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Make it all about the children

14 Nov 2018

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By Gillian Stuart, Family Law Specialist, Aspiring Law

We like to think of it as the “season of goodwill”. For many families, though, the holiday season can be extremely testing and feel anything but merry following a separation.

Having worked at the coalface for many, many years with both adults and youngsters navigating the festive season, here are a few tips based on what I’ve seen, time and again, make the difference between cheer and despair.

Talk. Talk. Talk. Healthy communication is the key to reducing stress – and, most importantly, giving your kids the best shot at a happy Christmas. Children love certainty, so the sooner you can agree, and give your sons and daughters that reassurance, the better.

After a separation, Christmas can be a time of particularly heightened emotion, where little disputes snowball into massive problems. Make sure detailed care arrangements have been agreed in advance. Committing them to writing, with both parents confirming, means much less room for miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Failing to nail down the particulars is fraught – it’s not uncommon to have both parties swearing that completely conflicting arrangements were agreed. Double check you’re both on the same page with all of the details, and are crystal clear of specific dates, times and transport responsibilities.

In cases where direct communication is problematic, consider turning to a neutral third party to help facilitate a workable agreement.

It might seem obvious, but watch the alcohol consumption. It can be tempting to “drown your sorrows” in the wake of a separation; however, all too often alcohol can be the tipping point between keeping it together and not. Also, ensure there are sober drivers to transport children between households.

Remember, it’s not ideal to use the children as messengers or negotiators. They’ll be calmer and more confident if the adults pass on concrete, mutually-agreed plans to them. Divided loyalties and misplaced guilt are commonplace in children whose parents have separated – they need to know they are first and foremost with two parents who are united in wanting what’s best for them.

Taking a point scoring approach to presents doesn’t do anyone any favours. One parent lavishing the children and deliberately “out-spoiling” the other isn’t helpful – or healthy. Decide if you’re buying joint presents, and, if not, perhaps negotiate a spending limit or who’s buying what, and, failing that, keep expenditure sensible. Also, if you’re planning to take the children away during your time, it’s a good idea to let the other parent know.

Compromising in negotiations is another key factor. A Mexican stand-off is not what kids want – they want two parents who love them, want to spend time with them and keep them well-shielded from any animosity. From the dozens of children I’ve worked with over the years, their feedback is consistent: they do not want to be pawns. They just want to see parents working together and showing them what matters most: their happiness and wellbeing.

Adults have a duty to protect their children and act in their best interests. I fully appreciate how difficult it can be to traverse holiday care arrangements, especially when there is, often justified, anger and frustration.

All you can do is your best to set those feelings aside, and keep your focus on your children’s welfare. If you think about everything from their point of view and tailor arrangements around their needs, you can’t go far wrong. As hard as it might be, try and put yourself in the other parent’s shoes, too, and don’t expect them to agree to arrangements you wouldn’t want to sign up for if the roles were reversed.

A final reminder: children grow up – and they will remember the feelings around Christmas times. Give them the greatest gift you can: happy, loving times with sensible, fair arrangements that put them first and foremost.