Child care and contact during the holidays…and don’t forget Santa


The festive season can be a difficult time for co-parenting families

Whether you are newly divorced or you’ve been divorced for some time, child care and contact during the festive season is often difficult for co-parents. It doesn’t matter if you practise Christianity, another faith, or none, Christmas is a special day in our calendar, especially for children. It is a day for families to come together, share food and cheer, and take a break from routine. Here in South Africa the festive season often means travel, as it is the main holiday period of the year for most people.

Don’t let child care & contact over the festive season turn into the nightmare before Christmas. Negotiate with your ex, & always put your child first

How do you navigate the challenges of shared care and contact at this time of year? You both want to spend Christmas with your child(ren), but unless you have an unusually amicable post-divorce relationship, this is unrealistic, particularly if either or both of you have new partners and possibly step-children.

First port of call – the parenting plan

Hopefully you have a parenting plan. Even in uncontested, conflict-free divorces, a parenting plan is a worthwhile tool. In it you lay out arrangements such as shared care (how much time the child spends at each parent’s home), school pick-ups, emergency procedures and…holidays. As school holidays are always a fraught time for co-parents, these should be carefully considered when drawing up the parenting plan. The festive season is the most emotionally charged holiday on the calendar, so it deserves special attention.

If you did not develop a parenting plan at the time of divorce, or if it was vague, you can revise the plan. Many parents include a review date in the parenting plan that ensures they will revisit the plan at intervals to keep it relevant to changing circumstances. Your divorce lawyer can help you amend the plan when necessary.

Peace on earth and goodwill to…children

Whatever is in the parenting plan, disputes may arise. Your parenting plan may stipulate that the children will spend Christmas with each parent on alternate years. This is likely to be a more practical solution if you live in different cities or provinces. Or you may split the holiday in two, so that the children spend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with one parent and Christmas Day or Boxing Day with the other. 

But one year you have a family member visiting from overseas. You want to negotiate an exception to the agreed schedule and take your children away for the whole Christmas and New Year period. Or you want to visit family abroad. Talk to your ex before mentioning it to your children. It is unfair to raise children’s expectations or to put pressure on them to champion your cause. Raise the matter with your co-parent in good time. They may also have special plans. Be prepared to give something in return – perhaps offer the Easter break as a compromise. And be willing to give them the same concession, should they need it another time. If you honour reasonable requests from your ex, they are more likely to accede to yours. Ultimately, you may need to amend your agreement to include the weeks either side of Christmas, if you both want to take the children away for a summer holiday. 

The festive season should be a time the children enjoy, not a time for them to feel torn between parents. The most important factor in any negotiation is the best interests of the child or children. If taking your child away from their other parent at this emotional time of year is going to cause distress or upset, don’t do it. Your children may be accustomed to dividing their time between parents and may even enjoy it – they get two Christmases! But they may consider each celebration special in its own way and not want to miss out. 

But where will Santa find me?

For very young children, their only concern may be Santa’s ability to find their house, especially if they spend every other Christmas with each parent. If they appear unhappy about the Christmas plans, it’s worth probing to see what the issue is. It may just be this; and you can reassure them that Santa will find them. 

Presents can be problematic too. Hostile parents often use Christmas as a time to “get one up” on the other parent, outdoing them with bigger and better gifts. However tempting, resist doing this. Your child’s love is not for sale and it’s unfair to manipulate them in this way. If you are able to have a civil conversation with your ex-spouse, agree a gift-giving strategy and a reasonable budget. If your child believes in Santa, work out which presents will be from Santa and share that responsibility. 

Don’t forget the grandparents

Often the biggest victims of divorce are not the children but the grandparents. Most parents (unless they suffer from narcissistic personality disorder or other self-obsession) take care to put their children first in the divorce proceeding, and the law ensures this via the Children’s Act. But grandparents and the extended family are often neglected. A child’s relationship with grandparents is very special and should not be overlooked. Even if you and your ex can barely speak to each other, try to allow room in the holiday schedule for your child to spend time with grandparents (and other members of the extended family) – on both sides. When you are already sharing your child and missing out on some of the festive celebrations, it’s understandable that you don’t want to give up any more time. But it takes a village to raise a child – and villages include elders. 

Let Cape Town family lawyer help

Cape Town divorce attorney SD Law is a firm of family lawyers with deep experience of helping couples negotiate the challenges of co-parenting post-divorce. We’ve helped many parents develop workable parenting plans and are known for our high EQ. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email to discuss your case in confidence.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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