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Avoiding Christmas Custody Games

Curtis W. Harrison | December 7, 2015

Christmas is finally here again. For millions of Americans, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. But if you are in the middle of a divorce or child-custody modification, you may have discovered that reindeer aren’t the only ones who are playing games:

  1. Perhaps you just received an “Ex-text” informing you for the first time that he is taking the kids out-of-state for Christmas with his new girlfriend; or,
  2. Maybe it is your year to have the children for the holidays but the other parent has asked you to switch periods and has already told the little ones that they can all go snow skiing — but only *if* you allow them to go; or
  3. You have been trying to work out a temporary arrangement for this holiday season but you get the feeling the other side is dragging this out.

Examples like these have spoiled more than one Christmas dinner in recent years. If you find yourself without the kids this year because of your ex’s gamesmanship, how should you respond? What should you do?

Of course, you always have the typical litigation option: File a motion, set a hearing, and make the Grinch pay for stealing Christmas. But before you do that you might consider taking a step back and thinking for a moment about what your overall long-term goals are for your children.

Most parents genuinely want to protect their children from the worst aspects of divorce and post-divorce life. What even the most loving parents have trouble recognizing, however, is how quickly they allow themselves to get sucked into the “Crazy Cycle” with the other parent over one issue or another. Whether the issue is about taking the kids on a trip with the girlfriend or trying to manipulate a possession schedule, once the parents step onto the Crazy Cycle, they lose sight of the greater injury they are inflicting on their own children. The parents have just placed the children squarely at the epicenter of the conflict. Divorce and custody litigation, even with a great lawyer, usually makes bad situations like these worse, because litigation enables, and even encourages, adversarial conflict. Parents frequently don’t fully appreciate that fact until the damage has already been done.

Regardless of the outcome of the particular issue or the judicial punishments that follow, the kids wind up with the lumps of coal in their stockings. Even if the kids don’t actually witness the argument(s) between the two of you, they will be impacted — because you, the parents, have been impacted. Unfortunately for the kids, they will bear those emotional scars long after you have forgotten about the issue that started the conflict.

If your goal for the children really is to minimize their exposure to the harmful effects of divorce, consider being the first one to drop swords. That could mean that you have to make the tough call: Consciously choose to disengage. It’s not an easy choice by any means. It usually involves swallowing a fair amount of pride and setting aside the hurts that the other parent has caused you. It could also mean that you are the only one trying to take the high road.

This is not to say that you should simply roll over and play dead, of course. There is a big difference between disengaging from the conflict and disconnecting from your parental responsibilities. The key almost always comes down to communication. Instead of responding in-kind to your ex and risking getting sucked into the Crazy Cycle again, follow the principals of B.I.F.F.[1]: Be (1) Brief; (2) Informative; (3) Friendly; and (4) Firm.

For example, if, in response to your request to keep the kids in Plano until 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve instead of returning them at 6 p.m., your ex waxes on about how insensitive you are being for trying to cut short his or her own plans, don’t retaliate with a sarcastic reply. Just be B.I.F.F.: “Thanks for your reply. I’ll have the kids back you on schedule.”

This isn’t as easy as it might appear, especially when you consider that to be effective you might have to commit to modifying your own behavior permanently. Counseling, or guidance from a divorce lawyer, can help whether or not you are currently involved in litigation. There is no quick fix or magic pill, of course. It will be a process. Over time and possibly with the professional help of a counselor or communications coach, you can start developing a new, more effective, set of communication skills in dealing with your ex.

If you are already mired in family law litigation you might take some time to research the Collaborative Law method of resolving family conflict. Our Plano family law attorneys highly recommend this process. By design, this approach enables couples to communicate more effectively, both during the process, and afterward.

With time, patience, and practice, you and the other parent can learn to avoid the Crazy Cycle, stop playing games that hurt the children, and start truly co-parenting.

 

[1] A concept espoused by internationally-known speaker, Bill Eddy, of the High-Conflict Institute in Scottsdale, AZ.

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