“Christmas is for families.” “Christmas is all about the children.”
How many times are those clichés used? In advertising, songs and books – we hear them all the time. For many families it’s true, but for those families where the parents have separated or divorced, making Christmas special for their children, or simply making arrangements to see them at all can be really difficult. Who gets the kids at Christmas is very big question.
Should separated parents spend Christmas together for the sake of the children?
The media often portrays separated parents, particularly celebrity parents, spending Christmas together and having a good time – Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow famously spent their first Christmas as a separated couple together with their children on a Caribbean island. Even though some separated parents can put their differences to one side at Christmas, and do that too, it definitely isn’t easy – and is it the best thing for the children?
One argument is that being together at Christmas can simply delay children’s acceptance of the fact that their parents have split up and raise their hopes that the split is temporary and that their parents will be getting back together. Children adapt well to change, as long as it is properly handled, but they do need time to mourn the family and Christmases they have lost and space to be sad.
More often than not, what we actually hear is that Christmas is simply a battleground for separated parents and can often be seen as a ‘point scoring’ opportunity – in which children frequently see themselves in the middle! One 17 year-old girl said on the website Voices in the Middle:
“If the child wants to see both parents, please don’t make the child feel guilty about it, as it can really be upsetting to the child if you say things like “I thought we were gonna have a nice day with the family but you’re going off to your mother’s”. This makes the child feel as if they are not allowed to see them even though you have allowed it. You are just guilt tripping them.”
How can I make arrangements for my children at Christmas?
Every child is different, and families work in different ways. Disorganised arrangements, uncertainty and parents who can’t talk to each other may affect one child much more than another, the oldest child is often the one trying to sort out the parents and the younger ones can revert to babyish behavior as one way of getting their parents to pay attention to them and not their arguments.
Planning in advance is the key to making your arrangements work. If you leave it until the last minute to make your plans for Christmas, it can be excruciating when you actually get round to it. On the website Mumsnet, one separated mum says about planning time with the children at Christmas:
“I can’t bare the conversation about where the children are going to be”.
Many parents feel that pain, and we understand that, but we can help reduce that pain here at Family Matters by helping you find a solution that will work for you and your family. It won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ solution, however. We will work with you to ensure that your own requirements can be met.
What do I need to think about when making plans with my ex for Christmas with our children?
When you should make plans for Christmas
Now is the time to start planning your Christmas schedule. Most children like to know what will happen – they like order.
Who you should talk to about Christmas time with the kids
Your ex, of course, and do this away from your children so that they don’t feel that they are the subject of any arguments that could ensue. You could also talk to extended family and friends who might be involved in your Christmas arrangements, or be hoping to spend some time with your children, such as grandparents. Don’t forget, they are as much a part of Christmas for your children as you are.
Your children. Older children will have an opinion as to where they want to spend Christmas. Listen to them and consider their thoughts and feelings but remember that it is your responsibility to find a plan that works for everyone. You should try not to put pressure on them to decide one way or another.
When you have made your plans, try to present them to your children together, so that they know that you have agreed them and they are not going to encounter arguments later. Don’t then complain about arrangements to your children before Christmas.
A professional such as a mediator if you cannot agree plans and need independent help and advice.
What you could discuss
Your diaries. It may be that one, or both of you, must work over the Christmas period and so you might want to plan your time with the children around that.
Communication. What plans can you make to talk to your children over the Christmas period on the days when you cannot be with them?
Presents. Try not to make Christmas a competition as to who buys the best presents. You could even share the cost of larger presents.
Logistics. You may live some distance away from each other and so certain arrangements, such as Christmas Day with one parent and Boxing Day with the other might not work.
Who the children will want to see. Don’t forget your children will most likely want to see half siblings, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, so don’t forget to include them in your plans. On the Familylives website, one mother said:
“I find it extremely difficult handling the upset that not spending Christmas Day together causes my daughter’s grandparents who want to see her. We’ve arranged to have Christmas earlier so we can all be together.”
The whole of the Christmas holiday period. Your children are more than likely going to have two or three weeks off school and you will need to make plans for the whole period – rather than just the main bank holidays. Try to keep it fair to your children and consider what they want!
Compromises. Accept that you are both going to have to make compromises. This could be about which days you spend with your children, or what time you have lunch to enable a plan for both of you to see them on Christmas Day to work. Remember, this is about making the best plan possible for your children.
Plan B. Try to agree what will happen if it proves impossible to stick to plan A!
What sort of plans can I make to spend time with my children at Christmas?
There is no formulae that will work for every family. It very much depends on your individual circumstances, such as where you work or live, but here we give some ideas as to what sort of arrangements might work for you.
Spending Christmas Day together
If you are on good enough terms, and you know your children will be comfortable with it, you could have Christmas dinner with your children, your ex, and possibly your new partners (and any other children that have become part of the family).
You could make a long-term plan tosplit the three days of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with the children spending until, say midday on Christmas day, with one of you and then the rest with the other parent. You could alternate this each year. Try to share the children’s time with each parent at Christmas and try to be fair to them. On Familylives, one father says:
“It gets me down that my ex-wife always has the children on Christmas Day and I have to wait for Boxing Day.”
Where the children spend the whole of the Christmas period with one parent one year and then with the other parent the next. This can work – especially if you live far apart, such as in different countries.
Share the whole Christmas holiday rather than just the traditional three days of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Consider splitting the two-week holiday into two and having one Christmas at the beginning and one at the end. Remember, children thrive on tradition, and if this were to become a tradition, it could be one that works well for years to come.
Celebrate on a different day
Of course, some countries celebrate Christmas on days other than 25thDecember. Portugal and Spain, for example, give presents and have their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. Many separated couples in the UK have taken up this tradition so that they can each share Christmas with their children.
If you have different traditions, such as one of you celebrating Thanksgiving or 4thJuly, for example, try to share the holiday periods according to what is important to you. This way your children will get used to a particular schedule, maintain their family traditions and benefit from both celebrations! Remember, traditions are very important to families.
Skype and Facetime
If it is important that your children see each parent on Christmas Day, but it proves impossible, speaking to them on Skype or Facetime, or even using a pre-recorded message can help.
What happens if I can’t agree with my ex about who gets the kids at Christmas?
If you simply can’t agree arrangements for Christmas, either parent can make an application to court and arrangements will be decided for you, but courts much prefer families to work out arrangements between themselves, whether directly or through mediation.
Here are Family Matters, we have helped many couples to come up with workable agreements on how they can best share their time with their children at Christmas. Mediation is an excellent route to working out your family arrangements at times such as this. You can openly discuss your own issues with an independent mediator who has lots of experience of dealing with family situations such as yours and can help you find a solution that will work best for your personal circumstances – always with the welfare of your children at the forefront of any arrangements. Of course, some cases will need a court intervention if there is high conflict or risk. But that only makes up 5% of families.
Start planning now though – don’t leave it until 22nd December. Contact us now to arrange a meeting in which we can help you to find the best solution for your own individual circumstances. If you tell us that you want to make arrangements for Christmas, we will make sure we prioritise your appointment. Find out more about mediation on our web pages.