Even though we are again in covid-19 lockdown, the thoughts of many will soon be turning to Christmas. This is particularly so for parents who are separated.
The vast majority of parents want to make Christmas as happy a time as possible for their children. In that situation it is important to agree the arrangements well in advance to give the best chance of avoiding misunderstandings and disagreements.
It has been made clear that the current lockdown, even if extended to cover Christmas, does not preclude children spending time with each parent either at Christmas or at other times.
Obviously, parents will use their own discretion and will be sensible. If, for example, one of the parents has contracted covid or someone in their house has done so, or has been tested positive, it would not be wise for children to visit that house until either recovery is complete or a period of isolation has expired.
In other words, life should continue as normally as possible so far as the children are concerned.
One of the first and most important issues to resolve is where the children will be spending Christmas. Most separated parents are able to make an agreement between themselves. Very frequently, separated parents accept that the children will be with each parent in alternate years. Even with that arrangement, it is important that the details are clear. For example, it is advisable to discuss and agree when the children will be moving from one household to the other at the beginning of Christmas and at the end.
Other parents, particularly those who live relatively close to each other, prefer an arrangement where the children spend part of Christmas Day with each parent. That is fine if it works for the parents and the children but it is as well to reflect on whether or not the children would prefer a degree of continuity in one household. It would be unlikely to be a sensible arrangement if the parents live some distance apart and most would agree that extensive travel on Christmas Day should be avoided as that is unlikely to be in the best interests of the children.
Incidentally, where the children spend Christmas with one parent, it is often agreed that they will spend approximately the same length of time with the other parent over New Year.
This does not mean that the parents have to do everything that the children want: sometimes children ‘want’ things that are not in their best interests.
For example, as a general rule, children are happy with the alternate years arrangement mentioned above. However the older they become and particularly when they are in their teens, they may well have their own ideas, which could be firm ideas, of how they want to spend Christmas. Parents may find that they feel resentful about this, particularly if they feel ‘excluded’. However, such teenage thoughts and ideas are really no more than part of the normal growing up process. It is in situations like this that parents should try to be flexible.
Even if one of the parents is able to show that this Christmas should be spent with them, if a child is resistant to doing so, good relationships are almost certainly not going to be enhanced by adopting an inflexible position. An agreement of arrangements made when children are very young may become irrelevant, even unworkable, eight or ten years later.
Be ready to adapt. For example, perhaps make a suggestion for extra days on another occasion. For each parent to adopt a flexible and reasonable approach is very likely to lead to a better relationship with the other parent and more importantly, with the children.
Resolving issues, including a willingness to compromise, involves the need for communication between parents.
If there is one key to resolving issues around all arrangements between a separated couple, including those relating to the arrangements for the children, it is a willingness to communicate in a reasonable way.
Of course, particularly if there is bad faith and resentment, this can be very difficult. Most parents will, however, remember that it will be the children who will suffer the most if they are aware that their parents are constantly bickering, or worse.
If speaking directly to the other parent, either face to face or by phone, is impossible or has not resolved matters, then a written communication is better than none. Either way, do everything possible to avoid harsh criticism (even if it is felt to be justified) because in most cases that will only raise the emotional temperature, rather than lead to a solution.
The best way to make sure that arrangements are in hand and are agreed is to discuss them well in advance. Do not leave it until the last moment: quite apart from the likely disappointment the children will feel, it makes it very difficult to do anything about it if it is too late.
Having made the arrangements, the golden rule is to stick to them. Children find it devastating if they are told that, for example, their mother will be picking them up at a certain time, only for her not to arrive approximately on time or, worse still, at all. If delayed or arrangements have to change for an emergency, call ahead and explain the situation.
If time permits, the lawyer will almost certainly advise a further attempt through a solicitor, to achieve agreement. Lawyers are very experienced in negotiating on issues of this sort
If that fails, there could be a referral to a mediator, if the other parent is willing.
An application to the courts would be the last resort but remains possible. Do remember, however, that, particularly in these covid days, the courts are not able to deal with cases with the same speed as normal. This is another reason why attempts to make arrangements should begin as early as possible.
If you or anyone you know, are affected by the issues raised above and would like more information or some preliminary, confidential advice, please contact one of our experienced experts in our family team.