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Christmas Holidays. How to make sure they stay magical for your children.

11th November 2019 by Kenneth Clarke

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The end of term is when children should burst gleefully out of school doors, excited at the prospect of spending a fun packed holiday with mum and dad.

Except for children of divorce, where more often than not it is fun times with mum or dad, with the fun factor in short supply because their parents are arguing about who their children should be with. For separated parents and children, holidays can be a major and never-ending cause of conflict.

Instead of enjoying quality time with mum or dad during their holiday, children of divorced or separated parents can experience split loyalties, guilt, sadness, regret and all the anxiety and stress that goes with those feelings.

Holidays can present unique problems for children of separated parents, problems that mum and dad are oblivious too, while they are exchanging the threat of specific issue or prohibited steps applications, to enforce the right to or prevent the holiday.

Even if children have no choice about where they are taking a vacation, the mere fact that they are with one parent and not the other, can create a deep sense of longing for things to be the way they were before mum and dad split up.

Parents unintentionally cause their children to feel guilt when they argue about holiday arrangements. Children are acutely aware of cross conversations about holidays and believe that they are the cause of their parents’ acrimony.

Understanding cognitive dissonance

The sadness factor in a child’s holiday turmoil is triggered by what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. This is an uncomfortable emotional state where two sets of emotions or thoughts cannot co-exist. Children fret about how they can have a wonderful holiday with mum or dad whilst simultaneously longing to be with the other parent. This scenario creates an ironic twist to the situation that was highlighted in the film “Home Alone”.


Another factor that often escapes parents when they are immersed in their own battles, is the regret that their children experience as a result of mum and dad ending their relationship. Regret for children carries a tremendous burden that is actually a recognised syndrome, called “parentification”. This is where children feel that it is their grown-up responsibility to somehow proactively change the dynamic between their parents, even though they know that they are really helpless to do so.

Sadly, for a lot of children, conflict over holidays is an annual occurrence, with debates over dates and venues re-opening old wounds and unhealed scars between the adults. Older children might eventually vote with their feet, but with that choice the attendant worries still come to the surface. “How is mum/dad going to feel? I hate making her/him so sad”. For some older children, being with friends is the easier option, as their parents will not be able to accuse them of choosing one over the other.

Christmas – the season of goodwill?

Christmas is traditionally held as time for magical excitement, so it is no surprise that there is often increased tension surrounding this holiday that other times of the year for separated or divorced parents.

One family judge I appeared before on many occasions, called the end of November and beginning of December “tin hat time” because nearly every urgent application was about who was going to be pulling the Christmas cracker with little Jonny or Jill on Christmas Day.

Much as family lawyers preach the mantra of fairness and encourage parents to make sure that their children spend part of special days (including birthdays), with both of them, the season of goodwill more often than not produces more bitterness and humbug than Scrooge mustered in “A Christmas Carol”.

The Christmas debate notches up a level when it comes to buying the children a gift. “He/she is buying more presents or a more expensive present than me. They are trying to get one over on me”. Neither parent has the presence of mind to nullify this pointless one-upmanship.

Take a holiday from the conflict and call a truce

It does not have to be like this. Holidays can be a win-win for everyone with some forward planning, a bit of give and take and maintaining a focus on making sure the children enjoy their Christmas pudding without worrying about mum or dad sitting in isolation seething and jealous about them spending time with the other parent.

Here are Laceys top tips;

  1. Prepare a Parenting Plan in advance. Even if holiday dates can’t be confirmed in the plan, at least include a clause that each parent will give the other as much advance notice as possible of their preferred holiday dates.
  2. If possible give the children the best of both worlds, by sharing a meal together on special days.
  3. If that is not possible, find ways to make the special days magical for the children. One option is to pool their resources and buy their children one single and “special” present. This can mean a great deal to children, who will remember that the gift was from mum and dad, who were at least able to agree over the choice of their present.
  4. Another good option is ensuring that your child has a gift for the other parent. This sends a powerful message to children, that despite the severance of the marital bond, mum and dad’s devotion to the spirit of the holiday or special day is alive and well.

A child’s separation anxiety can be magnified during holidays, when mixed emotions swirl around and threaten to ruin extended time with mum or dad. Parents need to remember that even though their relationship may have ended, holidays are an opportunity to create happy memorable times with their children. Don’t let these be ruined by hostilities.

If you are struggling to reach an agreement over Christmas, then it may be that you need a little help to reach a workable agreement.

Mediation can help parents work together, putting the child at the centre of those discussions and decisions. It is generally quicker and less expensive than court and legal aid is available for low-income families. More importantly, it can create lasting agreements that can continue to work year on year.

For further advice on mediation please contact us in confidence on 01202 721822 or who will be happy to help.


Kenneth Clarke

Associate — Family Mediation

Direct dial: 01202 721822


“What could have potentially been an extremely upsetting and inflammatory scenario, proved to be a surprisingly smooth and conflict free process through Laceys mediation. With Kenneth’s extensive experience we were able to reach an agreeable outcome without spending our life savings!”

Julie Morris

Kenneth is the elder statesman of our mediation team, with forty years’ experience as a family lawyer, and qualified as a mediator in 1996. Kenneth has been a key member of the Laceys mediation team since 2005, specialising in financial and children cases, with a particular interest and specialisation in high conflict cases.

Kenneth is also qualified to consult with children, a growing part of the mediation process. Always looking to expand the boundaries of mediation practice,  Kenneth brings a degree of gravitas, humour, understanding and empathy when he mediates with clients,  creating a positive environment in which clients work together to resolve their issues quickly and cost-effectively.

Out of office hours, Kenneth’s main passion is writing musical theatre. When he has time Kenneth also enjoys travel, especially cruising.

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