Holiday Gift Giving Guidelines for Divorced Parents

Recently, a divorced parent asked me my opinion on how to go about giving holiday gifts to her children. This was her first holiday season since her divorce, and immediately I knew that she and her ex-spouse most likely did not utilize the divorce mediation process. 

The reason I say that is that mediation is a cooperative process in which parents come together and work together, with the help of a divorce mediator, to resolve potentially difficult issues, some which may revolve around the holidays. Some of the issues that are discussed during mediation include adjustments to parenting schedules during the holidays, who spends time with the kids and when, what activities the parents will continue to do together with the kids (if any), and how to handle holiday gift giving.

Like with all other important issues, the answer to how to go about giving holiday gifts depends on your specific circumstances, your unique family dynamics, and more specifically how engaged parents want to be with one another when it comes to giving gifts to their children. 

Here are some general guidelines to help newly divorced couples with gift giving during the holidays:

Communicate and Coordinate

Going into the holidays after a divorce, it is always best to speak with your ex-spouse about how gift giving will be handled. It is good to talk about gifts well ahead of time, because couples tend to be less emotional about it when they are not already in the middle of the holiday shopping season, and they have more time to discuss and plan what they want to do. Try to be on the same page with your ex as much as possible, so you are both ready to make this the most joyful season possible for your kids.

Decide Where Gifts are Coming From

One of the first things you need to work out is how to present the gifts to your children. Will they be given separately? Will they come from both of you jointly? Or maybe some of each. If you have young kids who still believe in Santa, this can be a big help with your holiday gift giving. If you buy some gifts jointly and present them as coming from Santa, this can give your kids a tradition that is familiar and remains constant, even though their parents are divorced. Some couples I work with also continue to spend time together as a family while their young children open gifts from Santa.

Establish a Budget

Some couples I work with set a budget and one parent is responsible for picking out joint gifts. Other parents want to establish separate gift giving, but they agree on limits so that one parent who may be at a financial disadvantage doesn’t feel like the other parent gets to buy all of the expensive gifts. Whichever way you decide to do it, it works best to have a set amount that you and your ex agree to spend on holiday gifts.

Don’t Make This a Competition

Picking up on the last point, never make this a competition with your ex over who can give the best and/or most expensive gift. Establishing a budget can help prevent holiday gift giving from devolving into a competition. But you should also proactively discuss this issue with your ex and agree on some “noncompete” guidelines.

Remove the Conditions

In addition to what will be given to your kids, there may also be a question of where the gifts will be kept and even how they will be used (such as when you are giving your kids cash, gift cards, or other gifts with some flexibility). Parents should be very flexible about this issue and not attach strings to the gifts they give. For example, sometimes it may be more practical for your child to keep and use the gift at the other parent’s house. As much as possible, try to do what is best for your kids, even if it may be a blow to the ego. And this brings me to my last point…

Focus on the Kids

When in doubt, keep this one rule in mind; the holidays are not about you, they are about the kids. As such, your priority should be giving them the best holiday you can under the circumstances. Put your feelings toward your ex aside and do not do anything to undermine them or create tension within the family especially during this time of the year. And even if your ex does not reciprocate, be the bigger person, take the high road, and do everything you can to set a positive tone within the family.