7 Tips for Managing a ‘not-so-joyful’ Co-parenting Christmas

The Phantom Ex

Christmas and family celebrations seem to go hand in hand.

After all there is no end of Hallmark cards that spruik the importance of spending time with family and the idea of “perfect” or “idyllic” family celebrations all taking place on or around the 25 December. Often however, tagging closely behind this cosy little relationship between Christmas and family, is conflict and drama.

Whilst holidays can provide many opportunities to bond with relatives, near and far, Christmas can also emphasize familial relationships that are experiencing tension. Old rivalries, strained relationships and past or more recent arguments can often come to light. Expectations about how, when and where Christmas should be celebrated can contribute to perpetuating (or exacerbating) conflict during the festive season.

This can be particularly true for stepfamilies when there can be multiple family units all trying to voice their opinions and coordinate celebrations around parenting arrangements and agreements.

More households and family members to consider means more opportunities for conflict.

So how do you navigate a ‘not-so-joyful’ co-parenting Christmas? Besides moving cautiously through rough waters, here’s our best seven strategies to help you out:

1. Get in early

Without fail, Christmas is the same date in the same month every year. Where possible, identify and discuss any areas of concern with your child’s other parent(s) well before the festive season arrives. This allows for the issue to be resolved before holiday madness and panic sets in. Prior planning and preparation also reduces the chance that an underlying problem or recent disagreement will surface during Christmas celebrations.

Make sure that your family and your partner’s families are aware of the parenting arrangement in place well in advance so that they can, where possible, plan family celebrations to align with the times your kids and/or stepkids are in your care.

2. Be a positive ‘communicate-er’

The language and tone that you use when conversing with your children’s other parent and family can either assist or hinder communication and information exchange. Any comments or remarks, text messages or emails that contain sarcasm or insults – veiled or otherwise – is disrespectful and is not going to help your kids. It also won’t help you resolve the issue or reduce conflict. Clear, concise, open communication that is respectful can limit confusion and misunderstandings bringing the joy back into your holiday.

3. Be objective and void of emotion when negotiating

This one is often easier said than done – we know. Strong emotions or power imbalances are commonly experienced during co-parenting, stepfamily and family conflict around the holiday season. Generally, the holidays are a stressful time for all family types. In order to be able to communicate and reason effectively, as well as listen and take on board what the other side is asking orsaying, it is important that your judgement is not clouded with anger or resentment. If you need to bring an emotion into the conversation – choose joy. Joy that you share some wonderful kids and you have the ability to create some wonderful family memories for them – no matter when or how those occur this Christmas.

4. Be ‘respect-er’

Respect and joy go hand-in-hand. Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, beliefs and opinions. Agree to disagree when the issue cannot be resolved or you can’t find any common ground. Remember, letting go can be a pretty joyful experience. Others are not required to always agree with you on everything!

5. Be a ‘compromise-er’

Remember the objective is to resolve the conflict, solve the problem, not ‘win’ the argument. Paying attention, actively listening and trying to understand the other person’s point of view can greatly facilitate negotiation and assist in a resolution to the pressing issue.

6. Be a ‘solution-finder’

This will assist both sides to settle on a solution that is acceptable and comfortable for everyone involved. Whilst it is not crucial that everyone is happy about the solution, everyone should be able to live with it and implement and stick to it. Once the solution is determined, write it down so both households have a copy and stick to it!

7. Choose your timing

Think about the timing of any phone call, text messages or face-to-face chats. After copious amounts of egg nog has been consumed or in the evening after you or your Ex have come home from an office Christmas party or the last day of the school term when everyone is frazzled, are probably not the best times to strike up a conversation. Let’s face it, an exceptionally stressed or slightly intoxicated or tiddly person does not really have the capacity to make smart decisions or analyse information rationally. They also rend to have poor memory. Catching your co-parenting unaware or putting them on the spot is not going to bring any joy to your Christmas parenting arrangements!

Last but not least to put some joy into your co-parenting Christmas:

  • Try to enjoy the festive season without expectations. Unrealistic expectations lead to significant disappointment and a ‘not-so-joyful’ Christmas if your ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ celebration or holiday does not unfold.
  • Don’t hold grudges if things do not go your way or accordingly to plan.
  • Accept your children’s families as they are. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ family.
  • When problems arise, it is crucial to ask yourself, is this issue important and worth fighting over?
  • Shift your concentration towards your children’s experiences of Christmas. Enjoying Christmas through the eyes of children may help take your mind off your own issues and stress. It may also help you reconsider your perspective and help you reflect on what is important.
  • Remember, a certain level of conflict is a normal part of every relationship. Be prepared for some issues to arise but aim to utilise appropriate conflict resolution strategies that help diffuse the situation’ and minimise discord and estrangement – as well as allowing you to keep the joy in your Christmas holiday!

We’d love to hear any other tips you have for managing a ‘no-so-joyful’ co-parenting Christmas in the comments below.


  1. Love all your advice here! What we tried to do to avoid conflict was stick to the custody agreement. Mind you, this was not easy in the beginning. Their mom tried her best to get the kids on our holidays. She claimed it made sense because she had more family in the area than my husband. To me, that made no difference. Just because my husband had little family nearby, he was not allowed to spend holidays with his children? What? In any case, we took the advice you mentioned above and kept our emotions out of it. We stayed calm and pointed out that in the agreement, it was our day. So we took the kids. They didn’t like this at first any more than their mom did. They wanted to be with their cousins. However, over time they developed close relationships with my brother’s kids (who they now refer to as their cousins) and with their dad’s brother’s two kids who live near us. Once that happened, their mom knew she wasn’t going to get her way any longer, and, luckily, stopped fighting us on every holiday. This goes back many years as the kids are almost grown now. These days, they basically go where they want and we are all okay with that… 🙂

  2. Thanks!. Sometimes sticking to the formal agreement is definitely the way to go. Pleased to hear a stepfamily story where things have worked out and you and your husband managed to navigate those early years with success.

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