Whether you are newly divorced or you’ve been divorced for some time, the festive season is a difficult time of year for co-parents

It doesn’t matter if you practise Christianity, another faith, or none, Christmas is a special day in our calendar, especially for children. It is a day for families to come together, share food and cheer, and take a break from routine. Here in South Africa the festive season often means travel, as it is the main holiday period of the year for most people.

How do you navigate the challenges of shared care and contact at this time of year?

You both want to spend Christmas with your child(ren), but unless you have an unusually amicable post-divorce relationship, this is unrealistic, particularly if either or both of you have a new partner and possibly stepchildren.

First port of call – the parenting plan

Hopefully you have a parenting plan. Even in uncontested, conflict-free divorces, a parenting plan is a worthwhile tool. In it you lay out arrangements such as shared care (how much time the child spends at each parent’s home), school pick-ups, emergency procedures and… holidays.

As school holidays are always a fraught time for co-parents, these should be carefully considered when drawing up the parenting plan. The festive season is the most emotionally charged holiday on the calendar, so it deserves special attention.

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Why a parenting plan is a good idea (even if your divorce is amicable)

If you did not develop a parenting plan at the time of divorce, or if it was vague, just covering principles rather than logistical specifics, you can revise the plan. Many parents include a review date in the parenting plan that ensures they will revisit the plan at intervals to keep it relevant to changing circumstances. Your divorce lawyer can help you amend the plan when necessary.

Peace on earth and goodwill to… children

Whatever is in the parenting plan, disputes may arise. Your parenting plan may stipulate that the children will spend Christmas with each parent on alternate years. This is likely to be a more practical solution if you live in different cities or provinces. Or you may split the holiday in two, so that the children spend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with one parent and Christmas Day or Boxing Day with the other.

But one year you have a family member visiting from overseas. You want to negotiate an exception to the agreed schedule and take your children away for the whole Christmas and New Year week. Or you want to visit family abroad.

Talk to your ex before mentioning it to your children. It is unfair to raise the children’s expectations or put pressure on them to champion your cause. Raise the matter with your co-parent in good time. They may also have special plans.

Be prepared to give something in return – perhaps offer the Easter break as a compromise. And be willing to give them the same concession, should they need it another time. If you honour reasonable requests from your ex, they are more likely to accede to yours. Ultimately, you may need to amend your agreement to include the weeks either side of Christmas, if you both want to take the children away for a summer holiday.

The festive season should be a time the children enjoy, not a time for them to feel torn between parents. The most important factor in any negotiation is the best interests of the child or children. If taking your child away from their other parent at this emotional time of year is going to cause distress or upset, don’t do it.

Your children may be accustomed to dividing their time between parents and may even enjoy it – they get two Christmases! But they may consider each celebration special in its own way and not want to miss out.

But where will Santa find me?

For very young children, often their only concern is Santa’s ability to find their house, especially if they spend every other Christmas with each parent. If they appear unhappy about the Christmas plans, it’s worth probing to see what the issue is. It may just be this; and you can reassure them that Santa will find them.

Presents can be problematic too. Hostile parents often use Christmas as a time to ‘get one up’ on the other parent, outdoing them with bigger and better gifts. However tempting, resist doing this. Your child’s love is not for sale and it’s unfair to manipulate them in this way.

If you are able to have a civil conversation with your ex-spouse, agree on a gift-giving strategy and a reasonable budget. If your child believes in Santa, work out which presents will be from Santa and share that responsibility.

A child’s relationship with grandparents is very special and should not be overlooked

Don’t forget the grandparents

Often the biggest victims of divorce are not the children but the grandparents. Most parents (unless they have narcissistic personality disorder or other self-obsession) put their children first in the divorce proceeding, and the law ensures this via the Children’s Act. But grandparents and the extended family are often neglected.

A child’s relationship with grandparents is very special and should not be overlooked. Even if you and your ex can barely speak to each other, try to allow room in the holiday schedule for your child to spend time with grandparents (and/or aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews if relevant) on both sides.

It is understandable that when you are already sharing your child and missing some of the festive celebrations, you don’t want to give up any more time. But children are raised by a village – and villages include elders.

Let Cape Town family lawyer help

Cape Town divorce attorney SD Law is a firm of family lawyers with deep experience of helping couples negotiate the challenges of co-parenting post-divorce. We’ve helped many parents develop workable parenting plans and are known for our high EQ. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email [email protected] to discuss your case in confidence.