Who Gets to Play Santa?

Report: Children, divorce and separation in the festive season

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How the UK’s divorced and separated parents deal with the practical and emotional demands of Christmas

Family Department - December 2014


Emma Pearmaine, Head of Family Law, Simpson Millar LLP

We all know Christmas can be a challenging time for parents. Even with a stable family and strong support network around you the demands of the season place considerable pressure on our time, our wallets and our emotions.

We surveyed 1000 divorced and separate parents to find out what they do as christmas approaches

However, when families break down, the challenges are amplified and for parents who find themselves estranged from one another, the Festive Season often serves to bring many of those more difficult scenarios home to roost.

Questions about who gets to spend time with the children, perhaps already debated and argued over for some time, tend to rise to the surface again as the competing sides of a family seek to impose their will. Meanwhile, both parents will always argue that their actions remain in the best interests of their children.

We wanted to know the answers to questions like...

This report was commissioned by Simpson Millar with these dynamics in mind. We surveyed 1000 divorced and separated parents during December 2014 to find out what they think and how they act when Christmas is approaching.

We wanted to know the answers to questions like how do people divide their children’s time at Christmas? Is having the kids every other year for Christmas day the most common approach? Do your children get two Christmases, one with each parent; or do some separated parents bury the hatchet and spend the day together?

What we’ve discovered is that Christmas arrangements can be as complex and surprising as the lives of those who make them. Mums and dads are always trying their best to make sure that their children have as enjoyable and fulfilling a time at Christmas as they can, while ensuring that their own needs to be parents and their wish to spend time with their children are satisfied.

Inevitably, conflicts do occur and here at Simpson Millar we of course encounter a wide range of stories. But the one thing we always say to couples with children who seem hell bent on escalating a dispute, is that talking things over, preferably face to face, tends to get the best results. It is in creating a dialogue and giving yourself time to think, that the best decisions can be made.

Getting it together for Christmas?

At 23% almost a quarter of divorced and separated parents actually spend christmas day together as a family

This survey, conducted during the first week of December 2014 reveals a number of fascinating trends about divorced and separated parents around the country.

We looked at the general approach parents take to Christmas; how do they organise who gets the children? Do they plan very far ahead to avoid arguments and do custody arrangements have an influence on how the holiday season is planned out.

The survey reveals in actual fact that the UK’s mums and dads are a pretty forgiving bunch. It may surprise you to learn that almost a quarter (23%) of divorced and separated parents actually spend their Christmas Day together as a family, with more than a third (35%) of parents in the East Midlands and 32% of Londoners joining in festivities on 25th December alongside their ex.

27% alternative who gets christmas each year

The most common approach to Christmas for divorced and separated parents is to take it in turns every year, with 27% across the UK saying they will alternate who has the children with their ex. Again, East Midlanders were the most likely to do this, with 35% of people in that region taking the kids for Christmas from year to year, as opposed to just 23% of Yorkshire’s mums and dads.

1. How do you divide yours and your children’s time at Christmas?

  • People tend not to ask their children which parent they want to be with at Christmas with a national average of just 13% asking the kids
    • Londoners are the most likely to ask (23%)
    • Only 7% of North West parents do the same
    • Only 8% in the South West
    • 12% in Yorkshire
  • Divorced and separated couples are most likely to ‘take it in turns every year’ (27%)
    • East Midlanders choose this option the most (35%)
    • Yorkshire the least (23%)
  • Spending Christmas with your ex-partner and Children is surprisingly common
    • 32% of divorced and separated Londoners spend their Christmases together
    • 35% in the South West,
    • National average of 23%
  • Custody arrangements are an infrequent method of deciding on who gets the kids at Christmas
    • Only 14% nationally said their kids spent Christmas with the parent who has them the most
    • Only 1% nationally said their kids spent Christmas with the parent who has them the least
  • 11% of the UK’s children from divorced or separated families could be considered very lucky indeed, always having two Christmas Days every year
    • 23% west Midlanders give their kids twice the joy
    • Only 6% of Londoners do this
How do you divide yours and your children's time at christmas?

The first Christmas apart

For every divorced or separated couple with children, the first Christmas apart is inevitably going to be one of the most challenging ever faced. The prospect of loneliness, jealousy over new partners or step siblings involved with your children can prompt considerable anxiety.

Our survey asked parents what the most challenging moments were for them during that first year and perhaps unsurprisingly ‘remaining on speaking terms’ was the overwhelming favourite.

2. During your first Christmas as divorced/separated parents – What were the greatest challenges for you?

  • 41% of divorced and separated parents in the UK found it hard to remain on speaking terms in order to make any arrangements at all
    • This problem was worst for 56% of separated parents in the West Midlands and 54% in Yorkshire
    • However, divorced parents in the North East are the only ones that didn’t find this to be their biggest problem (29%). 42% of the North East’s separated and divorced parents were worried about competing with their ex-partner for their kids’ affections
    • The influence of new partners, girlfriends or boyfriends or step children can be very hard to cope with, but parents are more worried about adult influences. 14% of parents overall were concerned about the presence or influence of new step children, while 30% were concerned about the presence or influence or a new partner, girlfriend or boyfriend
    • Loneliness was an unfortunate factor for 14% of divorced and separated parents during their first Christmas apart
Top 5 christmas challenges for newly separated/divorced parents

Planning ahead

In general, we found that the majority of parents would agree in advance with their ex-partner how Christmas should be organised, although there was a substantial minority (24%) who admitted to leaving their planning until December and a 4% who left things to the last minute.

