The festive season can be a time of stress for separated families. Separation can impact children in different ways, for example some may worry and show distress while others may be more carefree. Children feel less distressed when they have opportunities to connect with both parents and extended family members, where possible, and have a clear understanding of structure and routine.
In some cases children may not be able to see one or both parents, for a range of reasons. In such instances it’s important to support children by listening to them and validating their feelings which may include sadness, anger or a sense of loss. Providing children with reassuring messages and a space to talk openly about their feelings is key to supporting them.
Depending on circumstances families might be able to support children to celebrate separately with their parents.
Make time for separated parents to talk in advance about plans. It is not uncommon for separated parents to find communicating with each other stressful, particularly if the separation has happened recently. However, it is important to take time to engage in conversation about planning festive celebrations. These discussions should be held well in advance and without involvement of the children, to allow any disagreements to be resolved privately. Anticipate possible points of tension at events (eg., transitions between parents or families) and problem-solve together to minimise children’s exposure to stressful situations.
Ensure plans allow children to connect across family. Family is an important foundation stone for children’s mental health, and children benefit from connecting with family members throughout the festive season. If a child has a strong relationship with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, make sure they have the opportunity to spend time together at this time of the year.
Communicate your agreed plans. Communicating your plans with children, including transitions between parents is important in supporting children with managing separation. Making sure they know what to expect helps to reduce children’s worry and anxiety around the festive season. It’s also important for children to understand that both their parents agree on the plans – it may help to communicate the plan together.
Provide emotional reassurance. Beyond the logistics, the festive season is an opportunity to spend time together and create happy memories. Reassure your child with messages of love and care, and help them feel excited for the celebrations to come, on both sides of the family. Support connection to both parents, especially when the child is away from one parent.
Stick to the plan. Once the plan has been agreed and communicated, it’s important for children’s positive mental health, to act as agreed. Doing so will remove opportunity for disagreement between parents on the day and reduce children’s anxiety.
Look after yourself. Separation is also a time of stress for adults, and in order to support children, it’s important that parents look after themselves. Parents and carers can help manage their own emotions by:
connecting with social supports such as family and friends
prioritising self-care and paying attention to your own emotions and stress levels
creating opportunities for quality bonding time with children
seeking additional support if needed