At this time of year, it seems the whole country is in the throes of pre-Christmas excitement and preparation. Concerns about the annual visit from Auntie Dot, getting things sent off before last posting dates, and how to make budgets stretch in the teeth of the recession are at the forefront of most people’s minds. For those facing a first festive season as a separated family, we at CFLP understand that there’s a whole extra layer of stress.
Just before Christmas last year we wrote about the difficulties which often face separated families in the run up to the festive season. We recommended starting to think and talk about arrangements for Christmas back in the summer, so that everyone knows where they stand come December. It’s always better if you can avoid last minute dashes to the lawyer or mediator when you would rather be doing last minute dashes to the shops for sellotape, stocking fillers and sprouts.
We know Christmas is a special time of year for all parents, and children’s excitement and joy is the main point of the festivities for many of us. However, if parents have never lived together, or if the separation is very recent, or if for whatever reason arrangements for Christmas remain unsorted, where do you start?
Solicitors and courts always talk about putting the needs and interests of the children first, and this is especially true at this time of year. Parents do not have rights to see their children, as such; rather the courts take the approach that it is the children who have the right to have an involvement with both parents, where it is safe and in their best interests for them to do so. With a bit of effort and co-operation, it should still be possible to create a magical Christmas for you and your children (or if not magical then at least a civilised one) even if the circumstances are different from the way they used to be.
Most people will have their Christmas and New Year plans in place by now, but if you are still trying to sort them out, communication is the key. Talking things through with the children and neutrally asking what they think of proposed plans is generally a good idea as they tend to feel more secure if they are involved, but it is important to let them know that it’s the grown-ups who actually make the decisions. Children need to be protected from decision-making, as it is often the case that they feel a need to please both parents and base their views on who would be most hurt by the “wrong” choice. There are also often grandparents and extended family members to be considered. It can be hard enough trying to juggle arrangements to see everyone over the holiday period when a family are still together, but on separation it is important to the children that grandparents and wider family are not excluded from your plans. We recommend mediation as a way of reaching decisions that work for you, the children and other members of the family – have a look at our mediation fact sheet.
Some families try to put on a united front and have a get together on Christmas day, so that the children can open presents and be a family unit again for a short time. However this is rare, and if the separation is recent it may be confusing for children who are still coming to terms with their parents’ separation. Interestingly, in our experience older children who are used to living in separate households and sharing their time between them can also be destabilised by having everyone together, as they may have grown to play different roles with different parents. Looking at it from the point of view of the grown-ups, re-enacting what once was or might have been is likely to be too painful, awkward and uncomfortable to be viable. Even very young children can pick up on atmospheres and may become stressed if the two of you aren’t enjoying yourselves so it may be sensible to think through your plans and try to work out whether a get-together is really worth it.
It’s also sensible to have a think about presents. There’s always a temptation, particularly in the first Christmas apart, to over-spend and shower the children with gifts; it’s a good idea to talk over expectations and proposed gifts with the child’s other parent so that you can avoid arguments about what is appropriate. Have you thought about helping your children make presents for their other parent and extended family? Children love doings things for people they care about, you get to spend quality fun time with them while doing it, and it may make them feel better being able to take a present to their other home. The bonus of this approach is that it needn’t cost much more than your time.
Separation is hard for adults, and Christmas is a particularly tricky time which may stir up a range of emotions in your children. The loss of a family Christmas may be sad and confusing for them, and it is often difficult to acknowledging that any unusual behaviour may be due to their grief or confusion, when you are also dealing with your own. If you need support or someone to talk to over the Christmas period, you can contact Family Lives who run a confidential advice line and internet chat service.
Court is the last place you want to be over the next few weeks, and we can advise you on better ways to get your festive plans finalised. If you find yourself unable to get arrangements agreed, and feel you need some help, you can give Adam, Gail, Sue or Simon a call on 01223 443333.