How to co-parent at Christmas - Emily Brand in Tatler - Boodle Hatfield

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13 Dec 2023

How to co-parent at Christmas – Emily Brand in Tatler

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Emily Brand View profile
5 min read

Christmas is known as a time when families come together, where retailers market a harmonious idea of beaming broods wearing matching pyjamas and having snowball fights. Of course, for parents who are separated, things can look a little different and the festive period can be fraught with co-parenting battles. Partner and Head of Family, Emily Brand provides expert commentary in Tatler on why Christmas can be fraught with co-parenting battles.  

What are the biggest issues for separated families at Christmas? Christmas can be a difficult time for families in the process of separating, even more so for families with children. Understandably, separated parents may be longing for normality both for themselves and for their children and feel under enormous pressure to provide a "perfect" Christmas. The usual family Christmas is difficult to replicate following separation. As a result, when it comes to dividing up the time the children spend with each parent and their respective families, this can often bring up strong feelings for separated parents – exacerbating their own sense of loss and hurt.  Grandparents, naturally desperate to see their grandchildren, and other members of the extended family, often add to the general pressure making a parent’s natural disappointment that it might not be "their year" to be with the children even harder to bear.  For the parent who has no wish to separate, it can also seem the final unjust blow that they do not have the children with them - due to absolutely no fault of their own.

How can divorced/separated families prepare their children for Christmas? Both parents should make efforts to talk about how Christmas might be different this year. Children can feel a whole mix of emotions during this time; missing the other parent, feeling guilty that one parent is "alone" and a general sense of sadness that things at home have changed. For children who might be worried about the parent who will be spending Christmas without them, reassurance that you are going to be having a splendid time elsewhere is key. Stressing that you will be seeing them again very soon and they are to have fun with Mummy/Daddy will be just what younger children will need to overcome their apprehension. You can explain that they will get their presents on another date very soon and will see your side of the family then and – just because it is not the actual Christmas Day or Boxing Day – that won’t make it any less fun.  You can even create an alternative  “unofficial” Christmas Day on the eve of which they can put up their stockings at your home and open presents the next day. It also provides the opportunity to come up with new traditions for the children to look forward to when they have Christmas with either parent. Having two Christmases can be fun and it is not unheard of for children to say that one of the advantages of their parents’ divorce is that they get more presents!  

Are there any things to avoid? Nobody wants to spend the festive period arguing with their ex-partner and, the later sorting out the arrangements are left, the more emotive arguments become. Try to agree arrangements in good time (ideally before December) so that both you and the children can be prepared and have time to become excited about what this year's Christmas will bring. Parents should not assume that children hold the same feelings as they do. They might be feeling relieved that there is not going to be the usual row about whether you are going to watch the King’s Speech or go for a walk instead. You may be feeling sad about not being with your child on Christmas Day, however, they might be excited about the prospect of presents or spending time with their cousins.  Try not to ruin their festivities even if you are understandably miserable.  If it is not "your year" for Christmas with the children, don’t spend it alone – try to arrange an exciting alternative.  Alternating Christmas with the New Year is relatively standard now for separated parents so perhaps see if you can team up with other single friends in a foreign location.  In time, you might secretly yearn for more “adult” Christmases.

What happens if you fail to come to an agreement with a former spouse over child arrangements? If you are unable to reach an agreement, either directly or through other forms of dispute resolution (such as mediation), then your final option is to seek the input of the Court. Unfortunately, the Courts have less and less time to deal with a discrete issue such as where the children are going to celebrate Christmas and more practically it is unlikely that you will manage to obtain a court hearing date at short notice if you cannot reach an agreement or if one parent reneges on an agreement at short notice.  This is even more reason to try to agree matters in good time; the "back to school" mentality in September can offer a great opportunity to agree both arrangements for the October half-term break and Christmas. If, however, there are wider ongoing problems about how much time the children spend time with each parent or with whom they live (both during term-time and the school holidays), then Court may be a necessary step should other options such as mediation have not led to a resolution.  

Extracts from this were used in Tatler in December 2023. 

The festive period can be fraught with co-parenting battles with the pressure to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas for their children.

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