Handling Holidays Apart: How to Stay Connected and Celebrate in Your Own Way

When your child is with their other parent on a major holiday—like Christmas, Hannukah, New Year’s, or a birthday—it can feel like the holiday magic is deflated. We asked co-parents, in our monthly newsletter poll, how they connect with their children and how they manage to enjoy the holiday when apart. Here are nine ideas from real co-parents.

Mom and daughter making cookies.

How do you connect with your child in a special way when you’re apart on a holiday?

If your child is with their other parent during a holiday, but you still want to be a part of their holiday experience, here are some ways to help both you and your child feel connected during this time.

1. Prepare emotionally—both you and your child

“We emotionally prep ourselves before the event that we are gonna be a part of . . . and we share our thoughts, feelings and our fears and sadness too and also we check in about our anxiety too. And lots of hugs, love, cuddles.”

Mental preparation can make a big difference. Talk it through with your child, on an age-appropriate level, so they feel like they’re going to be ok. (Be careful not to share too many of your own fears and anxiety, as they might overwhelm your child.)

Well before the holiday, discuss your holiday plans with your co-parent—don’t wait till the last minute, suggests Katharine Rupp, a family law attorney. Explain what parts of the holiday matter most to you—maybe you treasure Christmas Eve but feel ok switching on Christmas day. It’s easier to prepare emotionally if you know how the holiday will pan out.

2. Communicate if you can (respectfully)

If you can communicate with your child directly, a live conversation is a wonderful way to connect—but choose your timing thoughtfully. One reader waits till the afternoon:

“I try to give the first part of the holiday to the other parent and/or wait for my son to contact me. If I haven't heard from him by the afternoon I'll reach out. That way he knows I'm thinking of him.”

It’s about the child’s experience, ultimately—and by giving them space to enjoy the day with their other parent, you’re minimizing their emotional burden of worrying about you on that day.

Another parent keeps it simple:

“By sending a loving text message, and letting them know that I hope [they’re] enjoying themselves.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has the option to connect with their child directly on the holiday. This makes the day much more difficult to deal with, so consider checking out some of the tips in the following section.

“I would typically call and talk to her however her [other parent] currently has me blocked.”

Problems during the season can drain your holiday spirit, but there are other ways to hype it up for yourself and your child. (If regular communication or holiday communication is in your parenting plan, and your co-parent won’t allow it, you may want to talk to your family law attorney.)

Dad and daughter blowing out birthday candles.

3. Celebrate like normal, just on a different day

“We celebrate on a different day as though it’s the actual holiday,” says one co-parent. To make this work, stick to all your usual traditions: Put out cookies for Santa, stay up till midnight, share a birthday cake.

“Celebrate the ‘holiday’ on a day when you are together. The magic of a holiday is not determined by when it falls on a calendar but instead when family and friends gather together and celebrate which can happen on any day.” We love this perspective!

Another parent pointed out that having extra time to prepare can help you arrange extra fun activities: “I would plan the child's return and have activities like a scavenger hunt for Christmas presents.”

4. Find creative ways to stay in each other’s thoughts

“I would send them off with a spray of perfume or special hair tie with their favourite teddy,” says one co-parent. You could also try other sensory reminders, like a picture or a snack.

Another co-parent says, “We use a red marker and draw a heart on the top our hands.” When you and your child see the heart, you can feel connected.

“If we hear a certain Christmas song we know each other like[s], we text a Christmas tree and a heart.” A quick message like this can be simple, beautiful way to know you’re thinking about each other.

How do you make the day festive for yourself when your kid isn't there to celebrate with you?

We know it’s a difficult season, even if you plan out different ways of celebrating with your child. As one parent shared, “It is tough and I miss him.”

Some of our readers explained that a holiday without their child is simply a sad day. Others shared a variety of ways to celebrate the day or find meaning in it.

1. Practice self-care and enjoy time with other family members and friends

If your child isn’t the only person in your life, turn to those other people so you don’t feel as lonely. You should take care of yourself for two reasons: (a) so that you can be present and recharged when your child gets home, and (b) because you’re a person, too, and you deserve care.

Here are some things that other co-parents do to enjoy holidays without their kids:

“Surround myself with family and friends.”

“I do self care like [a] spa or travel.”

“I make plans with myself, or my friends, or my family. I go to the movies or take myself out to dinner.”

“I go on a mini vacation… stay in a treehouse and take time to reflect on the previous year and plan for the next year.”

Family gathering for a birthday.

2. Find other ways to spend the time

Volunteering is a simple way to add more meaning to your personal time. “I serve my community at church and in DV shelters,” says one co-parent.

“Surround yourself with family, friends, nieces, and nephews,” suggests another co-parent. “Or, as an alternative, pick up extra shift at work to stay busy.”

You could take advantage of grownup traditions. As one co-parent describes,“[I] try to relax, watch holiday movies or shows that are annual traditions (for me) that are not age appropriate for my child yet.”

Or use the extra time to prepare something extra fun for your kids. “[I] plan a surprise for when my daughter comes home,” one parent explains.

Sometimes, enjoying the day seems like a lofty goal, but you can still focus your energy in healthy ways. “I'm not even going to try [to enjoy the day]. I'll use the time to recharge and work on our new home, while focusing my energy on making the season festive for the times she is home,” says one co-parent.

3. It’s ok to feel sad, and it’s ok if you don’t enjoy the day

“I don't [try to enjoy the day],” writes one co-parent. “And while I am sure I am not the only person to answer these questions this way, I hope [OurFamilyWizard] can appreciate an honest answer to a question like this for a very high conflict co-parenting relationship.”

At OurFamilyWizard, we appreciate these honest answers. Co-parenting can be incredibly difficult, emotionally and practically and mentally. We appreciate answers from co-parents looking for the bright side, and we appreciate answers from parents who are honest about the darker sides. Co-parenting is complex and shouldn’t be reduced to simple, throwaway platitudes. We care about your whole co-parenting experience, and we want to make it easier.

Here's how one mom processes those emotions:

“Well it's not perfect. I feel as a dedicated mom, I go through my reality, mourn, and maybe [shed] a few tears, but I quickly find myself and center myself and prepare myself for the event, and if it helps I remember how happy my son was when they left with their father and it gives me strength and focus, and I don't dwell on the guilt trip.”

4. Think about your mindset

“I try not to focus on what's missing, but more on what's present,” explains one parent. This kind of thinking helps the day feel less empty and more fulfilling.

Another parent took the opposite tack: “[I] focus on the next time I see them and the fun to come.”

Happy holidays to you and your children, together or apart

Holidays are just different when you’re not sharing them with your kids. But there are still ways to stay connected when you’re apart, and a variety of strategies for keeping yourself busy meanwhile (whether that means celebrating or distracting yourself).

Whatever you focus on, remember that you’ll be together again soon, and you can relish every minute of your belated holiday time together.