I hear from a lot of parents struggling over how to agree arrangements for their children with their ex. It is, at the best of times, an enormous strain on most people. It is the nature of our love for our children that we usually miss them when they are not with us. Until we're forced to give up on the dream when they are teenagers, something about parenthood drives us to want to be the centre of their world - so it's spectacularly hard not to let jealousies creep in to our already emotionally complicated relationship with our ex. And the biggest challenge of the year is Christmas. Even parents who manage arrangements admirably amicably for the rest of the year stumble when it comes to the festive season.
1. Give yourselves lots of time. Start the conversation with your children's other parent as early as possible, and don't expect to get it all agreed the first time you discuss it. As for all families, it can take a bit of complicated diary juggling to ensure that everyone sees everybody they should, including grandparents and step-families, etc.
2. There are 12 days to Christmas. Our culture puts an awful lot of pressure on celebrating 'the festive season' with the people that you love, and to most people this really means just Christmas Day itself. Having the children on even Christmas Eve or Boxing Day feels to many as if they have 'lost'. But is it vital that you both see them on Christmas Day itself? I have spoken with ingenious separated parents who have found that the solution is simply to arrange a 'fake Christmas'. This way both parents get a whole day or longer with the children (and with new partners or members of their extended family) to do all the traditional festive things, just on a different day. And the children get to celebrate twice - what's not to love!
3. Stop yourself from 'being better' than their other parent. It can be tempting, particularly where relations between the adults are fractious, to try to outdo their other parent, but you should consciously try to avoid it. It is only likely to lead to stress and sadness for all of you. It can be embarrassing for a child to unwrap a single perfectly chosen gift from one parent, and a sack full from their other. They know how it will make their other parent feel, and they won't thank you for it in the long run.
4. Agree what presents and treats you will give. There are few things more disappointing (for both you and the children) than watching them excitedly unwrap what you know is the perfect present only to see their faces fall as they explain that 'Mum/Dad gave me this too'.
5. Make it easy for the children to show their pleasure. They will be excited by the presents they received from their other parent or other family members, but many will worry that this will make you feel sad. Do your best to share in their excitement and delight. Ask them to show you or talk about some of the presents they have been given and do your best 'wow' noises, or get straight down to a game with them. "Oh my god, that's epic!" seems to cover most situations.
Children also often worry that that you'll feel betrayed if they say they had fun with their other parent. One way of avoiding this is to ask the other parent what they did during their festive time together in front of the children, and show great enthusiasm at their replies. The children will soon relax and be willing to talk about it themselves.
6. Bring on the dancing elves. If you haven't been able to come to an agreement at all or you can't be nearby, you don't have to be completely absent from the festive fun. Technology means that dancing elves, festive selfies, or sharing a YouTube clip that you know will make them laugh like a drain can all be a highlight too.
For more help and tips on sorting out arrangements for the children, or dealing with separation or divorce, see our guides to dealing with family problems - www.advicenow.org.uk/help-deal-family-problems
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