Co-parenting at Christmas can bring up a lot of difficult feelings, particularly if the separation was recent, unexpected, or acrimonious.
We know that children benefit from relationships with multiple attachment figures. These relationships play a crucial role in shaping our children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Our children need to feel secure in their important relationships; to grow up with the deep understanding that, when they need you, you will be there for them. That even when you are apart, you remain connected. This is particularly true when co-parenting, because co-parenting involves many separations and reunions. Decades of research indicates that securely attached children are socially competent, cooperative and empathic with peers; have higher self-esteem, and a more positive view of themselves, others, and the world.
So, what can we do as co-parents to nurture relational security for our children, and how can we navigate the emotionally charged holiday season? These are my 3 top tips!
You can communicate verbally, or in writing, but keep your child at the center. Focus on the well-being of your child when discussing a plan for the holiday season. Consideration should be given to your child’s age, developmental stage, their temperament, and whether or not there are siblings to consider. Children benefit from cooperative co-parental relationships; when it comes to parenting your child, you both need to strive to be a team.
Support successful transitions.
When separating from our littles I love this 4 step model:
1. Preparation: tell your little one the story of what will be happening.
“I’m so excited because this year we are spending Christmas Eve together and it’s going to be so special! When you wake up on Christmas morning, Daddy will come and collect you and you will go to his house for Christmas day. You will sleep in your bedroom at Daddy’s house.”
2. Orient your child to the next point of connection
“When you wake up the next morning, mummy will come and get you!”
3. Calm and conflict-free goodbye:
A co-operative relationship between separated parents is associated with positive developmental outcomes for children. Children can be adversely affected by conflicted co-parental relationships. So, keep conflict away from the child, and particularly away from transitions which can already be unsettling for little ones.
“I love you! Have a lovely Christmas Day with Daddy!”
4. Connection while apart.
Little ones need to know that you continue to exist when they are apart from you, and that you “keep them in mind” when separated. It can be helpful during child-focused communication with the co-parent to agree on contact during the separation. Perhaps a video call before mealtime could be agreed?
Similarly, children will want to talk about their other parent while separated from them. Make a commitment to keep these conversations positive and conflict free for the sake of the child.
Family rituals can make any day feel intimate and special which can spread the joy beyond the key dates on the calendar. If you cannot be with your child on a particularly meaningful day, create new family traditions on other dates. Make a custom ornament to pull out each year, make holiday crafts or bake holiday cookies to deliver to elderly neighbours, go for a walk to admire all the festive lights in your neighbourhood. Find ways to make the season feel special, even if it doesn’t look quite how you had pictured it would.
Remember that infant-parent attachments are crucial. Parental relationships with your child nurtures their sense of self and forms the foundations of your child’s ability to trust others. Just like your child, you and your co-parent require compassion, empathy, patience and open communication for success this holiday season.
Dr Kimberley Bennett
PsyD in Child, Adolescent and Educational Psychology
I support parents to feel confident in their decision to parent from a place of connection, to nurture their relationship with their child, to nourish their child’s neurodevelopment while navigating the challenges of infancy and early childhood.
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