Christmas, traditionally a time for family, can become extremely stressful for couples going through a divorce, and particularly for the children. As the holiday season approaches, the courts themselves are packed to bursting with disputes over Christmas contact and bitter conflicts.
According to the latest divorce statistics, in 2007 more than half of couples divorcing had at least one child aged under 16. In total, there were 117,193 children aged below sixteen who were in families where the parents divorced, 20% of these children were under five years old, and 63% aged below eleven.
Arguments over parenting time have a tendency to ripple outwards and embrace the extended family too: grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins can all find themselves sucked into family feuds which can frequently turn "toxic" and have a devastating impact on family dynamics for years to come.
Kevin Harris-James, partner and head of family law at the Midlands' offices of law firm Irwin Mitchell, is well acquainted with the crises that Christmas can create.
He comments: "In emotional situations like this we advise couples who are already divorced, or going through a divorce, to negotiate access well in advance. The reason is that, even in the happiest of families, special occasions are likely to be laden with extra emotion and excitement, not to mention anxiety over all the preparations.
"This year we also have the 'credit crunch' factor which will need to be balanced against the expectation of exciting presents and enjoyable food. It just takes one more volatile ingredient in the form of a recent separation or divorce to tip the balance and then it may not be just the Christmas Crackers that are exploding on the day."
So what, if anything, can be done to improve the situation and contribute to a peaceful and happy Christmas for separated families? Kevin has come up with his top ten tips that can help the holiday run smoothly.
- Try to agree the arrangements for the children well before Christmas. If you feel unable to do so amicably there is more time to sort them out in mediation or by applying to the court.
- If you are planning to spend Christmas abroad with the children, subject to any contact order, a residence order allows you to do so for up to a month without the consent of the other parent. However, seriously consider informing all parties to avoid conflict – and remember to ask the children if it is what they want!
- Most children like routine and want to know where they stand each year so try to plan what they will be doing well in advance. Do take into consideration what they would like to do and be flexible, especially with older children who may want to see friends over the holiday period too.
- Sensitive and timely discussions with the children themselves in order to get their input may help but don't ask the children to choose between you. When you've made the decision, explain it to them simply and constructively so they know what's going to happen.
- The fairest way may be to alternate it each year – try not to get hung up on the fact that it is Christmas. Planning well ahead of time is crucial for this to work.
- Younger children may want to see mum, dad and grandparents at their nativity play or Christmas fair. Even if you cannot face going together, let the other parent know when it is happening. In any event, note that it is possible to obtain this information directly from the school.
- Talk to each other about presents as there is no point in duplicating and remember it is not a competition.
- Try not to let yourself and your separation or divorce become the focus for all the other conflicts, rivalries and high emotions that might be fermenting in the rest of the extended family - a tall order but one that will pay dividends.
- If religion is significant to either or both parents special festival arrangements may be needed. Where holidays extend over more than two days of observance or celebration, for example Rosh Hashanah, then the opportunity for shared time might satisfy everyone's interests.
- Don't drink too much and become upset and/or get into arguments with your ex-spouse or with the children.
Kevin concludes: "It may sound simple, but my colleagues and I are very familiar with incidences which demonstrate that it is not easy to keep all members of the family happy all of the time at Christmas. All I would say to parents who may read this is what my parents used to say to each other – 'Christmas is the season of good will to all' and 'it's a time for children'."