It’s that time of year again, Christmas is approaching. Already the shops have Christmas cards on display, the major supermarkets have their Christmas TV adverts and Christmas offers abound. For many it’s a special time of year as families and friends get together and celebrate. But the run up to Christmas can be an emotive time of year for separated parents.
As a family mediator and divorce coach I have heard many parents say ‘I can’t possibly be without my children at Christmas, it just wouldn’t be the same … so they’re staying with me…’ or they’ll concede to the other parent times when they can see the children throughout the year but on condition they only have the children every Christmas.
It’s a difficult and stressful time when you are separating or have separated from your ex and Christmas can highlight the loneliness and loss of divorce. However many separated parents are focused on their emotional needs at Christmas rather than their children’s. Parents are fearful about being on their own but unaware of how difficult it is for their children to only see one parent.
The following are my tips to help parents focus on the needs of their children and make Christmas plans that work for everyone.
- What do the children want? Depending on the age of the children and the circumstances surrounding the separation, children usually want to see both their parents at Christmas. Children will miss the parent they are not with but may not tell the other parent. Some are worried about upsetting a parent or don’t wish to appear disloyal and some feel a responsibility to look after a parent, especially older children. Try to find out what your children would like rather than assume what is best for them.
- Consider alternating or sharing Christmas. Some parents manage to spend Christmas Day together for the ‘sake of the children’ but this isn’t always possible or the best thing to do, especially if being ‘together’ creates a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere. For older children alternating Christmas is often the best solution. For younger children, twelve months is far too long to wait to spend Christmas with the other parent. Therefore consider sharing Christmas. For example, with one parent on Christmas Eve to Christmas morning and the other parent from Christmas afternoon to Boxing Day morning and maybe swop over the following year.
- Don’t leave Christmas arrangements to the last minute. Allow plenty of time to negotiate this issue. Ideally this would need to be raised at least a couple of months in advance by say October. Let your ex-partner have the dates and times you would like. Respond promptly to requests from your ex, don’t leave them waiting for your reply wondering if you are ignoring them. If you can’t give a full reply, respond with an acknowledgement and that you’ll come back to them as soon as you can.
- Consult each other about presents. Consider letting the other parent know what you intend to buy or what the children want, to avoid duplication or unsuitable presents. While it’s good for children have special items in each home, it’s essential they feel able to take items between homes. This reinforces feelings of being at ‘home’ at either Mum’s or Dad’s place. Following separation financial constraints can make present buying difficult. Try to agree a budget on presents to save bitterness on both sides, and so your children don’t feel awkward if they’ve received an expensive gift from one parent they know will upset the other parent.
- Get help if you can’t reach agreement. If you are not able to agree matters between yourselves, consider getting help from a family mediator. A mediator will help you negotiate the arrangements and ensure you stay focused on the children’s needs. Christmas arrangements are often a stand-alone issue that parents bring to mediation even if other arrangements have been sorted.
What children want can be different to what their parents want at Christmas. Take a step back and reflect before you make plans and consider: is this really what the children want, do the arrangements meet their emotional needs?