A Guilt-Free Christmas – Helping your Children to Navigate Christmas in the Face of Divorce or Separation

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 a separation or the acrimonious divorce of their parents, the magic of the season can quickly give way to a time of childhood despair and sadness. If you were to search the internet, you would quickly realise that there is very little practical advice out there on how to best handle the myriad of issues and triggers which the festive season brings for families torn apart by acrimonious separation and divorce.

For parents in the throes of a separation and divorce, questions abound on :

  • Who will be having the children for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day ?
  • How do I make the day special for my children when I can see that they are grieving the absence of the other parent ?
  • How can I protect my child from hurtful messages from visiting relatives who have little regard for me as their mother/father ?
  • What presents are going to be given to our child this Christmas ?
  • How should my wife and I co-ordinate gift-giving to avoid duplication of gifts to our children or one-upmanship ?
  • What should I do when I can see that the other parent is using presents as a means of “buying” our child’s affection ?
  • Will my children be given an opportunity to speak privately (and without guilt) to me over their holiday period with their Father, particularly on Christmas and New Year’s Day ?

There are no hard and fast rules on how to handle this time or the questions that it bring as each matter comes with its own dynamics. Neither are there any easy solutions on how to best navigate the season for your children.

As a Family & Divorce Mediator having dealt with many Christmas-time contact disputes, below is a summary of my thoughts (and the shared thoughts of others) on this subject, Hopefully, what is set out below will be of benefit to you and your children as you prepare for the coming festive season.

Christmas Gift Giving

It is of no value to 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 (this piece of advice applies to any special occasion where gift-giving is the order of the day). At the very least, in the absence of clarity and agreement on the range of gifts that will be given to the child, parents should try to come to some agreement on the uppermost value of the gifts that they will each give the children.

In the event of a parent being cash-strapped and unable to discuss the gifts issue with the other parent, there certainly is value in the parent 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 the 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 from them.

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 through this act.

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 to call but could not get hold of you”, “our cell battery went flat” or ‘we lost our phone” cause unnecessary hurt, anguish and guilt for the children.

Arrangements for contact should ideally 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 for the children’s benefit.  Parents working together in arranging contact periods, helps children to learn important life lessons, particularly in the face of conflict, separation 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 (and extended family). 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 have 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.
  • Unless there is very good reason, don’t ask questions about what was discussed.

There are exceptional cases where this rule would 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 their 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 and not only impacts on the extent to which the children are able to enjoy their time with the parent with whom they are spending the contact period but ALSO ensnares the children to ongoing feelings of guilt and entraps them in a cycle of always feeling that they need to protect the absent parent.

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 festivities of the season without the children having to feel any guilt.

Whatever else you may want to do, the one thing that you should ideally focus on this year is giving your children permission to have a guilt-free festive season. It is among the kindest gift you can give them, and one which they no doubt will thank you for when they are older.

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