20/11/2014 10:56 GMT | Updated 20/01/2015 05:59 GMT

How Separated Couples Can Avoid the Christmas Parent Trap

The return of magical Christmas adverts and movies to our television screens are the modern-day herald of the festive spirit. For many, though, it can spell the start of a difficult season. Whilst Christmas films are often centred on families spending time together, Christmas can be an altogether different story for those families where parents have separated. The first Christmas after separation can be especially hard, particularly when the separation has been driven by one party more than the other.

In an ideal world, children would like their parents to live happily ever after together, but for a growing number of families, that fairytale is not a reality. The fact that a child's mum and dad are not together can be particularly upsetting for a child at Christmas time.

A common cause of upset at Christmas can be discussions surrounding a parent's contact with a child or children. Whilst many people would expect that at Christmas of all times parents could set aside their differences for the sake of the children, unfortunately that is not always the case. It is common for family solicitors to be caught up in disputes in relation to contact arrangements in the lead up to Christmas, with the most difficult of disputes continuing well into Christmas Eve. For some, disputes will be unavoidable but for most, they should be.

It is understandable that each parent would wish ample time with a child to create the 'perfect Christmas'. However, if contact is not planned and agreed in advance, Christmas cheer can quickly be replaced with an enormous amount of stress for all concerned. To try to ensure that your child's Christmas is filled with happy memories rather than family disputes, here are five top tips:-

1. Unless a child is old enough to form a mature and clear view, do not leave it up to them to decide what parent they wish to spend Christmas Eve or Day with. It places an unfair burden on a child and can cause them significant distress having to choose between parents;

2. Put a child's needs first and think about how they will be affected by the arrangements. Whilst it may seem fair on the parents for them both to spend time with a child on Christmas Day, think about the practicalities. For example, if it involves a 4-hour round trip on Christmas Day, is that best for your child? Alternating Christmas and New Year holidays can achieve fairness for both parents without uprooting a child mid-way through their Christmas celebrations;

3. Agree the arrangements as soon as possible - do not leave discussions until days before Christmas arrives. The longer you provide yourselves to discuss matters, the less likely you will be to find arguments continuing into Christmas Eve! Ideally, arrangements should be agreed by the end of November/start of December;

4. Adhere to agreed handover times. Whilst weather or traffic issues can cause last minute delays which may be unavoidable, try to abide by agreed timings through planning ahead to avoid any confusion or altercations;

5. Communicate with each other and openly discuss what gifts you intend to purchase for a child. In some cases parents will happily purchase joint presents. If that is not possible, make sure to speak to each other in advance to avoid it turning into a competition as to who spends the most.

If you follow these five simple tips, you stand a good chance of protecting your children. By planning ahead, communicating with your former partner and putting your child first, it's still possible to make Christmas a time to remember for the right reasons.