How to survive your first family Christmas apart

It’s December. The ubiquity of happy ads, TV jingles and shop fronts blasting out cloyingly songs of merriment and family happiness are impossible to avoid. 

It is, after all, ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. A time of year, we are told, we celebrate as a family.

However, for many families, post-separation over the last year, this Christmas period is going to be a difficult time. A time of firsts. Over the next four weeks many parents in this country and indeed around the world will put themselves under all sorts of pressure to ensure that their children experience as little upset as possible, as the family tries to navigate this new way of being together.

A break-up or divorce can be one of the most emotionally and physically draining  experiences for the family unit. Whatever the reason for the split, the ending of a relationship can leave devastation in its aftermath, as the family are launched into uncharted territory.

In my own practice, I have noticed how families experience incredible amounts of stress and profound disappointment leading up to the 25th of December. And when I meet the family in January there is a clear sense of relief, like they got through something incredibly arduous and survived.

There is a tangible feeling of hope in the room, almost like getting through Christmas was a testimony to their resilience.

Parents can put themselves under incredible amounts of stress trying to ensure that their children will not experience any change or that this Christmas will be exactly the same as last Christmas.

And, of course, the reality is that it wont be. Acknowledging this fact can help significantly to reduce some of the stressors on the family.

I tell the family, it’s about being together differently now. And that Christmas will come and Christmas will go and new traditions will be forged for this family.

Children often express to me that they do not want to offend or upset a parent by spending an unequal amount of time in either parent’s house over the Christmas period.

“I really want to see my friends on St Stephens day but that’s dad’s time to have me, and I don’t want to upset him.”

When time becomes rigid and unmoveable, conflict can arise. Often parents can become fixed on the amount of time they spend with their child and lose sight of what their child wants.

Listening to each other and coming up with a timetable that suits everyone, and trying to meet each other’s needs will be hugely significant for a peaceful Christmas.

Recent research suggests that children are not significantly impacted by separation but rather by how parents interact with each other post separation.

While there may be a lot of hurt, it is very important that parents work together to ensure their children are not included in adult themes. Advice for recently separated parents this Christmas:

  • Acknowledge that this is going to be a difficult time. Give yourself a break, you might not be at your
    optimal best this Christmas. But you are probably going through a myriad of emotions. Hear them. Allow yourself time to heal. And allow yourself not to be perfect this Christmas. The pressure to be happy can cause much upset.
  • Have someone to talk to that is not connected to your family. An unbiased lens is always important to have as you navigate this new landscape. If you don’t have anyone, access a service. There are plenty of services you can talk to about what you are feeling. Do not go through this alone.
  • Do not involve your children in adult themes. This is one of the major issues I see in therapy, and it causes so much pain for the entire family. Children do not want to hear anything negative from a parent about another parent. Hurt can make us lose sight of our parenting obligations. Talk to a professional about your feelings. But just remember your children will eventually resent you for bad mouthing their mother or father.
  • You still have a future. It can seem like there is no future in the immediate moments of separation. But there is. When we commit to someone we create many hopes and dreams, when that relationship ends it also signals the end of many of those dreams. However, eventually you will replace those old dreams with new ones. This can be a time of discovery too. A time to find yourself again.
  • Remember, it’s only one day. This too shall pass.

When we combine the highly stressful event of divorce or separation with a time of year that says we should be incredibly happy and united as a family, we have the potential for an extremely challenging time.

Parents must remember they are not perfect and uncoupling is never an easy process. If your family is going through this challenging process this Christmas, be kind to yourself and allow for this Christmas to be different.

Remember, next Christmas will be better as this new rhythm of being together will be more familiar to all of you, and in less than twenty days it will all be over. And you will have survived it.

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