3. At what time of year do you typically discuss and agree with your partner about Christmas arrangements?

  • The majority of divorced and separated parents make arrangements ‘in good time’ for Christmas, defined as any time before the end of November. However:
    • 24% describe their approach as ‘cutting it fine’, by waiting until December to make arrangements
    • 4% describe their approach as ‘in a rush’, organising things in the week before Christmas
    • East Midlanders are probably the least organised with 35% waiting until December and 6% until the week before Christmas
    • East Anglians are the most organised, with 60% getting things sorted in good time between September and November. Indeed 15% of divorced and separated parents in this region have already sorted their Christmas arrangements before summer is over
At what time of year do parents make christmas arrangements

Doing it for the kids?

It is a classic pollster’s trick, to ask the same question in two different ways you can sometimes achieve a very different answer. In our survey we adopted this tactic to find out a little more about how divorced and separated parents involve their children in the decision making process.

Obviously variables including the age of the children have to be considered, but the results are quite revealing. Firstly, we discovered that parents tend not to ask their children which parent they want to be with at Christmas, with only 13% saying that they did this. However, when asked a similar question ‘What factors do you consider to be the most important when dividing time spent with your children at Christmas?’ a massive 66% of parents said ‘their children’s opinions’ were significant.

4. What factors do you consider to be the most important when dividing time spent with your children at Xmas?

  • Mums and dads suggest that what their children think is the single most important factor in helping them reach their decision
    • 66% nationally said ‘the children’s opinions’ is a factor
    • 77% of Yorkshire parents said ‘the children’s opinions’ is a factor
    • Other important factors were hours and time pressure, particularly in the North East, where this was cited by 61%
    • The cost of Christmas for divorced and separated parents is a concern for almost half, with 45% suggesting this was a factor in how they divide time spent with their children. This was of concern for proportionately more Londoners (52%) and people in the South West of England (56%) than those in the North West (42%)
What factors are most important when dividing time spent with children

Common causes of arguments

Divorced and separated parents revealed that the most common thing they argue about at Christmas is the problem of their ex ‘spoiling’ the children. 37% of mums and dads across the UK cited this as the likeliest source of tension, however there were numerous other potential flashpoints.

Roughly equal on the list with the issue of spoiling the kids was the problem of failure to agree ‘ground rules’ with 36% citing this as a disruptive issue, however concerns over step siblings or step parents also scored highly, with 30% saying this tended to be a problem.

5. What things have you and your ex-partner most commonly argued about when it comes to spending Christmas with your children?

  • Overall, spoiling children is the most common cause of argument for separated parents in the UK (37% of respondents)
    • Spoiling was a major concern for parents in Northern Ireland, with 67% saying this was a common cause of arguments
    • 36% of divorced and separated parents argue over failing to agree on ground rules with their ex-partner with 43% of Londoners and 42% in Yorkshire naming this as the most common issue. Interestingly, only half as many Scots (22%) find that to be an issue
    • The third most common (30%) cause of arguments amongst separated and divorced parents concerns the presence of a new step-family. This topic showed a wide variation with 37% of Londoners anxious about step-families, but only 17% of people in Wales showing concern about it
    • Finally, ‘badmouthing the other parent’ also causes arguments for 20% of ex couples, with West Midlanders particularly struck by this problem in 31% of cases. The people of the South West worry far less about what’s being said, with only 11% of divorced parents choosing this is a regular problem
Most common causes of arguments...

Lawyered up

Parents are far more likely to consult a lawyer over a dispute involving their children if they live in the South West of England (48%) than if they live in Yorkshire (28%) or the North West (22%).

The possible outcomes of going down this route can vary substantially, however our survey shows some clear trends towards the types of legal advice and support that can benefit divorced and separated parents.

6. What actions have you taken in the past to help you resolve any disputes you have had with your ex-partner over your children?

  • People in the South West of England are the most likely to seek legal advice to help them resolve a dispute with their ex-partner over their children (46%), while Yorkshire and the North West’s divorced and separated people tend to shun legal advice it would appear, with only 28% and 22% having sought advice from a lawyer
    • Of those who do seek legal advice, professional mediation tends to be the chosen path. Again people in the South West are the most likely to use this option, with 28% having conducted a mediation against a national average of 20%
    • People in the South West are also much more likely to organise a child arrangement order, with 24% against a national average of 13%
    • People in the North West are twice as likely to secure a Court order (9%) than the national average (5%)
What actions have people taken to resolve disputes..

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