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Keeping the peace over the holidays

The holiday season can be especially hard for separated families but experience says it doesn’t have to be.

THE FAMILY LAWYER

Greta Haywood, the director of Haywood Solicitors in Melbourne, says…

Christmas can be difficult to navigate, especially with young children, particularly when each parent shares half of Christmas Day. Children will usually get up very early on Christmas morning, so by the time they arrive at the second parent’s house in the afternoon for further celebrations, they are over it. One solution is to give the kids some downtime before the swap.

Presents can also be an issue. When children go to the second parent’s house it is often difficult as they want to play with their new toys. It is, therefore, a good idea to leave the new presents at home. Problems can also occur when kids take things between households. All the backwards and forwards can mean that things are not returned to the right household. This can really create discord between parents and lead to complaints.

Parents should not get too caught up in splitting the day. The chopping and changing on Christmas Day can be very stressful for children and adults alike. Have Christmas over two days; one parent can take them for Christmas Day and the other parent on Boxing Day. The following year they swap. Christmas is also about seeing extended family, so parents need to consider this too.

The holiday period can be a trying time for everyone. Parents often don’t realise that the changes to the normal routine can be stressful for kids. They may see a parent for three nights every fortnight during the year and then, in the holidays, they don’t see that parent or carer for weeks. If a child misses one parent, they could return home for a meal with that parent, or they could phone or Skype the absent parent.

During the holiday period, people’s emotions often run high and conflicts can bubble over. It’s best to have holiday parenting agreements recorded in a consent order from the get-go. This makes it enforceable in the Family Court. Leaving things to the last minute can be disastrous for some because when communications do break down, families often find that they’ve missed the national Family Court filing deadline for applications relating to the summer school holiday period.

THE PSYCHOLOGIST

 Dr Jessica Revill, a psychologist and the director of Heart Menders Psychology in Sydney, says…

It’s important for separated couples to normalise traditions and routines over the holidays as much as possible. Pick-ups and drop-offs can be stressful for kids. One fear that children have over separation and divorce is that love will end. This can make them feel insecure. You can reassure your children that love transforms at times but does not have to stop.

Parents can start a tradition of short visits with each other during holiday handovers. If possible, they can spend a little time together playing a game with the child, so that the transition becomes associated with warmth rather than loss.

Each divorce or separation is unique. If the situation is new, there may be hurt feelings especially if one partner has re-partnered. The experience is very different for the parent who is left versus the one who leaves. While it is ideal to re-invent yourselves as a divorced parental partnership, sometimes it is all too raw. Take care of yourself by investing in a therapist and/or enlisting a break-up buddy. This is a person who agrees to de-brief with you (don’t lean too much) if you are finding it hard and need to talk over the holidays.

Divorce is the radical transition of a relationship. This is grief. Its trajectory is very jagged and the holidays may stir up very sad feelings. If you are without your child for the first time over the holidays, plan your time well; visit friends, and do nice things for yourself, even if your feelings have not healed. Remember that your children will internalise the way you navigate your emotions. Sadly, some separations and divorces are bitter and protracted. In extreme circumstances, separation and custodial matters are used as an extension of domestic violence. I have treated many people who show me hundreds of texts fixating on every minor detail of the child’s life. This is not caring, it’s control. This is an extension of the marital abuse and unfortunately, not something that the Family Court fully recognises.

If you feel that this is your situation, keep notes of such interactions with your ex-spouse, and observe your child on the changeover for signs of difficulty in settling. If the child seems to be angry at you on returning, there may be parental alienation going on: that is, the child is being coached and groomed to disrespect one parent by the other. Sometimes this behaviour becomes more pronounced during long holiday periods.

If you need to get a holiday consent order in place with the Family Court, remember that they have many cases before them and wish to be time-efficient. This may mean their recommendations are not in the best interests of your child. ‘Kind tenacity’ is a phrase I use; don’t let them push you into anything that you feel is not in your child’s best interests.

When you are dealing with the courts, or even your ex-spouse over the holidays, don’t show emotional volatility. Be simple and disagree if necessary with respect to the people involved, while sticking to your point. If you ever feel you are being characterised in a way that is inaccurate, acknowledge that, and simply tell them that it is not your truth or experience.

THE CHILD

 Dominique Melissa Elich, a child of divorced parents and mother to a two-year-old daughter, says…

My parents have been divorced since I was five, so it’s all I’ve really known. Growing up, I’d spend Christmas Eve one year with my Dad and then Christmas Day with my Mum, and vice versa. My parents were quite good at cooperating and being civil with each other, so it made my experience at Christmas quite positive.

It was always so much fun waking up and opening presents with my younger half-sisters and brother. Laughter and joy is what I remember most. There was conflict at times, but it was still special.

My advice is to split the time evenly with each parent. Be flexible and patient with each other, especially in front of your kids. Making children feel loved at this time of year should be a parent’s ultimate priority. And be sensible with present giving; don’t try to out-do each other. Kids will remember time spent together more than gifts.

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