Family dynamics

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Christmas after separating

Separation
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TORN APART: The worst thing you can do to your children this Christmas is to make them choose between you and your ex-partner.

Making arrangements for Christmas when you are divorced or separated can be difficult, especially if this is the first Christmas that you will not be a nuclear family, but it is possible to navigate through Christmas amicably.

When the adult relationship in a family changes it will impact on the kids, especially when it comes to family occasions like Christmas.

While change may come in many forms, parents separating, or forming new partnerships are two of the biggest ones your kids will have to process and if this is the first Christmas in a new structure, it can be an overwhelming and sad time for both you and your kids.

Children often long for things to go back to how they were and these feelings may be more acute over Christmas time, especially when it comes to family traditions you all enjoyed in the past.

For parents, holding on to the past is an unrealistic dream. In addition to your own feelings of sadness about the ending of your relationship, you may feel guilty and pressured because you can't satisfy that dream for your children.

However, they still have plenty of important needs that you can meet and while you may be doing Christmas differently this year, it can still be a special time for you and your kids.

"There is a lot of pressure on separated parents for each of them to have the 'perfect day' with the kids. The message there is that Christmas day is not just about the date, you can create a Christmas day event anytime through the holidays," says Jo-Ann Vivian - national practice manager at Relationships Aotearoa.

This might mean that if the kids are with their mum for Christmas day, dad could get some crackers from the store and have a "pre-Christmas dinner"- with a special pre-order of gifts dropped off by Father Christmas early.

If the kids are with dad for Christmas, mum and the kids could have a special Boxing Day brunch and can bake their favourite treats with mum in the morning.

While your kids may miss the traditions of the past, it is possible to create new and special memories together. This will not only benefit your kids, but will mean you all have something to look forward to for your special time together.

Plan Ahead

While there is no one "right" way to do Christmas in a separated family, the longer you leave the planning and decision making, the harder it gets.

Expectations may already be building, yours, your ex-partner's, the kids' as well as the friends and relations who hope to feature in your plans as well.

The sooner you both start talking and planning, the more likely flexibility is going to be possible.

"One of the best ways to avoid conflict between you and your ex-partner is to plan ahead for care arrangements over the festive season," says Vivian.

"If parents are battling with setting down these arrangements, then it might be beneficial for them to see a counsellor, or a mediator- which is available through the family court- to help."

Don't put them in the middle

One of the worst things parents can do is to put their kids in the middle of adult conflict - especially over the festive season.

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"Whether that is about Christmas time, holidays, how you parent, or what friends they have, being caught in the middle of conflict is damaging," Vivian explains.

Memories tend to form based more on the way we felt during a certain time than what happened, so spoiling your kids with presents, but running down their mother or father the whole time they are visiting you will only cause them distress and ruin your time together.

No matter what led to the dissolution of your marriage, your kids are a special part of your relationship and they need to be protected from your adult issues.

Relationships Aotearoa have some guidelines to help parents work together when it comes to Christmas arrangements:

Parents make the decisions

Asking the kids who they want to spend Christmas with is an unfair question. No matter how they answer, they will feel they are letting a parent down. It's important that they don't feel they are being asked to choose between their parents, or to feel responsible for a parent who may be left to spend Christmas alone without them.

Parents make the decisions about the arrangements, not the kids. If you put the decision in the kids' hands, you effectively ask them to choose between you. For most kids that will feel awful, not festive. finding shared solutions. It can also produce a written plan for everyone to see, including your children.

Consulting the kids

You should still consult the kids about things like the timing of visits, and which visits come first - just make sure it's clear that the parents are doing the deciding.

Sort out plans in advance

Let the kids know what the plans are in advance rather than at the last minute. It gives them a chance to get used to what ever you have planned rather than getting high expectations about something else.

Make some room for individual plans

As with any family, you need to take some account of the plans that kids want to make for their own lives. They may have particular activities that are important to them or friends they want to see. Individual planning gets more significant as kids get older.

Too much for the kids won't be fun for anyone

There is a limit to the number of Christmas dinners and visits that your kids will enjoy in one day, or even in one week. If there are lots of family who want to spend some Christmas time with your children it may be better to spread events out over several weeks rather than try to squeeze them all into one day. Sometimes it's best not to see everyone every year.

Make it a celebration not a competition

Kids need to feel free to love both their parents, and both sides of their family. Make sure your Christmas plans help them to do this. Look for ways to co-operate rather than to compete with your children's other parent. If it's not practical for you to co-operate about presents, meals, activities and holidays at least be sure that you don't compete. That will only make your kids feel awkward.

New partners

If either of you have a new partner, be very cautious about including them in your kids' Christmas. Especially in the first Christmas with their parents apart kids are likely to find new partners unsettling, and maybe even quite distressing. Your kids may feel that being accepting to a new partner is disloyal to their other parent. Those feelings won't make for a Merry Christmas for anyone.

Ask for help if you need to

If your separation is still raw you may not have settled into a comfortable pattern of trust around what you do and occasions like Christmas tend to reflect what access and contact with shared children is like during the rest of the year. If making arrangements about Christmas feels difficult it might be useful to seek some support. Relationships Aotearoa can help you to reach agreement over who spends Christmas with whom. Mediation is an ideal process for

Don't panic

If it's all too late for you this year, and your Christmas Day is looking overstuffed, make some decisions now about what you want to do for next year. Talk with your family about what activities would give you all the sense of relaxation and celebration that Christmas always seems to promise. Use that as the starting point for your Christmas planning for next year.

Resources- if you need help mediating:

Free counselling through the family court 

Relationships Aotearoa

- Essential Mums

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