5 steps to surviving your first Christmas as a separated parent

20 Dec 2014 @ 10.09 am
| Family

This can be a painful time for separated parents. But with a little planning you can make it work, says York family mediator Emma Heptonstall

You can create new festive traditions… Photograph © Josh Grenier on Flickr

Christmas is often a stressful time for many families. Cooking, shopping managing children’s expectations and excitement, all take their toll.

It can be even more challenging when families are separating.

Perhaps this is your first Christmas as a separated parent, and you’re wondering how you are going to manage financially and emotionally.

These five steps to surviving your first Christmas as a separated parent will help you to get through the festive period this year.

1. Plan your Christmas

It may sound obvious, but planning your Christmas can make a world of difference to you and your children. If financially you are in a different place this year, you need to manage your children’s expectations, particularly if they are young and still believe in Father Christmas.

The end of your relationship doesn’t have to mean the end of their belief in the big man. It’s about how you frame it with your children.

Perhaps there’s one item your child longs for more than anything that is within budget? Or perhaps your child really likes opening lots of smaller parcels?

Perhaps you can buy them some things they need as well as those they want? Who hasn’t had pyjamas and pants for Christmas?

If possible, discuss with the other parent the gifts you will buy for your children. Will you continue to give joint gifts (many parents do), or separate ones? Will your children see the other parent and if so, when?

Having these discussions in advance will help the whole family. It’s important to remain calm and as relaxed as you can. Consider family mediation if you feel that talking with an impartial third person will be helpful.

2. Remember that your children will have a different Christmas too

If this is the first Christmas that your children will have been without both of you in the same house, it will be strange for them. They may be sad, angry or withdrawn.

Acknowledge with your children that this year will be different, and if you can, make it different in a good way.

All families have their traditions, routines and practices they follow each year. See this Christmas as an opportunity to create new ones. Make it fun! It doesn’t need to cost any money.

If your children are old enough, get them involved and ask them to come up with ideas to make this Christmas different from previous ones.

This can also work well for families facing their first Christmas after the death of a loved one.

The breakdown of your relationship doesn’t have to end their belief in the big man. Photograph © US Army Corps of Engineers Europe on Flickr

3. Be a respectful parent

You may not be in a relationship anymore, but you are still a parent. Whatever your personal thoughts about the other parent, (unless there are safety issues), that person is the mother or father of your children.

Your children love that person and need to know that it is ok to love them. Your children may feel anxious and worried about their absent parent. It’s important to acknowledge that with your children and reassure them that the other parent is still there and loves them.

Even if Christmas brings to the surface feels of resentment and of being let down by the other person, avoid sharing these feelings with your children. It causes stress and encourages your children to have divided loyalties which are unhealthy.

4. Give the gift of time

Probably the greatest gift you can give your children this Christmas is time. Time with you, and time with their other parent and extended family.

Grandparents may also be missing from your children’s lives this Christmas. How you can make this work depends on your circumstances.

It might be you live close by and the children can spend some part of Christmas Day with the other parent. It maybe that you and the other parent are able to be in the house together for part of the time enjoying watching the children opening gifts or playing games.

That might be too soon.

Only you know what you can handle. However, it is important that in some way, your children are able to connect with their other parent and extended family.

If distance is an issue, this could be through Skype or Facetime. Remember that if you have your children completely to yourself this year, unless you and your former partner agree otherwise, it is likely the children will be with that person next year.

How would you feel not having any contact with your children? More importantly, how will you children feel not having contact with you?


That’s how your children will feel this year if you don’t facilitate, or make yourself available for contact.

You have the opportunity to show your children that they have two parents that love them dearly even though they live apart. Take that opportunity if at all possible… Your children will thank you for it.

If talking through these issues is tricky, mediation can help. Mediation is about helping you share your thoughts, asking questions and agreeing to a way forward in a neutral environment.

Deciding how to deal with Christmas as a separated parent isn’t easy and that’s why mediators are available to support you in making these arrangements for you and your family.

5. Be kind to yourself

Whether you have the children on your own, or you’ll be without them for the first time this Christmas morning, remember that it is OK to feel a whole range of emotions from sadness to anger, frustration and resentment or happiness and joy depending on your circumstances. It’s OK to have fun with your children if you have them, and it’s OK to feel upset if you haven’t.

Remember. Keep perspective. Christmas comes but once a year…

Christmas is one of the major events in the year for children and it is only a few days. Do what you need to do for you to help you manage those days.

See friends, relax and get plenty of sleep. Avoid drinking too much alcohol as this is a depressant and is unlikely to support you in the longer term.

Remember that this Christmas may not be easy, but the way in which you handle it will set expectations for future years.


  Emma is a family mediator and coach with Your Family First, a family mediation service based in York

  The Your Family First website contains lots of free information to support you in your separation or divorce

  Email [email protected] or phone 01904 697760

  Read all Emma’s columns here