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Coping with a separate Christmas

This week we bring you a guest blog by our friend Suzy Ashworth, a local family mediator, coach and counsellor.

Christmas – time of joy, peace and love, filled with the sounds of choirs of angels and the laughter of happy children? Or a dreaded season of stress, grief, and hard work?

Some of us will have a festive time closer to one end of the scale than the other, but for most of us there will be elements of both. Christmas is, after all, just an extreme version of real life. But for those facing their first Christmas as a separated family, or where issues relating to a separation or divorce are not yet fully resolved, there can be an extra element of pressure. Here are five tips that might ease the passage of festive time.

  1. Work out children’s arrangements early.

The irony of putting this into a blog the week most schools break up for Christmas is not lost on me, but the point is an important one. The earlier everyone knows and accepts the Christmas schedule, the better – it gives both parents and the children the chance to make appropriate plans for the times that the children are with them, and the times when they’re not.

It’s often the case that time with the wider family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – gets squeezed when children start to live in more than one house. This can mean that time at Christmas is particularly pressured for the children. With so many competing interests, it’s important to make sure that they have enough time just to be quiet and relax in their own space, and get themselves prepared for the new year and the new school term. Talking to relatives and friends, and explaining the situation may help them to understand why you’re not keen to spend that extra night with Auntie Dot.

A good rule of thumb for those sharing the care of the children with another parent from whom they live apart, is that whatever arrangements you make this year, reverse them the next year. This allows planning, consistency for the children, and objective fairness. It won’t work for everyone, depending on your arrangements, but it’s not bad as a default.

  1. Don’t compete on presents.

It’s so easy to be sucked in to an unhappy game of one-upmanship under the Christmas tree(s) with the children’s other parent. Trust me, the kids tend to see through it. We find that the effect on them tends to be a short period of giddy excitement followed by hollow emptiness. It’s a cliché, but particularly when children have experienced a period of family change, what they really want is your love, time and attention – whether they know that or not (they are kids after all).

Particularly when money is tight, if it’s possible for you to have a discussion with the children’s other parent and agree a budget for presents for the kids in advance, that can be helpful. Having the issue settled – or at least knowing where you are – means you have less uncertainty and worry to carry through the run-up to the day.

  1. Make new traditions.

One of the most difficult things about Christmas is how hard it can feel to adapt to the loss of traditions when your children live apart from you some of the time. All families have Christmas traditions, some going back generations. The fact that doors may remain unopened on the heirloom advent calendar because your child is staying with their other parent that night, or the new Christmas pyjamas will remain unworn until Boxing Day this year, can become a trigger for dreadful sadness.

When one is sad, it is easy to get trapped in fixed thinking: to focus on the ‘can’t’. If you can change your thought patterns instead to ‘how can I?’, you might find that you come up with some solutions that are acceptable, if not ideal. Try to keep an open mind about what might work, and try things out. Ask your children what’s important to them about Christmas and work together with them to ensure that their favourite traditions, and yours, can still have a place in your celebrations.

  1. Allow yourself time to grieve and process in a way that is constructive for you.

It’s entirely understandable that Christmas would bring strong emotions to the surface: a time imbued with family is the hardest for those whose concept of family has recently been altered, or shaken. It’s essential to try to develop self-awareness so that you know when things are getting too much, and pre-empt difficulties before they bubble over by calling a friend to let off steam, going out for some air and exercise, or doing whatever else works for you.

It’s OK not to be OK from time to time, and the effort of putting on a brave face while one is grieving for a lost way of life can be exhausting. In order for the time of year not to become overwhelming, you may need to give yourself permission to feel the feelings every now and then. Promising yourself a treat once you’ve got through Christmas gives you something to look forward to: it doesn’t have to be expensive, or indeed cost anything at all. What could you do for a day to make yourself happy?

  1. Write it all down for next year.

When the sparkledust has settled, try to find an hour somewhere to think back over the festive season and write down what has worked, what hasn’t, and what you would like to do the same or differently next year. Then make a note in your diary for, say, 1 November next year to look back at your thoughts in good time for the next one. If you can do this, you will allay next year’s worries in advance, and hopefully feel much better prepared for the return of the season.

Have a peaceful Christmas.

Suzy Ashworth – mediator, coach and counsellor.

If you would like to speak to someone about Christmas arrangements or any other family law matter, please do call us on 01223 443334 and make an appointment to speak to Sue, Simon, Gail, Adam or Tricia.