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When It’s the Other Parent’s Turn to Have the Kids on Christmas

When it’s the Other Parent’s Turn to Have the Kids on ChristmasA dear friend of mine just couldn’t stand it when it was her ex’s turn to have their girls on Christmas. She’d spend the whole day on the couch, wrapped in a blanket with the shades drawn, watching reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There was no talking her out of it. She couldn’t be persuaded to join in some holiday fun with my family. She felt staying put on the couch was a way to honor how important her girls were to her. She’d save her holiday comfort and joy for when they got back to her home and they could have their own Christmas together.

Many years later, I was part of a conversation with the now-grown girls. How were the years they spent at their dad’s house for them? “It was awful,” said one. “We knew Mom wanted us to have a good time. But we also knew she was sitting alone in the apartment just waiting for us to come back. Even though there were hours when I’d get caught up in what was going on, I could never fully enjoy Christmas at Dad’s because I was so worried about my mom.”

In spite of the fact that their mom sent them off with “Have a great time!” and a cheerful “Merry Christmas!”, the girls somehow knew it was anything but merry for Mom. Being loving kids, they felt torn.

It’s a story of unintended consequences. My friend didn’t want her kids to feel guilty that she was alone. She didn’t intend to put a cloud on her children’s holiday time with their dad. But kids are often more tuned in to parents than we give them credit for. Kids who travel between Mom’s house and Dad’s house don’t forget about their other parent any day. They especially don’t forget on holidays.

Assuming that the kids are safe and loved at both homes, it’s the parents’ job to make the two family situation work for the kids. That means reassuring the kids that they aren’t abandoning a parent to loneliness when they go off to their other parent’s home for holiday fun. That means giving the kids a strong message that it’s okay for them to enjoy their time with their other parent.

Ideas for being alone but not lonely:

  • Accept invitations from friends to join them for all or part of the day. No invitations came your way? People may not know you’re looking at an empty day unless you tell them. Don’t be shy about asking if you can join a good friend’s or relative’s family for part of the day. Or invite a friend over. No friends? That’s a bigger problem — one that won’t be solved this year. But you can make a New Year’s resolution to do something about that. Meanwhile, try one of the other ideas listed here.
  • Do something. Every community has holiday events to enjoy. Go to a concert or play or holiday movie. It will get you out of the house and lift your spirits.
  • Get creative. Rather than sit in the shadows wishing the kids were with you, create a surprise for them when they get back to you. A parent I know does little in the way of decorating until the kids leave. She spends Christmas day decorating the tree, wrapping presents, and making a special cake they only had at Christmas. She and her kids then have their Christmas on the day the kids got back to her house. Another divorced friend always does a little something to upgrade their room while the kids are gone. One year she painted a small bookcase to look like a parking garage for the boys’ collection of little cars. The year they were 10 and 11, she traded in their little-boy dinosaur bedspreads for more grown-up (to them) quilts with their favorite team’s logo and made them each a pillow to match.
  • Go shopping. One of my divorced friends used the years she was alone as a reason to save money. The kids didn’t return to her until the 27th. That meant she could do all her Christmas shopping for them on the 26th — when a lot of merchandise is half-price but the malls are mobbed. She used Christmas Day as a day to rest up and strategize where to get the best deals.
  • Take care of others. Helping others is the best antidote there is for loneliness. Serve food at the local soup kitchen. Distribute toys to needy kids. Do a shift or two at a shelter. Keep someone company at the local nursing home or senior center. You’ll have the company of other volunteers and you’ll feel good about the good you are doing.
  • Take care of yourself. Let’s face it: It’s hard to focus just on yourself when kids are around. Let this be a day that you sleep late, eat what you want when you want, and go where you want and do what you please.
  • Connect. Make arrangements ahead of time to connect — once — with the kids on Christmas with a phone call, Facebook chat or Skype. Establishing a specified time for connecting lets everyone relax about when you’ll call. Keep the conversation short, light and focused on the positive. Share something happy about your day and be genuinely interested in whatever they choose to talk about. Then tell them you love them and how glad you are that they have another parent who loves them too.

Being alone on Christmas doesn’t have to mean being lonely. Loneliness is, after all, a state of mind. Give yourself something to look forward to, reach out to others, find ways to express the meaning of the season and connect with those kids you love. You’ll feel better and you will give your children the gift of being able to enjoy their time with their other parent.

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When It’s the Other Parent’s Turn to Have the Kids on Christmas

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). When It’s the Other Parent’s Turn to Have the Kids on Christmas. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.