it’s okay to be upset. That’s how life is. Sometimes you go through rough patches. You might explain to your child that you will be fine, that this is just a temporary situation, and as long as they have each other, they will all get through this situation. The bond may even be stronger because of this struggle that the parents and children go through together. But, it shouldn’t be an us vs. them situation. I can’t underscore how important it is to let the child know that it is fine for that child to love the other parent and that just because the two of you were unable to make the marriage work doesn’t mean that the other parent isn’t a wonderful parent. Reinforce that the parents will work together to make the situation the least stressful for the child.

I think it’s vitally important for a divorced spouse to make sure they are around friends and family during the holidays when the children are with the other spouse. You should never stay alone no matter how bad you feel. You really need to force yourself to get up and spend your time with those who care about you most.

The above is for informational purposes only should not be considered legal advice.  Each case is unique and you should consult an attorney for advice regarding your particular situation.

Posted by Lanae Harden

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