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Tips to navigate Christmas for separated families

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Christmas time can bring great joy but for separated families, it can also bring significant challenges. For those of you who are experiencing your first Christmas as a separated family, this holiday season may look very different from last year.

To help you as you approach the festive season I have some tips that I recommend you consider for yourself, your former partner, your children and your extended family as well.

First things first: have a plan

If you have not reached agreement with your former partner about who will have the children when, that is your priority. Set aside some time to create a plan about what is going to happen. Making a decision about who has the children on special days can be difficult but for all concerned, creating a plan is a priority.

For You and Your Former Partner

Each family often has its’ ‘special occasion’. For some families this falls on Christmas Eve, for others it is Christmas morning or lunch. If you are both in the same geographical region on those days, start by thinking about what you both want for the children including sharing time with your respective families.

If you know that you and your former partner are likely to have difficulty regulating your own emotions on the day, then take steps to protect the children from your angst. For example, determine a handover location that you both agree to and also discuss the need to be mindful of what the children are exposed to at these times. Sharing your children over the holiday period can be stressful so having some clear guidelines on how you both plan to conduct the handover can help minimise stress for the children.

In making your plans for the children, particularly on those more ‘planned’ days like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or New Years’ Eve, an agreed ‘run sheet’ detailing the timeline of who has the children when, and everything in between can help. Start with a timeline from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Detailed planning is particularly important where there is travel involved. If you are travelling, factor the travel time into your plan allowing for delays so that any last minute changes are minimised. The goal for both of you (and importantly the children) is to minimise confusion and reduce the opportunity for conflict.

For Your Extended Family

Sometimes extended family’s expectations about Christmas can prove challenging, especially if it is ‘their turn’ to host Christmas and they are wanting the grandchildren to be present. It is important to encourage your family to be flexible and considerate of the necessary changes associated with your separation. Communicating what has been agreed upon to extended family members ahead of time can prove helpful in reducing your uncertainty and facilitate the children’s enjoyment of the holiday celebrations.

If your family typically opens presents Christmas morning but you have the children later in the day, suggest that your family open presents when the children arrive. Discussing these needs with your family early will make for a more pleasant experience and a less stressful lead up to Christmas.

For Your Children

You and your former partner may opt to share some elements of Christmas with your children. For others, that may not be appropriate. Regardless of what your plans are, be careful not to overdo things. Sometimes we see people becoming competitive with gifts and experiences around Christmas so while it is important for Christmas to remain special for your children, having a discussion about keeping gifting-giving and other activities within the range of what your children have previously experienced, is important. Also discuss when you each intend unwrapping presents with your children, (either separately or together) and let the children know as well so they head into Christmas with some certainty about how things will unfold for them.

Let your children know when they can expect to see the special people in their lives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. If they are at an age where they are aware of your separation, inform them of who they will see during the holiday season. Being aware of what to expect will be reassuring for your children as their family life changes.

Another consideration are the family expectations about the Christmas meal. If children are facing a large meal in two locations, that can be challenging. It can also prove disappointing for the parent who has the children later in the day. Consider this in your planning.

Also consider travel time. For example, avoid having your children spend most of Christmas Day or Boxing Day travelling. It may be better for one person to have the children for those two days and the other parent have them for two days after that, and agree to do that in reverse the following year. 

If you are on friendly terms, consider giving your former partner a small gift at the handover. For children who are nervous about you coming into contact with each other, or with another family member, this can be reassuring in addition to being a gesture of goodwill and can set the tone for future negotiations and parenting arrangements if they have not yet been agreed upon.

At this traditional family time, your children may miss the other parent while they are with you. Recognise that, acknowledge it and although this is your time with them, allow them to connect with the other parent, whether it be on the phone or via video chat. Dismissing your child’s desire to connect with the other parent because it is ‘your time’ may exacerbate your child’s sense of ‘loss’.

If you cannot reach an agreement in in your planning discussions with your former partner, arrange an appointment with a family consultant or experienced family lawyer sooner rather than later. You will want to come to an agreement as soon as possible.

My final piece of advice, as someone who works closely with families experiencing significant relationship change in their lives: As hard as it may be, aim to be flexible in your negotiations with your former partner. While you may not have the children for Christmas Day this year, you can negotiate other days around that day and make those days equally special with your children. The end goal is always that your children have a fond experience of this special time.

“While you can never control what others do, you can control how you behave.”

DDCS Lawyers specialise in all aspects of family law and can advise you on shared parenting matters to help you reach the best outcomes for your children. If you need assistance, contact our team on (02) 6212 7600 to book a consultation.