Christmas is an emotional time regardless of anyone’s family situation.
Whilst some separated parents remain able to put their differences aside and spend Christmas Day as a family, it is more usual for the children to spend Christmas Day on alternate years with each parent.
Being without the children on Christmas Day can be a difficult and strange experience for the other parent and the children, particularly the first year.
Below are some practical tips for doing so.
Set expectations early
Whether the decision about where the children will be staying for Christmas is agreed between parents or requires determination by a court, it is important to ensure the children’s wishes and feelings take priority.
- Careful and advanced planning is helpful for everyone
- Decide the arrangements for Christmas early and start making plans
- If child arrangements, including Christmas time cannot be agreed, consider attending specialist mediation or family therapy. Whilst a court can also resolve the arrangements for the children, this should be the last resort. Court applications can take time to be determined and often involve the children citing their views. Imposed arrangements are rarely as satisfactory as those which are agreed. However sometimes they are needed
- For any parent spending Christmas away from their children it is important to be able to prepare mentally and to make alternate and positive plans
- It is also important to prepare the children. Whatever the parents are feeling about the situation, supporting the arrangements and talking positively about them will reassure the children that they will have a good time and avoid them worrying about the parent they are not with
Create an alternative Christmas for yourself
Without the children, it is possible to choose a different kind of Christmas
- Spend Christmas with parents or family. This can be an opportunity to get closer to them in a way that hasn’t been possible previously, when the focus around Christmas Day has been on the children
- Meet up with other friends in a similar situation or who don’t have children
- Get away for a wholly different kind of Christmas experience in a new environment, without the memories of previous Christmas’ at home
- Do some voluntary work at a local hospital or an old people’s home; or
- Just laze around in pyjamas, watch films, and order a favourite takeaway or meal box from a favourite restaurant
Invent an alternative day as the main celebration with
Even if it’s not actually on Christmas Day:
- Choose to celebrate Christmas on another day in a way that is fun for all
- Create new traditions together
- The children will love having two celebrations and probably two sets of presents!
Shift your perspective to what’s going on for your children
Choose to focus on the children’s happiness. You don’t want them to worry about either parent.
- Christmas is for the children and seeing it from their perspective will also provide a more positive mind-set for their parents.
- Let them have fun with their respective grandparents, cousins, and family
- Speak in a positive way as if you really wish them a great time and avoid saying qualified phrases like “it won’t be that bad".
- Say complimentary things about their other family
Focus on your Children’s developmental needs
If children feel love and affection, praise, recognition and responsibility from both parents, they will know they are there for them even when they are physically apart.
- Children also need to learn, cope and deal with new experiences in which their parents don’t always take part
- Give them hugs
- Play and engage with them
- Recognise their input and praise them when they do something well
- Let them help decorate the tree, do some cooking, or lay the table
Communicate with your children during Christmas
It’s important for the children to know both parents are OK and that their parents are supportive and interested in what they are doing, even if they cannot join them.
A phone call or facetime with the children, just once a day or alternate days can provide this. During the call:
- Celebrate with them if they are happy
- Listen to them if they are upset, but steer them towards the happier, more positive points of being where they are, so they can enjoy it more; and
- Be aware that too many calls may make it harder for them (and the parents)
- It is important that both parents try to respect the time the children spend with the other parent
Me-time and relaxation
It’s both rewarding and exhausting being a parent. Parents also need to look after their health and wellbeing to be able to give their children the support and love that they need.
Being without the children at Christmas can be seen as an opportunity to:
- Choose what to watch on TV without anyone taking the remote control
- Take a relaxing bath
- Go for a walk
- Have a lie-in
- Listen to relaxing music
- Go out with friends for lunch; or
- Visit a favourite place without the time demands of others
Impact of COVID
Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of COVID for separated parents, particularly international parents, has been the fact their best laid plans have been all too frequently scuppered by changing rules about who can meet up alongside travel restrictions.
Whilst the pandemic remains rife, it will remain essential to put the family’s health first, but it can be good to have a contingency plan which is made known to the children, so that everyone knows what will happen should Christmas plans be affected.
They will soon be back
But in the meantime, allow yourself to find some enjoyment during your time without the children.