Elisa Turco from our office was recently interviewed by Kidspot and published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Separation or divorce doesn’t have to mean the end of a magical Christmas Day for your children. Keep things civil and stress-free this Christmas with our handy step-by-step guide.
Step one: Get to know where you stand legally
If you think you and your ex are legally entitled to a clear 50/50 division of time with your children this Christmas – with a handy alternating Christmas Day roster, you’re in for some disappointment, says family mediator Elisa Turco.
If ‘how and where’ your children spend Christmas isn’t outlined clearly in your parenting plan (see below) or you can’t agree on changes, you can apply for a third party to look into the situation.“You can make an application for the matter to be heard in court, but the court requires parties to undergo alternate dispute resolution, such as mediation first,” advises Jayson McCauley, Family Law Accredited Specialist at Barkus Doolan.
If mediation fails, you can apply to the courts, however, if you want your matter heard before Santa makes his way down the chimney, you’ll have to apply before the Family Court’s cut-off date (this year it was by 4pm, November 14).
Step two: Plan ahead
As separated parents know, a detailed shared parenting plan (a written, signed and dated document outlining arrangements made for each child) is worth its weight in gold. And spelling out your yearly Yuletide plans can save a lot of time, money and heartache. “I always advise my clients to think and act on this key area early on,” says Turco. “If a Christmas plan is locked in early, this will not only minimise the potential for conflict in the lead up to the day itself, but it will enable everyone involved, including the kids, to prepare for what should be a special and exciting time”.
The important thing to note is that although parenting plans are taken into consideration by the courts, shared parenting plans aren’t legally binding, nor are they final, says McCauley. “If there has been significant change in yours or your ex’s life recently, a party can always revisit the plan to request changes be made.”
Step three: Communicate by the book
Can’t communicate with your ex about your child’s upcoming Christmas pageant without it turning into a screaming match? Experts recommend using a communication book, where you write down any details related to the care of your child and use it as a ‘go-between’ during pick-ups and drop-offs. The key to success is keeping your notes business-like and on-subject.
“To do otherwise means the communication book can become just another vehicle for continuing the argument in another format,” says Turco. In particularly fraught situations, she suggests parents communicate via text or email, and only if they’ve had an opportunity to sleep on it overnight. “Whatever method is chosen, the aim is to shield your kids from the conflict, to prevent what can sometimes be irreversible harm caused to your child’s emotional and psychological wellbeing”.
Step four: Be reasonable
The lead-up to Christmas can be stressful and emotional at the best of times, but adding a fragmented family to the mix can be a recipe for disaster. Help yourself by occasionally taking a step back and remembering what it was you once liked — even loved — about your ex and try applying it to your current situation, recommends McCauley.
“What we find in warring families is that often, someone is viewed as a perfectly good father on the Wednesday, there’s a split on the Thursday and the things his then-wife previously enjoyed as part of his parenting style and method is no longer acceptable on the Friday,” McCauley says.“It’s endemic of being human, but if you can’t separate your ex from his actions, it might be worth getting someone in who can help you to look at things impartially.”
Step five: Involve others
Is it greedy to want Christmas Eve as well as Christmas lunch with your kids? Why can’t he understand you’re not happy with his new girlfriend coming to dinner? And why is this all so hard? When you’ve got so many questions, it’s only natural to want to vent to loved ones, but you need to think carefully about who you invite to have a front-row seat to your personal drama.
“Trusted family members, friends and community leaders are great but remember this can be quite a burdensome task for loved ones who are already struggling with their own Christmas issues,” says Turco. “You need to ask yourself how neutral are they? And will they end up taking sides and become enmeshed in the conflict?”
Take your issues to a trained and accredited family dispute resolution practitioner, who will work with the two of you to find solutions to your problems you’re both happy with. If mediation fails seek advice from a specialised family lawyer who is well-versed in these situations, says McCauley. “Try choosing one who is committed to staying away from the court process through alternative dispute resolution methods, such as collaborative law or friendly negotiation with your ex partner’s lawyer.”
Step six: Plan a holiday
Thinking about taking your kids for a post-Boxing Day sojourn at an overseas island destination? Don’t book a thing until you’ve canvassed the idea with your ex, warns McCauley. “If there’s a disagreement between the two of you regarding the matter, the last thing you want to do is turn up at the airport and find your kids are on the watch list which is not only embarrassing, but can be a huge financial burden.”
This is a common problem, often compounded when one parent wishes to take their children to a non-Hague Convention country (which makes it very hard to get the kids back, in cases of child abduction). “But permission can be sought and granted,” says McCauley. “Courts usually allow the parent making the application to take their child overseas unless it’s an extraneous situation, where a parent has been threatening to take the kids away or isn’t an Australian citizen with property within the country.” Help Ease tensions by providing your ex with an itinerary and contact details and as always, remember this isn’t about you or your ex, but your children having the time of their lives.
Tips for a child-happy Christmas
No matter what’s going on between you and your partner, remember you’re in it together for the kids. Help make the holiday period for your little ones magical.
- If you have your child on Christmas Day, encourage them to have meaningful contact with their other parent throughout the course of the day via Skype, Facetime or by phone.
- Don’t try to buy your child’s affection by attempting to outdo your ex in the gift-giving department. Consult with your ex and either set budget guidelines or go halves in your child’s gifts.
- Not your turn to have the kid this Christmas? Turn a negative into a positive by creating an alternative day of celebration. What could be better than having two Christmas celebrations back to back?
- Encourage your child to visit or contact relatives from your ex’s family in the lead-up to the big day and, if possible, on the day itself.
- Involve your child in your plan-making. All kids — regardless of their age — want to feel like they have some say about how they spend the holiday.
- Make sure your ex knows about any Christmas plays, concerts or activities coming up and that they have the opportunity to attend.
- Lastly, whatever you do, refrain from arguing in front of the kids. If your child is having trouble coping, consider seeking help for them through the Australian Psychological Society. Kids can call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.