Advice For Separated Families During This Christmas Period

Christmas, like any festival or event, can be a difficult time for a separated family organising arrangements for children across two or more households. In the worst cases, trying to make these plans can lead to serious conflict. In his latest article, Kevan Hankison offers some advice to those families who are trying to ensure a smooth and stress-free Christmas period.

Christmas in a Pandemic

This year there is the added complication of the coronavirus pandemic. The current government guidance suggests that there will be at least a five day period during which households can mix and that children should not be prevented from spending time in different households where parents are separated.

However, the government has made clear that the risk from coronavirus does not disappear just because families want to get together and there is the possibility that parents will disagree about what risks are worth running over the holidays.

The court has issued guidance that even where one parent considers the other to be taking an unduly cautious approach to issues around coronavirus, there should be some patience and understanding. That does however have to be balanced by the fact that sometimes concerns about coronavirus are actually masking more unpleasant disputes. This has caused quite a bit of difficulty over the last year and will continue for some time yet.

Disputes about the risk to vulnerable family members and how to fit arrangements into a limited timeframe come on top of the usual stresses and strains of separated parenting. Every family lawyer can speak about difficult phone calls often in the last few days before a holiday, birthday or special event, in which arrangements have either never been put in place or have fallen apart at the last minute.

Everyone’s family and circumstances are different and it is not possible in a short article to cover all the issues that might apply to you or your family. If you are anticipating serious difficulty with children’s arrangements over the coming month, getting tailored advice specific to your circumstances may be very important.

However, there are some general points that it may be useful to consider.

The first thing to say is that it is particularly important to get help and advice if you or the children are at risk of abusive behaviour. Whilst there is much good advice to be given about trying to build agreements and consensus where possible around children, there are exceptions to every rule and cases involving domestic abuse have to be considered with great care.

Handling Christmas Arrangements Amicably

Otherwise, doing what you can to build a sensible agreement around festivities is certain to help parents and more importantly to the children themselves. It is a good idea to try and plan well in advance. It is surprising how often things which you assume everyone knows (for example that a particular relative is going to be calling on a particular day at a particular time) isn’t known and hasn’t been discussed and then causes a lot of argument and difficulty.

Even with the best of intentions parents can find themselves making different plans and then getting very unhappy if those plans are disrupted by an ex-partner. Take the time to think about what you are going to do and how you are going to communicate it to the other person, bearing in mind that they too will have their priorities, which may be heartfelt, even if not the same as yours.

What Should Be Done If Disagreements Arise?

If there are going to be problems and you need assistance then there are options available like mediation or taking advice from a solicitor but the closer you get to the big day, the more difficult it is to arrange those sorts of solutions. In the worst case scenario trying to get a resolution from court is unlikely to be realistic in the run up to the holiday period. That is doubly true with the court under significant strain trying to deal with cases in the pandemic.

There are a number of resources available that will enable you to come up with a parenting plan, for example from CAFCASS (https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/parenting-plan/) and you can tailor that specifically to the Christmas period.

You may have to appreciate that even if you see yourself as the main organiser of the children’s lives there will have to be some give and take and you may have to think about what is particularly critical and important.

A point that is often discussed in court when the issue of festivals and holidays arise, is that it is often the adults more than the children who get hung up upon particular days. Whilst the parents may consider it to be absolutely critical to spend time with a child on the 25th December and that no other date will do, for the children having two or more Christmases in any given week is actually really good news, and they are far less concerned about the number on the calendar.

Similarly people can find themselves going to extraordinary lengths and travelling long hours simply to ensure that they have a few hours with a child on any given day when actually they could have had a whole day or more in a far less fraught set of circumstances.

For some, there will always be the “magic” of waking up with the children on the day itself. Whilst courts tailor every outcome to the individual children and families in question, it is fair to say that if no other solution can be found courts expect parents to take their turn with these moments. It can be complicated especially where there is an extended family or children from other relationships involved in the arrangements.

In an ideal world you would be able to pull out a calendar, have a friendly discussion with the other parent, there will be some give and take from both and an arrangement can be put in place. The children themselves may have some say in the matter but if the parents are able to present a united front that will probably make things more constructive.

Consider Mediation

If there are not concerns around abuse, then mediation is an excellent way to have a difficult conversation with your ex-partner about how all these different arrangements are going to fit together, but again time is running out if an arrangement like that is going to be made. If you are starting to have conversations around the holidays now and it is clear that storm clouds are gathering, consider that it is probably not going to achieve a great deal to have an angry argument and that children are extremely quick to pick up on tensions between parents. Pulling back from a conflict and dealing with it at arm’s length through a mediator or a solicitor may be a better option.

As ever, social media gives the opportunity for disputes to continue endlessly and even into the early hours of the morning. Try to keep communication civil and to avoid expressing opinions or allowing the discussion to drift into wider issues although that can be very difficult particularly if the separation is quite recent and emotions are high.

If things are falling apart it can be extremely difficult but mediators, solicitors and if necessary the court will be available in the New Year to iron out whatever went wrong and hopefully prevent it from ever happening again. Don’t get angry, get help. As upsetting as arrangements around the holidays can be it is important to be able to maintain relationships long term and not just over the Christmas period. Confrontation is easy to fall into even with good intentions, but one bad incident can lead to lasting harm.

Butcher & Barlow LLP

If you are anticipating difficulties then getting good advice early is key. We understand that Christmas is a special time, and is important to get right – especially after the troublesome year we have had. If you would like some more advice, or would like to find out more about how we could help you during this holiday period, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your local firm.

Kevan Hankinson

You can also contact Family Law specialist Kevan Hankinson directly on 0161 797 5650, or at khankinson@butcher-barlow.co.uk