For most of us, Christmas is a happy time when families and friends get together to exchange presents, catch up on stories, share wonderful meals and hospitality and generally enjoy each other’s company. But for many families where parents are separated or divorced Christmas can be a time of sadness, stress and disagreement – and caught in the middle of it are the children. So what can separated and divorced parents do to make Christmas a little easier on themselves and their children?
Children Come First
One of the most important things is to realise that Christmas is a time for your children. Activities need to be arranged with your children’s best interests at heart, not just what suits you. Ask your children what they want to do. Listen closely to what they say. Consider putting their desires ahead of yours. Discuss the ideas you have with your children. Children should have a chance to contribute, but in the end it is the adults who make the final decision as to what is best. If your children’s wishes can’t be met, take the time to sit down with them and explain why.
Avoid situations where your children become the “meat in the sandwich” of Mum and Dad’s conflict. Regardless of what has happened between you it is important not to criticise the other parent when talking to your children. It can create tension for your children, because they may want to please you and agree with you, but at the same still love their other parent. Try to avoid communicating to them the subtle message that they are responsible for making you happy. You need to accept their love of the other parent as normal, and encourage that relationship.
Many disagreements start because of parents’ expectations of what will happen. You expect that children will spend Christmas with you. The other parent may expect the same. Parents need to communicate with each other and plan for these times before they arrive. By planning ahead of time, Christmas has a chance to be happier and far less stressful for everyone involved. Agree on what you will do so that there is no tension, and if you make your children’s happiness your priority when making any plans, you will be well on the way to a happier time.
Sometimes children are expected to move from one home to another to spend time with each parent. While this may be okay for short periods during the year, at Christmas the time spent with each parent can be longer, or there can be extra people involved. This can change the dynamics of the home and can cause problems, particularly with “blended” families. Children will sometimes conform to keep others happy and often don’t even know how to express their feelings about all that is going on. This can mean that on the surface everything seems to be okay but in reality, children may be experiencing a storm of unexpressed emotion. In addition, they don’t have the understanding of life experiences that adults do. It is more difficult for them to make meaning of the situations they are in. Young children especially are unable to think things through in a rational way. They can only react to situations.
In the end, you can do everything in your power, but others involved may not cooperate and do their part. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, always remember that help is available. A family relationship Psychologist can offer helpful advice on how to cope with difficult people and situations.
Remember, communication is the key. Start communicating well ahead of time and keep your children’s happiness as your priority and you will have made a good start to a happier Christmas.