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Family matters - Christmas presents family dilemmas

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This column was first published on the October 19th in the Wigan Obsever

Q: This will be the first Christmas since my partner and I have been separated. We can’t agree on who will have our children on Christmas day. What is the best way to reach a compromise?

A: Christmas is often an emotional time for many without the added pressure of a recent separation to contend with and the extra burdens that brings to families.  Contact with their children at this time of year can also become a contentious issue for 2 parents who live apart, but who are both likely to want to spend this special time of the year surrounded by their loved ones.

Children unfortunately can unwittingly often find themselves in the middle of their parents’ arguments where there are disagreements between their family members and those that they look to for guidance, so it’s very important not to lose sight of what the needs of the children are and how they might be feeling at a time when they are likely to be distressed and confused at their parents separation. Even if it is not what you want to hear personally, you should try to listen to the opinions of your children.

Trying to agree contact arrangements and when children will spend time with each of their parents can be difficult at the best of times, but is especially so around significant events like Christmas, holidays and birthdays.

In my experience, open lines of communication and good forward-planning are essential when working with your former partner to organise your Christmas. There are cases where despite past troubles the family is able to celebrate Christmas together but this tends to be the exception rather than the norm’. Whether you and your former partner are friendly terms or not, planning ahead gives each other time to come to a mutual decision about your child’s Christmas, whether this is from selecting Christmas presents to who the children are going to spend time with on Christmas Day. If you can’t come to an agreement at first, keep trying and if needed try to take a step back and consider what your child feelings would be.

Parents may also need to consider what is best for the whole family, as children will most likely want to see family members from both sides of the family, meaning parents will both have to discuss what suits everyone.

There is no one fixed answer as to what might be best for any family. No two families are the same and what may be best for one, is unlikely to be the same for another.

Amongst the numbers of successful agreements between parents I have seen options have included the children spending half of Christmas Day with one parent when they have had the opportunity of opening their presents and having an early lunch, and then the evening with the other parents. Some separated families even have two “Christmas Days”, the second being celebrated later in the week, to ensure both parents have the opportunity to see their children waking up and opening presents in their respective homes, and alternate this arrangement each year. Families who might live further apart may seek to alternate their Christmas and New Year arrangements to ensure the children spend an appropriate amount of time each year.

Every family situation is different and therefore I would encourage you to try to come to an agreement that suits everyone involved. If you really can’t come to an informal decision directly with each other or with the help of family or friends, there is the option of using a formal mediation process to help to arrange and agree contact arrangements.

The annual Family Dispute Resolution week which is organised by Resolution, the national organisation of family lawyers and other professionals committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes, takes place between 25th and 29th November, during which they will promoting and campaigning about the alternatives to court for separating couples and parents, and the benefits of resolving problems without resorting to a potentially costly and damaging court battle. Each parent may have a view as to what is best for their children, but a court may have another which means that arrangements could be imposed with which neither parent is satisfied.