‘Arguments over parenting time have a tendency to ripple outwards and embrace the extended family too: grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, can all find themselves sucked into family feuds which can frequently turn “toxic” and have a devastating impact on family dynamics for years to come.’
That’s unlikely to be what you had planned for Christmas Day. But Liz’s assessment of how badly things can go wrong doesn’t mean that’s what happens in every separated family. She advocates early planning by parents to avoid such harrowing scenarios.
She said: “Allowing children to have what I call ‘loving permission’ to move freely between two homes and celebrate Christmas is fundamental.
“Children really struggle with the often toxic conflict that can emerge during separations and divorce. First Christmases can sadly sometimes feel for parents totemic in that they have to set a precedence for the future. The younger the child the more pressure the parents feel under.
“If you can take a step back and say ‘ok what’s our child’s experience going to be, what’s the best we can do here to make them feel settled and secure’ then it makes it so much easier for them.
“They can enjoy time with each parent without feeling conflicted as to what the other parent is going through and the loss they may be experiencing and just focus on being a child.
“Of course that’s easier said than done and often in mediation we try to acknowledge it’s really difficult. This is as hard as it gets. But if you can put the energy and commitment in at this early stage it will pay dividends going forward, not least for the children, but also in terms of structure and well-being for parents.
Liz says whatever has caused a relationship to fall apart the desire to look after our children is most often a joint concern.
She said: “It’s a very, very rare case indeed where children are not the highest priority for parents.
“They are at the heart of all of their decision-making and that shines through in the way parents talk about them.
“However, they may often fundamentally disagree on how to prioritise that wellbeing and how to find consensus for a resolution.
“The earlier that one can craft a parenting plan that encompasses special occasions like Christmas, or anything that might change the day-to-day routine, the easier it is to do.
“There is no such thing as a perfect parenting plan because for most parenting situations it only has a life of 18 months to two years because children develop and their needs change. It is a continuous process, just like parenting when you are together.”
Christmas, she says, deserves some special attention.
“It’s such a busy time of year from a family perspective. Before dates that are immoveable go into the diary if mums and dads can plan what that looks like, the easier it is for them to liaise with their side of the family.
“Having the communication in whatever format sooner rather than later is a positive step. Look for consensus, try to stand in the other person’s shoes, try and find co-operative outcomes.
“If that’s difficult, and of course it can be, try to stand in your child’s shoes. See what would work from their perspective, look at things in as non-emotive way as you can.
“If you’re really stuck, look at third party support, whether that’s a family member trusted by both of you, or a professional mediator or through your lawyer. It’s not one size fits all. It depends on the history of the relationship, personalities, and what you feel you can achieve.
“Sitting down with a pen and paper in Costa and working out a proposal can be just as effective as a litigated hearing depending on what is needed.
“With parenting plans you tend to get what you give. If there is a highly conflicted situation then it will continue to escalate and spiral unless you can adapt and try to do things differently.”
Keeping in mind what children need and want most is of paramount importance.
Liz said: “There is enough of the children to go around. For most children they want to have some time with both parents at this special time. It can be arranged, but it doesn’t happen by accident unless it’s very amicable.
“Very rarely does not communicating at all help children. If you’re going to navigate through to a Christmas time parenting plan, then how is that going to happen without some form of communication? Without communication you may find yourselves in a place where court process is a last resort.”
“It can be very helpful when emotions are running high to have someone who’s neutral. Someone who can offer some insight into what options might be available for working things out.“
And she has very clear advice on steering clear of trying to buy affection with outlandish gifts
She said: “Avoid the temptation. If you’re going through a tough time, providing a treat is a natural human response to a very difficult situation. But what nearly all children need more than the latest gadget or treat is parental support, love and time. They are more important than things that can be gifted.”
Accept that you cannot please everyone – but you can endeavour to meet the needs and interests of your children.
Try to be as flexible and conciliatory as possible towards your children and yes – your ex too. Consider sitting down with the other parent to plan the occasion well ahead of time. Include the detail which can often be a huge source of potential acrimony. How is the handover going to work? How are the cost of Christmas presents going to be shared?
Recognise that children may have a view and sensitive and timely discussions to get their input will be helpful. But don’t ask the children to choose between you.
Be willing to make compromises. If you feel you really can’t agree – find a good solicitor, collaborative lawyer or mediator who will help rather than hinder the process.
Children really want their mum and dad to get along. Or at least be civil to one another and encourage them to have a good time with the other parent.
Children want their parents to recognise there’s enough of them to love and go around for everyone – especially at Christmas. With planning, thought and a bit of goodwill this special time of year can be memorable for the right reasons.
With more than 25 years’ experience as a solicitor, Liz has acquired a reputation as a skilled negotiator and an expert in the field of mediation. Her practice, Divorce Jigsaw, offers support throughout the North West and online.
Liz can be contacted on 07908 917999 or firstname.lastname@example.org