How to navigate children arrangements over Christmas when you are newly divorced or separated
Are you facing your first Christmas as separated or divorced parents? Find out how how to successfully navigate children arrangements to maintain peace.
As a family solicitor, helping clients navigate their separation from the mother or father of their children, I am very aware of how Christmas can be a particularly difficult time as separated couples negotiate their new reality of parenting apart.
There is a lot of emotion associated with the festive period and it can often be a challenge to think rationally when waking up with your child on Christmas morning is at stake.
It is often helpful, in my experience, to look at the arrangements from the perspective of your ex-partner and, crucially, your child. I am not going to pretend this is easy but I find this to be a worthwhile exercise and I would suggest that this is a useful starting point for any parent approaching this scenario for the first time this year.
Coping with expectations versus reality
Generally, the expectation is that a child will enjoy time with both parents over the festive period and there will usually an alternating, year on year, of arrangements.
What the arrangement will look like in practice can be very different, depending on the specific circumstances. Christmas arrangements for a child whose parents and extended family live close together geographically will likely be different from those for a child whose parents and extended family live far apart.
The geographical proximity enables parents to be more flexible, and a child to have time with both on, say, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Being further apart will almost inevitably entail an arrangement that allows a child to be with either parent for longer, often from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, sometimes for a longer period incorporating such days.
Compromises will lead to a more peaceful Christmas
Communication, as is often the case between separated parents, is key. Being able to have a constructive discussion and see the other’s point of view is vital to agreeing an arrangement. This will inevitably entail a level of compromise but will ensure a peaceful time for their children at this magical time of year.
Christmas is now fast approaching; the Court system is experiencing such backlog that an application made now by a parent who cannot reach an agreement with her former spouse will not result in a decision in useful time.
As solicitors, I find that there is a lot we can do to broker such agreement and the right advice can be instrumental to a harmonious festive period. It often entails having a frank discussion with our client, to challenge their thought processes and invite them to see matters from the perspective of their children.
Find a solicitor who is committed to resolving disputes constructively
The goal is to achieve an arrangement which will enable them both to move forward, knowing exactly what is going to happen, and having empowered them to be a part of that decision.
This can be done by way of constructive correspondence through solicitors. There is still time to do this at this time of year and I would encourage anybody who is struggling in communicating directly with their ex-partner to approach a solicitor who is a member of Resolution, an association of family lawyers who are committed to resolving family disputes in a constructive manner.
This will ensure that matters are handled sensitively, with the child at its centre, and in a collaborative way to maximise the likelihood of a positive result.
Not everyone can get what they want at Christmas
It will not be possible to achieve the outcome that most parents will want, i.e. that their child will spend the festive period with them every year.
There is, however, a lot to be said in parents being empowered to make their own decisions and to equip them with the tools that will enable them to agree their own arrangements and what they consider, having regard to the circumstances of their extended families, to be in their children’s best interests.
I can think of one of my clients who, as a result of very careful and sensitive negotiations through solicitors, will be spending his first Christmas with his two-year-old son. That is a situation in which a collaborative and constructive approach between solicitors has really made a difference and it is something that, if done well, is successful time and time again.
Mediation can be very useful
Communication is key and while you may feel that it would be beneficial to have a direct discussion with your ex-partner, you may not feel comfortable in doing so without involving a third party.
Mediation can be a very useful took in those circumstances. A mediator will not give legal advice to either of you but they will act as an independent professional to facilitate a discussion and ultimately an agreement being reached between you.
You could ask a trusted friend or a family member to be present and help you through that discussion. Emotions may run high when such important days are considered, particularly with very young children, and having a third party there could really help in keeping the discussion focused and constructive.
Consider your child’s best interests and be flexible
Being clear in what you consider to be in the best interests of your children and why, being receptive of the argument being put forward by the other parent and willing to be flexible and change your mind will help things move forward.
There will be traditions engrained in the fabric of your family in which, especially early on following the separation, you will find difficult to imagine your children not being there. The likelihood is that the same will apply to your ex-partner. I often encourage my clients to put themselves in the shoes of their children.
Your children will want to spend time with both of you. They will not necessarily mind the specific day and they will treasure memories of an overall festive period spent peacefully in the company of each of their parents’ family. New traditions can be forged, new ways to celebrate the festive period will inevitably stem from a separation.
Children will be making memories with you that they will treasure forever, whether or not they take place on Christmas Day or a couple of days thereafter.
The impact of conflict on children can be damaging
The impact of conflict on children cannot be underestimated and it is important to protect them from any tension, not just at this time of year.
I would also encourage you to think about how anything that you have agreed with your ex-partner regarding how the festive period will be arranged for your children is going to be communicated to them.
It is important that they are presented with the same narrative and given the emotional permission of enjoying their time with each parent, whenever it is over the festive period.
Often a joint conversation, if that can happen safely, particularly with slightly older children, will go a long way in enabling them to really understand that both parents are on the same page and want the best for them, generally and over this time of year.