It may seem a bit early to talk about Christmas but when it comes to making a plan for sharing parenting at Christmas the earlier you talk about it the better. Sharing parenting can be a very positive experience for children when parents are able to do it well. However, as a well renowned Psychotherapist, Gary Neuman said, ‘Out of the countless studies conducted to measure children of divorce, from their academic performance to their self esteem, one truth emerges repeatedly: it is parental conflict, not divorce itself that places children at risk in virtually every area of their life.’
Now is the time to plan how you will share parenting this Christmas and to ensure your child is at the centre of your agreement. Communication is usually the cornerstone of effective shared parenting or any relationship we have in life. For many parents sharing parenting, communication can be the area that you have not been able to master since separation. However it is never too late.
Assertive communication, also known as clear and direct communication, will support you to build a parenting relationship with the other parent of your child, allowing you both parent your child and ensure positive outcomes for your child as they grow and develop.
There are four key steps to clear and direct communication.
- Say what you see happening with the other person’s behaviour. Do this in a factual and neutral way.
- Say how you feel underneath it all. It may take some time to check in with yourself and identify how you are feeling. If needed ask the person you are talking to for a pause or to discuss things later instead of getting into a discussion when you are not sure what you are feeling.
- State what need is behind you feeling the way you do.
- State what you would like to see happen in the other person’s behaviour. What is it you would like the other person to do to resolve the situation and address the underlying need?
When it comes to planning Christmas for your child, an example of clear and direct communication is, ‘I heard you tell Jack you would see him on Christmas Day. I feel annoyed when Jack is told things before we have talked about them. I need us to talk about the plan and then tell the children when we are clear what is happening.’
When you communicate in this assertive way, the hope is that it will support the other person to engage in a conversation with you. A conversation where you can over time find a compromise to an issue. If you communicated this message in a different way such as, ‘Why did you tell Jack you would see him Christmas day, you always do this? I am so sick of it.’ You can imagine what would happen. Most likely conflict, a breakdown in communication and finding a positive way forward would be hard as it would take time for both parties to recover from the upset of the communication that took place.
The following are some tips to support you to communicate more assertively going forward:
- Take time to figure out how you are feeling. Put a name on the feeling.
- You do not have to justify why you feel a certain way. Keep your response short and to the point.
- Be sure you know what change you want in the other person’s behaviour before you talk to them.
- Be willing to hear what the other person’s interpretation of events is and to the option of finding a change in behaviour that suits both of you that might be different from what you both had in mind.
- Say ‘I’ when talking about feelings and needs. In a confrontation it is tempting to say ‘you made me feel’ but others do not make you feel anything, you feel something in response to a situation.
- Do not talk about the person, talk about the behaviour.
- Be open to the idea that the other person may not be able to meet your request and that you may have to look elsewhere to meet the need.
The earlier you start to communicate and plan Christmas the more likely you will be to reach a compromise. There are many ways you can look at Christmas that might broaden you view on how that compromise can be reached.
- Remember as parents you are creating memories for your child. Children usually don’t just recall one day when they think of Christmas, it is normally the whole holiday period.
- This allows parents to take at least 10 days and work with that when sharing time with children over Christmas.
- Ask children to visualise what they would like Christmas to look like. Do not make promises; just tell them you want to hear what they have to say, so you, as parents can keep this in mind when agreeing a plan for them.
- Remember time with parents is a right of your child, not the right of the parent. (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).
- When children have a good relationship with both parents it is vital to find a way to support your child to spend valuable time with both of you over the holiday period.
- Explore, if you can, putting your feelings aside and step into the business of sharing parenting by sharing joint time at Christmas. Can you both visit Santa with your child? Can you both be in the one home on Christmas morning to open the gifts?
- Create your own traditions. It doesn’t matter what you did as a family at Christmas, this is your time now to create your traditions for your new family form. What would you like to create for your child? What memories do you want for your child? What would you like them to take forward in life with them from Christmas?
- Present your ideas in plenty of time to the other parent. Be open to their ideas. Negotiate and compromise. Ask yourself if you can live with the plan. You don’t have to love it, but can you live with it knowing your child’s needs are being met?
- Try to separate out your needs. A lot of the time when parents are trying to agree a parenting plan they confuse meeting a child’s needs in the plan with also trying to meet their own needs. The parenting plan is not the place to have your needs met. You need to find another way to meet your needs.
If you find it very challenging to communicate with the other parent seek the support of a Parent Mentor through the Irish Association of Relationship mentors (IARM) or Mediation. Finding your assertiveness will have a ripple effect on the other parent’s behaviour.
Written by Geraldine Kelly, One Family Director of Children and Parenting Services. Read more parenting tips here