Christmas can be an immensely stressful time for those sharing the care of their children with a former partner, whatever the extent of contact that takes place. At Cambridge Family Law Practice we always see a number of clients return to us with contact problems at this time of year: agreements that are threatened not to be upheld, arrangements that cannot be agreed, or specific issues that have flared up like fireworks in the heat of the stressful festive season.
It may be difficult to believe for those in the throes of recurring disputes, but many non-traditional families do manage the Christmas period well. Time is a great moderator and those who have been living in separated families for a number of years often find that getting into a pattern where one parent has the Christmas period one year, and the other the next, can mean that the children are happy with a stable base for the main days and everyone can see an objective ‘fairness’ to the arrangements. Some separated parents dread the years that they are not with the children for Christmas; some look forward to a break, or relish the opportunity to do something completely different. These parents realise that children will take their cues from the behaviour of the adults they love, and will have a great Christmas so long as they feel that the adults accept the arrangements. An ability to see the bigger picture may be a hard-won skill for some separated parents, but one that pays dividends when working out Christmas arrangements year-on-year.
The family courts are even busier than normal in the run-up to Christmas and judges can quickly lose patience with parents whom they perceive are failing to be reasonable or, more particularly, to put their children first and consider things from their point of view. For those stuck in a dispute where there are no serious welfare issues, it may be easier, quicker and cheaper to get an appointment with a mediator or to arrange a four-way meeting with the other parent and his/her solicitor, than to expect to get an order from the court in time for 24 December. Of course, not all disputes are appropriate for dealing with out of court and alternative dispute resolution requires co-operation from both parents, but these non-court processes do tend to offer benefits such as improved communication between parents and the development of strategies to stop the same situation happening again.
As at other times of the year, we at CFLP tend to find that the key to effective co-parenting at Christmas is communication – something that we appreciate can be immensely difficult between separated parents, particularly in the early days. It’s now 21 December, and as such it may be too late to make major changes in parenting plans for this festive season, but it’s not too late to take a step back and think about what could be done differently next year to provide a better experience for everyone, particularly the children. You could take an hour or two after the dust has settled to think back over what worked well and what didn’t; what you might like to communicate to the other parent to reduce tension and stress next time, or (more challengingly) what changes you yourself could make to smooth the way. Make a note in your diary for August and plan to arrange a meeting or a mediation session with your co-parent to discuss it then, so there’s plenty of time to come to terms before the tinsel goes up. Difficult patterns don’t have to keep repeating, if you can work together to try to change them, and the children will benefit from more of your time and attention in the run up to next year’s festivities if arrangements are agreed in advance.
All of us at Cambridge Family Law Practice wish you and your children a happy and peaceful Christmas.