Posted by familylaw on 5th November 2015

Alexandra considers the best way to tackle Christmas for separated parents.

Perhaps I should apologise for raising the issue of Christmas when we haven’t finished with all the other festivities of the year yet. However, as Christmas cards have been on the shelves for weeks now, this seems like an opportune time to raise an issue that, like so many around Christmas time, can prove to be a real sticking point.

Some of the ‘Ps’ associated with Christmas

Presents: we all like that one. Parties: for some, they are the best thing about Christmas, for others not so much fun (although we might enjoy it in the end). Another ‘P’, and one we reluctantly accept as a requirement of the festive period, is Planning. When we are making our arrangements for Christmas, there is always a long list of what needs to be dealt with. Turkey ‒ tick. Decorate the tree ‒ tick. Buy the gifts and wrap them – tick.

However, as you get organised, spare a thought for family lawyers and mediators for whom Christmas can be one of the busiest times of the year. This is often because of child contact disputes, a very difficult issue for families at Christmas.

It is widely accepted that Christmas is really all about the children and spending time with family. The tree, presents and Christmas dinner are secondary to watching the joy and excitement on the children’s faces when they open their presents. Even letting them overindulge in chocolate is all part of the fun of Christmas morning.

However, with many parents now living in different households it has become more and more difficult for both parents to share these wonderful moments with their children. Understandably, both parents want to have their children wake up with them on Christmas morning and experience the thrill and excitement of those first few hours.

Although some parents will find it difficult to put aside their differences, this isn’t true in all cases. Many separated parents reach agreements that might involve one parent going to the other parent’s home in the early hours so that they can both share in the excitement with their children. It’s worth bearing in mind that for some children, this could be very difficult or confusing.

There really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ arrangement that can be put in place for every family over the festive period when the parents do not live together. Relationships between separated parents are unique, down to individual circumstances and even personalities. What is usually common, however, is the desire to put the child or children at the centre of the arrangements and try to ensure that Christmas is a fun and enjoyable time for all.

The best way forward is to discuss the likely arrangements early, so both parents know where they stand. By ensuring that neither parent will be disappointed, much of the stresses and strains of making arrangements for children to spend time with their parents is removed.

Having an open conversation about arrangements can highlight areas that may need the additional guidance of a family lawyer or mediator. Where a mutual agreement cannot be reached, knowing the areas of disagreement early on will provide plenty of time for the court to consider the proposals of each parent before giving guidance or, making a decision should no agreement be reached.

In reality, the court would much prefer parents to sort things out between themselves and by agreement, rather than be forced into an arrangement.

Children find it difficult to deal with conflict in the same way that adults do, whatever time of year it is. Most children would ideally like to spend time with both parents, not least with the expectation that Father Christmas is likely to visit two homes to deliver presents to them.

Where things can become difficult and upsetting is when a child wakes up with one parent to the excitement of Christmas Day, but then feels responsible for or even guilty about their other parent being sad or upset because they haven’t seen them. This can bring on an untimely reminder that mummy and daddy are still not getting on.

By talking to an experienced family law lawyer in good time, these problems can often be resolved well before the festive season. With arrangements agreed and in place, everyone can relax and enjoy a peaceful, happy Christmas.

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