As a social worker who sees many separated parents in dispute about the care of their children, Christmas is a busy and conflict-laden time of year.
Referrals are always up and service is most frequently for help determining the residential schedule over Christmas. The money that was to go for gift giving is shared between the lawyers and myself or my colleagues as we see parents in conflict figure out how and when the children’s time with them will be divvied up.
Not only are we busy, but so too is the court system as parents file what they believe to be emergency motions seeking a judge to order a solution.
For most, a judge’s decree or an agreement reached through mediation will be sufficient to help parents manage. For others, conflict will still erupt on the holiday, very often on Christmas Day itself.
I will return to my office after a few days away to listen to messages and read emails with one parent blasting about the other parent, police involvement, the need for contempt orders and abject hatred about the untrustworthy other.
Often I will receive emails from both parents saying essentially the same thing, albeit with some nuances as to the details so that all blame is ascribed to the other.
Rarely though, do I hear about the impact of these events on the children. That actually comes much later.
Apart from the frequent behavioural, mental and academic difficulties that surface for these children along the way, come adulthood I am visited by these then-grown-up children with their new partner in tow.
They come because this now-adult child needs help to explain to the new partner why they don’t want to celebrate Christmas or why they don’t want to visit any parents.
Given their traumatic experiences of Christmas in childhood, who could blame them? Anxiety about Christmas still grips them. From their perspective, Christmas is dangerous and something to be avoided.
This, by the way, is not only an outcome for children of high-conflict separated parents, but it is also seen in intact families where domestic violence or alcoholism is a factor, or in families where there is significant parental conflict and/or abuse or neglect of the children.
Christmas isn’t the “Hallmark” memory for many and for them, the Christmas season is a frightening – and alongside the positive experiences of others – even a confusing time of year.
This year, be mindful that your partner, your friend, your colleague or your neighbour may not be relying on the same memories as you this season.
If someone feels or looks at odds, please appreciate that their recollections at this time of year may be traumatic. Don’t push and don’t argue. Support and appreciate that we all have different childhood experiences that colour our views of the season and our reactions to it. Perhaps offer them a good experience.
Be kind. Be gentle. Be understanding. Be accepting. Be generous of spirit. Help build new memories from hence forward.