Dealing with the Christmas season at separation and 10 tips from children

Suddenly all the Christmas decorations are in the shops again – and we are heading out of 2020. And what a year this has been for us all.

I am thinking, as I always do, of separated parents and children at this time of year. Especially this year, as I am particularly conscious that anything that might have been going on anyway, has been greatly magnified by the pandemic.

Words like “unprecedented” and “lockdown” are as common as “bread and butter” these days.

For the rearranged family, Christmas shared between two households can already be a “new normal”. And as much as we don’t want it to be stressful, it is a season which often is. 

Lots of parents who consult with me have sorted their co parenting Christmas holiday plans. But for families of parents in conflict, all the decorations and advertisements, supermarket music and children’s expectations can create a sense of crisis, often laced with grief.

I meet a lot of children and young people in my daily work, and some have quite severe symptoms of stress and anxiety. These symptoms come from a feeling of desperation to manage the conflict between their parents, in order to stay safely attached to both. We know that navigating this conflict is often impossible for children caught in the middle. Even as adults the double bind (‘damned if I do and damned if I don’t’) position is impossible. For a child it can create psychological damage, if allowed to go on.

One in four children in high conflict parenting in the Family Court, receive a formal diagnosis of poor mental health. To say conflict is bad for kids is an understatement. It is also bad for us as parents. There is much more to be said on that topic, as well as ways to manage communication without it becoming a battleground in which our children get caught up.

But for now, here are 10 top tips from some children themselves, tips that they feel would help them if their parents could hear them:

  1. Be open to change and be flexible when agreeing arrangements for me.
  2. Remember that I have the right to see both of my parents, as long as it is safe for me.
  3. Don’t say bad things about my other parent, especially if I can hear. Remember that I can often overhear your conversations or see your social media comments.
  4. It’s ok with me if my parents don’t do everything exactly the same way. You are both different and that’s ok with me.
  5. Try not to feel hurt if I choose to see my friends instead of seeing you – I am growing up.
  6. Don’t use me as a messenger between you.
  7. Speak to each other nicely. If you communicate well, then it will really help me.
  8. I can have a relationship with my parent’s new partner without it changing my love for you.
  9. Don’t stop me from having contact with wider family members. Ask me how I feel about them, and don’t assume I feel the same way that you do.
  10. Remember that important dates, like prizegiving, Christmas, sports days, birthdays, are special to me and to both of you. I might want to share my time with both of you on those days.

A child in my 2006 research study (about including children in discussions about separated family arrangements) inspired the title of the book. When I asked her about her right to discuss plans, and have thoughts on the situation, her answer was “Hello, I’m a voice, let me talk”.