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When your ex derails Xmas, bite your tongue and think of the kids Add to ...

When it comes to children of divorce, as hard as it may be, you don't want the holidays to be a time that they dread.

"Yeah, the holidays have a rich tradition with my family. It's when Mom and Dad argue over every possible thing and always put me in the middle so that I get so tense I get have my annual holiday anxiety rash."

We all want it to be a special time. But because the holidays are freighted with emotion, nostalgia and guilt, they can be tough to navigate. When parents are living in separate homes - often not getting along - conflicts severely dampen that festive spirit, and a vindictive spouse can quickly turn what is supposed to be a happy time into one of true unpleasantness and stress.

"Caroline, all I have to say is that the kids better be at my house on Christmas Day no later than 10 a.m. or you'll be hearing from my lawyer."

Think of it from the point of view of Caroline, the aggrieved ex-wife. "Ever since their father and I separated, I've always dreaded Christmas morning. Everybody has a fit because they don't want to leave my mother's. But it's nothing like the fit their father will throw if I get them to his house even a minute late. And he's just doing it to get back at me because he feels he got soaked in the divorce settlement."

What you don't want is to have ongoing turf battles with the kids caught in the middle. So what should you do to keep your kids free of the drama? Should Caroline comply with her ex-husband's wishes and leave their grandmother's early on Christmas morning?

"Why do we have to leave Grammy's so soon? It's not fair."

It might be tempting to say, "Because your father is a bastard who cares more about sticking it to me than about what is best for you and JJ." But keep the kids out of it. If you feel something absolutely needs to be changed, bring that up with your ex at a later, more neutral time. Holidays are not the time for those skirmishes - especially when it involves asking your children to take sides.

It's far better is to be simple and business-like. "I know you don't like to leave so early, but that's the arrangement."

You want to keep your responses to a minimum: no discussion, no laying of blame. Swallow your bile. Don't give in to that oh-so-strong urge to let the kids know what you really think about their father. That's where the children always lose.

And of course it's not just fathers who have exclusive rights to being difficult.

Let's say that with a separated couple, the divorce agreement clearly stipulates that the children are to go to their mother's every other Christmas Eve, and this is the year they are scheduled to spend with their father. But their mother does not give in so easily.

"Christa, make sure you tell your father that you don't want to miss seeing your cousins, and our special Christmas Eve with my most special people in the world with our special eggnog and my special super buttery Christmas cookies."

And so, Christa duly pleads her mother's case:

"Please Dad, I know it's not Mom's turn for Christmas Eve, but you have to let us. Please. Please." And Christa does this, not so much because she loves the super buttery cookies, but because she doesn't want to get on the wrong side of her mother.

Maybe the father holds firm - which is fine. But maybe he decides that he does not want to open up what always becomes a long and nasty argument with their mother. And so on this occasion concedes - which is also fine. The mother may win, but the children are spared a holiday battle.

"If that is what you really want."

"Thank you, Daddy, thank you."

While you might not think it's fair, sometimes, for your children's sake, you may need to make sacrifices.

Remember that your relationship with your kids is not about this one day. What really matters is the constancy and the quality of your time with them over their childhood. It's about your persistence in wanting to remain a significant part of their lives. In the long run, it is not the parent who best argues his or her case, but the one who chooses not to, who ends up looking the more caring in the eyes of their children.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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