How to support your children as you divorce this Christmas
The pressure is always on at Christmas – and that goes triple if you have children. It’s supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. And parents are expected to sprinkle magic over their children’s lives through the whole of December and into January. But what if the festive magic is in short supply in your family this year? Don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. We live in the real world, not a John Lewis advert or Disneyland. And your children will be ok through it all with you looking out for them. Here’s how to support your children as you divorce this Christmas.
Be as clear as possible
Children aren’t daft. If there’s tension in the air, they will pick up on it. I don’t tell you this so you feel guilty about things not being ‘perfect’ or not being the ‘fun mum’. I’m telling you for the opposite reason – so you can give yourself a break and take the pressure off.
While children don’t need to know all the ins and outs of discussions behind the scenes, they will respond better to honesty. So be as truthful as you can. If you don’t have all the answers, that’s okay. If you don’t know exactly what your soon-to-be-ex is doing over Christmas with the children, that’s not something you can control. But you can reassure them about what you’ll be doing together.
It can be hard to co-parent if you and your soon-to-be-ex aren’t on the same page. This is why a parenting plan can be so helpful – it’s a compass to turn to and return to if you face new or tricky discussions. If you have already agreed ground rules in advance for where the children will be over Christmas, that can save a lot of emotional stress as the season reaches fever pitch.
But if you haven’t had time or the opportunity to get your plans sorted before now, as far as possible try to do this behind closed doors. Don’t let your children witness you rowing with their other parent. It can be so hard when it feels like you’re the only one with their best interests at heart. But turn that anger into energy for yourself and your children.
Remember you’re the parent
It’s natural that your children will have feelings about things being different over Christmas. They might lash out, blame you. They might demand everything’s back to how it was. But there are some things you can’t make happen.
Their sad and angry feelings are allowed – it’s good they trust you with their emotions. But just because they are having a tough time they do not have free rein to behave however they wish.
When it comes down to it, two things are true:
- You are the parent – you make the decisions
- All feelings are allowed, all behaviours aren’t.What does this mean for supporting your children when they’re having a tough time and letting you know about it? It means you are firm but compassionate.
They simply can’t have everything the way they want. Maybe they want you and your ex-spouse to be together on Christmas Day and you know that it would be a terrible idea. You need to set the boundary: ‘We won’t all be together on Christmas Day, but you’ll have a wonderful time here then have another magical day with your dad on Boxing Day.’
Being firm but compassionate will show them that they are safe, and even though the world isn’t exactly as they want it to be, they will adjust.
Different can be fun
Christmas is sold as a time for traditions, and if you have children that like routine and familiarity, change to those traditions can feel difficult. But different can be fun! I bet there are some aspects of your traditional celebrations the children would like to change. Maybe they hate Christmas pudding. So let them decide the dessert this year. Or maybe they’d love to go to the beach, or the park, rather than be at home. And maybe you can make that happen.
It doesn’t have to be a huge change, but let your children have some say over this ‘new normal’ at Christmas. Try and find something you can say yes to so they feel ownership and buy-in as well.
If you’re away from your children over Christmas
Christmas can feel particularly tough if you’re not seeing the children – for both you and them. If this is the case for you, come up with a plan before the big day. It’s not too late.
It’s important for your children to know what to expect. Will they speak to, or zoom with you, on Christmas Day or over the holidays? When will they be with you? Aim to make a clear plan with your ex-spouse first, then let the children know.
There are little ways you can help your children feel close to you when you’re not with them. Leave notes in their bags. Draw a heart on both your hands. Hopefully your children will be having a lot of fun and won’t miss you too much while you’re apart. It’s likely to feel harder for you than it is for them.
So what can you do to look after yourself? This is where knowing the plan in advance helps – it gives you time to come up with a Christmas you can enjoy for yourself. Whether that’s joining friends, getting away from it all, or camping out on the sofa with lots of chocolate.
If Christmas without your children is a last minute arrangement, there’s still time to find ways to make it work for you. Write down all the things you love to do. Circle the ones that are realistic for you to make happen within the next week or two. And do them! Keep those that you can’t do right now as a gift to yourself for the future. And work towards doing them some time next year.
And if you’re struggling with divorce grief, I have some ideas to support you in this blog.
A season, not a day
Christmas season starts in September for some retailers! While most of us don’t start that early, it’s important to remember that Christmas is a season, not just 25 December. There’s no reason why you can’t have the big feast and get togethers on any other day. If you and your ex-spouse both put the children’s needs first, there’s every chance they will experience double the fun this Christmas. But if your ex-spouse’s behaviour is not ideal, focus on what you can control. Focus on your time with the children.
And there are lots of opportunities for Christmas connection throughout late December and into January. And they don’t always have to cost a lot. Wintry walks with a flask of hot chocolate can be a lovely way to get everyone off phones, tablets and TV and talking. Or a PJs and board games afternoon.
Rather than worry about expensive trips to Santa or the Panto, or whether you’ve bought the best presents, focus on connection. Very rarely do we remember all the presents we were given as children. But we do remember the fun we had together.
Plan for next year
Now’s not the time to worry too much about planning. It’s time to switch off and put your divorce down for a while. But do make a note to talk to your ex-spouse about holidays next year well in advance. Both Christmas and summer – as well as the other school holidays. A written plan, made in advance, will make it a lot easier for you to support your children’s wellbeing, and your own as you navigate holiday times. A trained mediator can help with this. Resolution is a good place to find one.
If the thought of getting your divorce in order in 2022 fills you with dread, it’s time to flip that situation around. Believe me, you do have what you need to advocate for yourself and your children. You just might not know it yet!
Book in a free 30 minute chat with me and see how I can help.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com