Birthdays, Holidays, and More: How Divorced Parents Can Avoid Visitation Fights

Learn some tips on how to prevent post-divorce conflicts over visitation with your kids, especially on birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions.

By , Attorney Cooley Law School
Updated 10/22/2021

Divorce can be particularly emotional and challenging when you have kids. If you're the noncustodial parent—meaning your children won't be living primarily with you—you'll have the pain of not being able to see them every day. That can be especially difficult on important occasions like birthdays and holidays.

But if you and your ex can cooperate and keep the kids' interests at heart, you can work around these challenges and find ways to deal with the most common visitation issues than can plague noncustodial parents.

The Importance of a Clear Visitation Schedule

Many custody and visitation disputes arise when the parenting schedule isn't clearly defined. If you and your child's other parent are separated, but there's no current court order for custody or visitation, take the time to spell out each parent's expectations and obligations. You'll also need to identify the days and times your children will spend with each parent. Put all the details into a written document and follow it to the letter. If something comes up, and you need to change the schedule, communicate with your ex in advance, so you can work out an alternative arrangement.

If you're filing for divorce, or just dealing with custody, you can ask the court for temporary custody orders while you're waiting for the final judgment.

How to Come Up With a Good Parenting Agreement

Custody cases don't have to be contentious. Parents who work together to create a parenting and visitation schedule often spend less time in court and less money on lawyers. And if you don't reach an agreement together, a judge will decide for you—which is not ideal.

When you're working out the details, make sure to consider each parent's work and social schedules, as well as your children's schedules for school and other regular activities. Remember to account for weekends, mid-week visitation, school breaks, holidays, and birthdays. Otherwise, you'll be heading back to court for clarity later. Once you present your arrangement to the court, the judge will sign it as it as long as it appears to be in your child's best interests.

If you're having trouble working out all these details with your spouse, a trained divorce and custody mediator can help. In fact, most states require parents to go to mediation if they haven't been able to agree on custody issues. (Learn more about the cost of divorce mediation, including free or low-cost mediation available through the courts.)

After you and your ex agree to a custody schedule (or a judge issues one for you), make sure you understand the terms. That way, if you have questions later—for example, about transportation or what time the children need to go home—you can simply go back and check the order.

Handling Birthdays and Holidays After Divorce

Divorced parents are often upset that they can't spend every holiday and birthday with their children. Some former couples choose to spend special occasions together, as a family, even after divorce. Regardless of their reasons for breaking up, most parents agree to put the children first—and that means setting aside the parents' personal grievances and emotions. If you and your ex can't seem to do this, here are some tips for handling birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions after your divorce or breakup.

Review Your Parenting Schedule Regularly

Divorce and custody cases can take a toll, and no court expects both parents to memorize the parenting time and custody agreement. That's why you have a copy of the court order. It's critical to spend some time reviewing the order, especially before important events, like a child's birthday. Over time, the schedule will become like second nature. But in the beginning, you can avoid a lot of headaches if you have a copy of the order and review it frequently.

Ask to Change the Parenting Schedule If Needed

A court order is legally binding, even when it's based on your agreement with the other parent. That means that you must follow the schedule, even if you want to do something different on a special occasion. But that doesn't mean you can't ask to change (or "modify") the order.

As children grow, their needs change. If the current arrangements for birthdays and holidays aren't working anymore, you should talk to the other parent and see what changes you can agree on. Here again, you can turn to a mediator if you can't resolve the issue on your own. Or you can ask the court to make the change for you. Either way, the changes should be formalized in a modified custody and visitation plan.

Be Flexible About Conflicting Schedules on Special Occasions

One of the best things you can do for your children during holidays and birthdays is to remain flexible with the other parent. When both parents are attentive and open-minded, conflict tends to dissipate before the children see it. For example, if you're supposed to pick up the children on Christmas Eve, but the other parent's family is hosting an annual holiday party, it may be best for the children if you can work together to arrange a better pick-up time and make up for any lost time at the end of the holiday.

Be sure not to schedule events during the other parent's visitation. Although it's wonderful to remain flexible, the court doesn't look highly on any parent purposely planning events to interfere with the other's time.

Consider Older Children's Wishes on Birthdays and Holidays

It's never a good idea to make children take sides in conflicts between their parents about custody and visitation. But as your children grow—and especially during the teenage years—they'll probably express an opinion about what they want to do and where they want to go for birthdays and holidays. Consider adjusting the schedule to take their wishes into account.

For example, say you're a noncustodial parent and the children are supposed to spend the first half of summer vacation with you, but your ex's family has scheduled a big reunion during that time. If your kids want to go and see their cousins, you might want to consider letting them do that. You and your ex can arrange make-up parenting time for a later date. By putting your children first, you'll allow them to enjoy the reunion. They'll also be less likely to resent you for keeping them away from it.

Try New Holiday and Birthday Traditions

Children from divorced families see a lot of disruption in their lives, but it doesn't have to be that way during holidays and birthdays. Consider having two holidays, one at each home. Children will feel special in both places, and it's often the best solution to ensure that they get to see extended family members on those days.

Many families also agree to split special occasions. For example, if the parents live relatively close to one another and can cooperate, one parent can spend the morning and early afternoon celebrating the child's birthday or a holiday, while the other parent celebrates with the child in the afternoon and evening. That way, the child can see both parents for this special day.

Stay Civil About Visitation Issues

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that children love both parents. Even though you may not get along with your ex, you should do your best to shield your kids from any conflicts between you. Be respectful and don't speak poorly in front of your kids about their other parents. Holidays and birthdays are a special and exciting time for children, so don't ruin that time by arguing during pick-up or drop-off.

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