Written by Nick Woodall of Family Separation Clinic
Love it or loathe it, Christmas is just around the corner and, for many divorced or separated families, that means added stress and emotional anxiety. For some separated families, it will be possible for the children to spend time with both of their parents. But this can cause tensions that risk spilling over into the festivities. Other parents may not have the chance to see their children over the holiday period bringing both sorrow and isolation. Here are my tips for coping at this potentially fraught time of year:
If this is your first Christmas after separation
Be prepared for things to feel difficult. Your first Christmas without your children or without your husband, wife or partner is likely to raise some complex emotions. Take some time to think about how you may feel and then think about ways of coping. If old traditions are too painful, create some new ones. It's important that you take care of your own physical and mental wellbeing. Don't be afraid to ask for support from friends and family if you need it.
When children are able to spend time with both of you
Try to find a way that means everyone gets a bit of what they want. That doesn't necessarily mean splitting everything down the middle, but looking at how everyone can spend as much relaxed and enjoyable time as possible. Many parents find that switching days in alternate years works. Some build new traditions where certain days are spent with each parent.
Don't leave it to the last minute
You may be one of those people who puts off the present buying until the very last minute. That's fine. But, when you're trying to agree how things will work over the Christmas holidays, sorting things out earlier rather than later will help to ensure that things run smoothly. By all means, consult with your children but never leave them to make the final decision. It's an unfair burden on them.
Ensure stress free transitions
If your children are able to spend time with both of you, make sure hand-overs are as calm as possible. Agree a time in advance and flag up any changes as early as possible. It can be difficult for children to leave what they're doing when they're having fun, so ensure that you give them plenty of advanced warning that a transition is coming up. If seeing each other is too difficult, think about people who may be able to help at hand-over such as grandparents or friends.
Give children time to adjust
It's not always easy for children to make the psychological transition from one household to another. Give them time to adjust and don't assume that any quietness or sullenness is a sign that something is wrong. Be calm and patient and they will come round in their own time.
When you aren't able to see your children on the day
If you aren't able to see your children on Christmas day, try to find ways that you can share something of the celebration together. A phone call on, or a special letter for the day can help children feel connected and reduce any anxiety. Let them enjoy the day that they are having with their other parent and reassure them that they will have a special day with you, pretty soon.
Don't get into 'present wars'
Tempting as it may be, don't get into competing over presents. If possible, talk to your children's other parent so you don't end up buying the same things. If you're able to work things out, you may be able to buy complementary presents. For example, one parent buys the console and the other buys some games.
Think about extended family, new partners and other children
Try to make time for grandparents, aunts and uncles if your children are used to seeing them at Christmas. If there's someone new in your life, think about how that may work. When will they be seeing their children? Will their children and your children be coming together? How will they feel about that? What will you do if your Christmas traditions are very different? Talk it through in advance.
When you are unable to see or contact your children
If you are being prevented from seeing your children, Christmas may be especially difficult to cope with. The sense of loss and, for many, injustice can become even more acute than usual at this time of year. Parents who are in this position often create their own ways of marking the occasion that help them to feel close to their children. Many find it helpful to contact other parents in a similar position as a way of offering and receiving support. If you are unable to buy your child a present or show them that you are thinking about them, you may wish to consider buying a different kind of gift. I often recommend Trees for Life [treesforlife.org.uk] who offer a Tree Dedication pack where a native tree will be planted for you as part of the restored Caledonian Forest. The tree will be protected for its lifetime, so that it grows to maturity in the forest. You will also receive a certificate as a lasting reminder of your gift and as something tangible to share your child in the future and show that your love for them was always present even when you were apart.
Nick Woodall is a writer, practitioner and BBC parenting expert. He currently practices therapeutic family mediation at the Family Separation Clinic, a specialist service for families experiencing divorce or separation.