Helping children deal with Christmas in the face of divorce. Christmas and the New Year’s period is for many families marked out as a time of rest, relaxation and family get-togethers. A time electric with joy and merriment. The making and rekindling of safe and predictable childhood memories. For those children whose lives have been shattered by separation and acrimonious divorce, this season of magic can quickly give way to a time of despair and sadness. This often coming amidst an ash-heap of traumatic encounters of violent words, abusive acts and high conflict.
There is very little practical advice out there on how to best handle the myriad of issues and triggers which the festive season brings in its wake for families torn apart by acrimonious separation and divorce. Questions abound on :
- Who is having the children for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day ?
- How does one make the day special for a child who may be grieving the absence of the other parent ?
- How does one protect one’s child from hurtful messages from visiting relatives who have little regard for the absent parent ?
- What presents are being given?
- How are presents to be co-ordinated between the parents ?
- Will gifts be given in an endeavour to “buy” a child’s affection to the detriment of the other parent ?
- Will the children be given an opportunity to speak privately with the other parent ?
There are no hard and fast rules. No easy solutions on how to best navigate the season. Just some thoughts set out below that may well prove to be beneficial for your family and your children.
Christmas Gift Giving
It is of no value to the children if their parents give gifts of considerable size and value in order to outdo the other parent in the so-called generosity-stakes. As far as is reasonably possible, parents should discuss with one another what they each intend giving the children for Christmas. At the very least they should try to come to some agreement on the uppermost value of the gifts.
In the event of the parents not even being able to talk to each other about this, there certainly is value in their explaining to the children – in neutral language that does not in any way demean the other parent – that they will only be able to purchase gifts to a specific value. Most children are sensitive to monetary constraints. Financial considerations and understanding that “one cuts one’s coat to suit one’s cloth” is a major reality of life for most people. On proviso that the motivation behind such conversation with the children is not to alienate the children from the other parent, there is nothing wrong with this type of discussion taking place.
Gifts for the Other Parent
On the issue of gifts, parents in conflict often overlook the issue of assisting their children in being able to give the other parent a Christmas gift. Parental acts of kind-heartedness include
- helping the children buy a Christmas gift for the other parent; alternatively
- helping them / reminding them to write a Christmas card for that parent.
A parent’s selfless act of kindness in such circumstance would not go unnoticed by either the other parent or the children. More importantly a valuable life skill would be taught to the children.
Festive Season Contact with Both Parents
Children benefit from having some form of contact with both parents over the Christmas / New Year’s period. If parents cannot split the contact period between them, then they must at least make every effort to allow the children to have adequate talk-time with the other parent. Contact can be via SKYPE, video-call or telephone. There is absolutely no justification for parents withholding telephonic contact over this period. Excuses such as “we were not at home at the time of the call”, “we were busy”, “we tried but could not get hold of you”, “our cell battery went flat” ‘we lost our phone” cause unnecessary hurt and guilt for the children.
Arrangements for contact should be finalized before the start of the Christmas holidays. They should never be left to chance. Far too often parents’ fail to understand that the arrangements that they put in place over this period are not for their benefit, but ultimately in the children’s best interests. Parents working together in arranging contact periods, helps children to learn important life lessons, particularly in the face of conflict and pain.
Interference-Free Telephonic Contact
It goes without saying that the children’s contact time with the other parent whether face-to-face or via Skype, video or telephone call should be free of interference from the other parent. Children should never have to witness the ugliness of their parents’ verbal outbursts and anger towards each other. Neither is it fair to them to associate the festive season with a time of heightened parental anger and frustration.
For parents in conflict, the advice is simple:
- Stay away when the children are conversing with the other parent.
- Don’t ask questions about what was discussed.
There are exceptional cases for which the rule should not apply, but generally what the children do or discuss with each of their parents is by and large of no business to the other parent.
Extended Family Contact
Parents need to be alert to the fact that sharing the festivities of the period with the extended family can be quite traumatic for the children. This is particularly relevant where a member of the one family does not like the children’s other parent or family. Unnecessary and intrusive questioning as well as veiled snide remarks about the failings of an absent parent puts the children on the back-foot. It impacts on the extent to which the children enjoy their time with the parent with whom they are spending the contact period. It also ensnares the children in a cycle of always feeling that they need to protect the absent parent and feeling overwhelming guilt if they cannot adequately do so.
Whatever plans may be in place for this coming festive season, it is of crucial importance that both parents give their children express permission to enjoy the season of festivities with the other parent without the children having to feel any guilt. This is probably at the top of the list when it comes to helping children deal with Christmas.