Two Christmases. How to help children with their first Christmas after separation.

A guest blog today by Sarah E.Clarke, Child Psychotherapist

Divorce and separation are incredibly difficult, but Christmas can be particularly hard to navigate, especially for children.  The pressure to have a lovely time can create its own problems.

However there are things you can do to make everyone’s lives a little easier.

You don’t have to carry on as normal

My children’s father and I separated in September 2010. Our daughters were aged four and one. For me, divorce felt inescapable but I was determined to make it as amicable as possible. I think my ex may have carried the hope that we could still work things out and this combination of idealism and fantasy meant that we agreed to spend Christmas together, “as normal” which meant going to stay with his parents.

This was a terrible idea and one I would hesitate to recommend to anyone. When you are caught up in the horror of separating, it’s easy to forget the ripple-effect. Emotions run higher at Christmas than at any other time of the year and even if you and your partner are able to avoid blaming and shaming games, it is unlikely that everyone else will be able to as well.

Whilst recruiting other, trusted family members to distract you and entertain the children is undoubtably a good idea, this needs to be an explicit request that is made and agreed upon by everyone involved, before you turn up on someone else’s doorstep and hit the Baileys. Everyone needs to be on their best behaviour and if you don’t think that’s possible, don’t do it.

Don’t Expect Miracles

A day of presents, Disney films and unlimited chocolate may seem like a perfect distraction but it is worth remembering that children like predictability, consistency and routine. They are also like little satellite dishes, capable of picking up any and all the emotional tensions in a room, ‘bad’ behaviour may be their only way of communicating this back to you.

Don’t Expect Them To Choose

As with every other aspect of separation, talking about what is going to happen to your children, equally explicitly, at a level they will understand, is of paramount importance.

My children were too young to involve in the decision making process and there is an argument to say that however old they are they may not want to be involved. I hear time and time again how incredibly painful “being made to choose” is for children.

The following year there was no question of attempting this again.  After weeks of negotiation we agreed I would have the children for Christmas and he would have them for New Year.  Whatever you may think of this arrangement, the point is that we agreed it.

In divorce, friends, family and even people you barely know will have opinions and judgements. Learn, as best you can to ignore these - they are at best, unhelpful and at worse damaging and destructive.

Give them some control

Once an arrangement has been agreed, it can be presented to children and then they can be asked what would make it easier or better for them eg “You’re going to be at Mum’s in the morning but would you like to Skype Dad after breakfast?” or “Dad will be cooking the Christmas lunch but you can choose what you are going to have.”

Reassure small children that Father Christmas will know where to find them.

Older children can be involved in planning the structure of their day or days and logistics such as which presents get opened where and when.

I guess my best advice is not around the who’s, whats, whys and wherefores. Only you know your individual circumstances and your children and there really is no magical ‘right’ way to do anything in a separation.

Talk to them about how they feel.

For me the most important thing to remember is that little people need help to manage big feelings. There is no escaping the cold, hard truth that this may be the worst thing that has happened to them and they will be angry and sad and scared. Our feelings of guilt should not prevent them from expressing their, entirely valid feelings about what is happening to them.

Talk with them and try (really, really hard!) to understand what this feels like for them. Cry with them. Hug them and let them know that it will get easier. And it will.

DON’T turn it into a competition

DON’T punish your children for wishing things were different

DONT make promises you can’t keep

DO both go to whatever school bits you can

DO expect your children to ask Father Christmas if he can get you back together

DO plan something nice for yourself to do if you don’t have the children