If you’re separating or divorcing, the festive season can loom as rather less than festive. Hopefully, given it’s late November, you’ve already given thought to planning your Christmas parenting arrangements this year. If this isn’t your first Christmas as a separated family, you may already have established arrangements that work well, but if it’s all new, your first Christmas apart can be very hard indeed. Here are our tips for splitting the festive season across two households, and making sure Christmas is still a happy time for your kids.
Making practical arrangements
Firstly, if you have court orders in place, check to see if they cover Christmas and the holiday period. Make sure you understand your legal obligations and follow orders to the letter. Holiday contact arrangements for kids are routinely made in court orders, and the uniqueness of the Christmas period means special consideration is given to making arrangements that work best for the kids and enable them to enjoy the festivities with the least amount of stress.
If you don’t have orders in place, consider seeing a family lawyer who will help you reach a sensible agreement with your ex and create a parenting plan, which is a written document detailing how you intend sharing child care and parental responsibilities, including over the Christmas period. Parenting plans are tailored to your child’s current age and needs and help create a clear picture for everyone.
The fairest way to share time is to swap Christmas Day every year. This requires you to take a long term view so you know that one year the kids will spend Christmas Day with your ex and the next year with you.
Some parents find it helpful to give children two “Christmases”— on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, or Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Most kids love the idea of having two Christmases and double the fun. Sometimes it works if one parent has the children from, say, 4pm on Christmas Eve til 4pm on Christmas Day, with the other parent having the children from 4pm on Christmas Day til 4pm Boxing Day, so enabling both parents to spend time with the kids on Christmas Day itself. For other parents, this is too impractical due to driving arrangements. Think ahead about setting up Skype or Facetime or even preparing a video message for your children on a phone so they can see you on the day.
If you come to an agreement informally with your ex, or without the assistance of a family lawyer, make sure you record specific agreements in writing. Arrangements need to be practical and it’s likely you’ll need to be flexible and be prepared to compromise in some regards. Remember that it’s always about what’s best for the kids, not what you think is “fair” for you.
If you vehemently disagree on arrangements for the kids or if you struggle to be on speaking terms with your ex, you may feel you need to go to court. Remember that before you can make applications in the family court, you’ll first be directed to compulsory mediation. The good news is that family lawyers and mediators are there to help you agree on a formula for contact arrangements that works for you both and, in most cases, family law disputes are able to be resolved through mediation. Thankfully, it’s much quicker and cheaper than taking the court route.
Holidays and stress
It’s meant to be a fun and happy time, but it’s often the most hectic and exhausting time of the year. Mad rushing around shopping for presents. Endless Christmas functions at work. Overeating and over-imbibing. Planning and negotiating with extended family.
Sure, these may be First World problems, but the inescapable reality is that it can be a very stressful time, and this is inevitably exacerbated if you’re going through a breakup. An interesting article by Western Alliance Health Research looks at the relationship between holidays and stress and is well worth a read.
For example, research has shown there’s a statistically significant increase in suicide numbers on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Scientists have hypothesised several reasons why, including the “broken promise effect”:
…the idea that some culturally special days promise more than they can deliver, and when they fail to deliver, some people are left feeling deflated and at increased risk of suicide. Holiday periods are expected to be enjoyable, but often come with additional stressors such as overspending, family conflict and alcohol use. Moreover, being unable to share holiday time with family, for reasons such as distance or work commitments, can exacerbate loneliness and depression.
Aside from heightening the risk of suicide, when the festive season generates prolonged stress, this can also have a very negative effect on your physical health. Factors that generate stress have been shown to be: novelty, unpredictability, threats to the ego, and loss of a sense of control.
And when you think about how your kids may feel at Christmas if there’s an environment of hostility between their parents and a dramatic change to parenting arrangements, it’s clear that all of these four factors could come into play. So it’s very important to do what you can to avoid your children becoming stressed over the “festive” period. The good news is there are ways you can reduce their festive stress.
How to help reduce your kids’ festive stress
First and foremost, let your kids know both their parents love them just the same as ever, even if you don’t love each other anymore. A feeling of security is probably the best Christmas present you can give them.
Also, never create loyalty issues. This means never asking the children to choose between you and your ex. However, it’s OK to involve them in festive planning and ask how they want to spend the time they have with you over the holidays.
When arranging contact, depending on your kids’ ages and developmental stages, you might need to minimise travel and disruption around the Christmas holidays. It can be all just too much for younger kids to handle, overly exciting and tumultuous. Some kids may not be able to handle an influx of relatives, particularly if they are not well known. Younger kids might become very unsettled having to move between homes at this time, or they will worry that Santa won’t know where to find them (make sure you find a way to reassure them the big guy will know). Aim to achieve the smoothest possible transition between two homes, and never spring last-minute surprise changes on the kids.
While there can be a lot of scary new changes when parents break up, positive novelty can still be a good thing. So create new traditions. For example, if you won’t be seeing them Christmas Day, you might think of creating a new tradition of giving “Christmas Eve boxes” filled with little night-before-Christmas gifts like Santa cookies and special Xmas onesies.
What about reducing your festive stress?
If your arrangements mean that you will spend festive time on your own, make plans to keep busy to avoid the normal feelings of guilt, loneliness and even grief. Make sure to have quality time together with the kids before or after they go.
The research suggests that having a holiday in itself “delivers meaningful short-term benefits for physical and mental health, while participation in a formal health and wellbeing program such as meditation provides longer-term benefits”. The article mentioned above also provides information on strategies to manage stress, which you may find helpful. Alternatively, consider seeing your GP to organise a mental health plan and accessing counselling services at no cost.
If you’re worried things won’t be “perfect”, remember that the “ideal Christmas” projected in advertising and on social media feeds is illusory in nature. How you celebrate might be different—but that’s OK, and it can still be special. Let go of the unrealistic expectations and avoid causing money worries by trying to live up to some false ideal. It’s often a good idea to speak to your ex about coordinating presents so that you don’t inadvertently double up. If your ex tries to “out-do” you on the present front, don’t play that game. Instead, aim to truly live the spirit of Christmas: Let the kids know you want them to have fun at your ex’s at Christmas, and help them shop for gifts for your ex and other members of your ex’s household (if there are any). This will go a long way towards preventing the child from feeling bad for arriving empty-handed with nothing to place under the tree.
If you become stressed worrying whether your ex will let the kids down and things will fall through at the last minute, agree on arrangements well in advance, aim for good communication, and allow enough time to resolve any issues that could come up during discussions before the festive period.
Just as you probably crawled around your house on all fours to take your baby’s perspective back when you were child-proofing your house, make the effort to consider the festive arrangements from the perspective of your child. This will help you get a better feel for how it’s all going to affect them. Remember, as always, it’s all about your children and their best interests.
Do you need help negotiating parenting arrangements or with another family law matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note: although this year’s deadline for applications for parenting orders in the courts has passed, we can still assist you with urgent family law matters that may arise over the holiday period, such as preventing the removal of your child from the jurisdiction of the court, recovery orders, or injunctive relief in property matters. Therefore please take note of our contact details, in case you find you do require urgent family law related legal help over the Christmas and New Year period.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.