The family way

Separated parents need to set aside their own differences to give their children a truly happy Christmas, says Lisa Salmon.

Family carol services, streams of adverts showing grinning families gathered round trees, family packs of mince pies - there's no getting away from who Christmas is primarily aimed at.

Which can be wonderful if your family unit is a united one, but can be very painful if it's not.

Government estimates say around 300,000 families separate every year in the UK, on top of approximately five million parents who've already gone through separation.

This leaves more than four million children facing a tough Christmas if their mum and dad are not able to call a festive truce.

Unfortunately though, says family solicitor Lindsay Jones of Ultimate Law in Manchester, children can be used as 'weapons' by separated parents.

"Parents often can't get over the breakdown of their own relationship, and the only way of getting back at the other person is through the children.

"Perhaps a father won't allow toys he's bought for the children to go back to the mother's with them. It can be about control, power and using the children."

Of course, the impact of divorce or separation on children is not exclusively a Christmas problem. New research from another law firm, Seddons, found that a third of divorced or separated couples say their biggest general regret about splitting up is the effect it had on their children - 32% reporting a deterioration in their child's emotional state, school performance (22%) and general behaviour (17%).

Yet shockingly, the survey also found nearly a quarter of respondents reported no perceived negative impact on their children.

Sadly, says Jones, this is impossible.

"All children, regardless of how they present it, are very much affected by relationship breakdown," she stresses.

"The skill for parents, though, is trying to manage that, putting aside their differences and trying to present a united front to the kids.

"At Christmas, the best thing is for the mum and dad to sit down and reach an agreement, and remember what Christmas was like for them when they were children."

The most common obstacle to reaching this point is deciding who actually has the children on Christmas Day.

"The judicial take is that a child should wake up in the bed they'd normally wake up in on whatever day happens to be Christmas Day," says Jones.

"From that moment, it's up to the parents to decide how the rest of the day is spent."

Sometimes children will spend time with both separated parents at Christmas, but Nick Woodall, a mediator at the Family Separation Clinic (www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk) points out this can cause tensions that risk spilling over into the festivities. He says mum and dad should try to find an early compromise that means everyone gets a bit of what they want.

"That doesn't necessarily mean splitting everything down the middle," he explains, "but looking at how everyone can spend as much relaxed and enjoyable time as possible."

This means ensuring hand-overs are calm, with any changes flagged-up as early as possible and children given plenty of warning that they're leaving.

Woodall also advises separated parents do not to forget about factoring in extended family, new partners and other children, and to always try to make time in a Christmas schedule for grandparents, aunts and uncles if children are used to seeing them at the festive time.

It's vital, too, that separated parents don't compete over presents, says Woodall. They need to communicate so not to buy the same things, and if there's still a degree of cooperation, it may even be possible to buy complementary presents, such as one parent buying a console and the other getting games for it.

If sharing the actual Christmas Day is not possible - be that because of location or over-strained relations - some parents find switching days in alternate years works well, building new traditions where certain days are spent with each parent all days are seen as of equal importance.

On the other hand, many parents may not see their children at all over the holiday period. If this is the case, they may need to create ways of marking the occasion that can still help them feel close to their children, with a phone call or a special letter.

But Woodall warns: "Let them enjoy the day they're having with their other parent, and reassure them that they'll have a special day with you pretty soon."

Whatever deal you decide on though, don't leave it to the last minute.

"Sorting things out earlier rather than later will help to ensure things run smoothly," Woodall says.

"By all means consult with your children, but never leave them to make the final decision. It's an unfair burden on them."

Ask the expert

Q: "Like many mums, I get really stressed before Christmas. What are the best ways to help make the season a bit more chilled?"

A: Emily Thorpe, a life coach and founder of www.happyworkingmum.com, says: "For mums, this time of year can be just one long stress-fest of rushing around the shops, spending too much money and berating themselves if it's not like a scene from a Disney film.

"But realise that overspending and overeating isn't what Christmas is about. Who wants to start the New Year overweight and overdrawn?

"Discover what the magic of Christmas is for you and your family, and focus just on that to keep stress at bay.

"Don't stress about the perfect present. Inexpensive solutions that everyone will love can bring you closer together as a family.

"Have a plan. Know what you want and plan accordingly. Lists are your new best friend.

"Don't underestimate the joy of delegating. Christmas is a time for giving AND receiving, so learn to say thanks and take as much help as you can. Don't spend all day in the kitchen, have fun with your family.

"So what if you burn the Yorkshire puddings or forget to buy crackers? Lament or laugh, it's up to you."

One for the family

:: Daddy Pig Boxer Shorts

Part of a limited edition loungewear range featuring Daddy Pig from the popular children's TV series Peppa Pig. As well as the boxer shorts (£6), Daddy Pig pyjamas (£10), lounge pants (£10), and socks (£2.50) are available from Asda stores nationwide.

:: Pacapod Moab Changing Bag

Stylish satchel-style changing bag for parents, crafted with heritage wool and oiled leather, with a three-in-one baby organisation system featuring two lightweight 'pods' to store baby feeding and changing items which can be unclipped and left at nursery, leaving room for a laptop. Priced £175, available from John Lewis, good nursery retailers and www.pacapod.com. Last order date before Christmas, December 23.

:: The Gobstopper Grandparents Sweet Box

A selection of The Gobstopper's favourite nostalgic sweets including humbugs, crystallised stem ginger, milk chocolate and toffees - a real walk down memory lane for grandparents. Available from www.thegobstopper.co.uk, £15.49. Last order date for Christmas, December 22 if one-day delivery is selected.

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