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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

Column: Separation and divorce is hard for everyone – especially at Christmas

If you’re anxious about how Christmas is going to work out now that your family unit is changing, try to step back and prioritise, says Bernadette Ryan.

Bernadette Ryan

AS CHARLES DICKENS might say: ‘Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times’. For families going through separation and divorce it can be very challenging, particularly in the beginning.

Separation and divorce is a painful process for all involved. It can encompass all of the complex feelings of bereavement; grief, loss, shock, disbelief (how could this be happening to us?). It’s a process that takes time and each stage brings new challenges. Christmas can be one of those challenges.

For parents it can bring huge feelings of guilt; guilt about the loss of the family unit and its impact on the children especially at this special time of year. For the non-resident parent there can be a great sense of loneliness and isolation. They may have got used to their new situation but the harsh reality of not being with the children on Christmas morning can be heartbreaking.

This can be compounded by the fact that quite often it is the father who is the non-resident parent and, given the current situation in Ireland with regard to men’s mental health, can lead to a growing sense of depression. Financial issues can also be a big part of the situation.

The impact varies from person to person

And what of the children? The impact on children of separation can vary and is also age related. Children too grieve and feel the loss of the security of their parents and their life as they know it. Each child is an individual and will experience it in his or her own way.

However research shows that the negative impact of separation and divorce on children can be reduced and contained if the parents work together in the best interests of the children. Yes, the relationship between the two adults has ended but they will always be the parents of their children – that does not change. As someone put it to their children; our family will always be our family, it is now changing shape.

Teens especially can feel very hurt and confused by the separation. Adolescence is the second biggest stage of change in life and teens are trying to deal with raging hormones, physiological changes, emerging sexuality and being ‘cool’. Coming to terms with the separation of their parents can create huge turmoil for them. They can feel very torn. Some act this out in their behaviour, others withdraw.

At a time when teenagers need a secure base from which they can safely explore their newly emerging world, it may not be there. At a time when parents may be at their most vulnerable, they are being called upon to be strong for their children. Tough and challenging times for all concerned that can feel overwhelming – especially at Christmas.

Try to get some support

If you’re struggling with the challenges of separation do try to get some support. This can be available from family, friends, neighbours or organisations that can offer guidance and support. If you are anxious and stressed over how Christmas is going to work out for everyone try to step back and prioritise. What is really important? What do the children need? Who are the important people in their lives? Can access to both parents be accommodated in a fair way?

Try to see things from their point of view and not let the pain or grievances of the separation get in the way of parenting issues. If the separation is recent it can be important if at all possible to stick to the established Christmas routine for this year. For children changes to Christmas are best made in the Spring. If things are changed this year spend time with your children establishing new traditions. Ask them what they would like to see happen this year. Listen to them. Spending time together does not have to cost anything.

Unless there is an unsafe situation where there are legitimate concerns for the safety of children while with their other parent, children have a right to access to both parents and come through separation and divorce with a better outcome if this right is upheld by both parents.

Bernadette Ryan is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland and Teen Between. Relationships Ireland is a not-for-profit organisation that offers confidential counselling including Separation Support and ‘Parenting When Separated’ Courses. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380, email info@relationshipsireland.com or visit www.relationshipsireland.com.

Teen Between is a not-for-profit organisation which offers counselling and support for teenagers whose parents have separated. For more information please visit www.teenbetween.ie

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