How to co-parent over the holidays and save your sanity

“For so many, Christmas is a time of joy. But for those who have separated or divorced, December can bring with it a secret dread.”

December evokes the thought of end of school concerts, mini footy franks, hot fruit punch and Christmas

For some people Christmas festivities are their natural habitat. These people are easy to spot. The Christmas tree has been up since October and they drive a car decorated with giant reindeer ears. 

But for those who have separated or divorced, December can bring with it a secret dread. Christmas and New Year plans demand attention.

Money is tighter in a single-parent household. Not to mention increased interactions with your kids’ other parent over sensitive issues, such as your ex planning to spend more than the price of a small car on Christmas presents for the kids when all you can afford is a matchbox car.

Overcoming co-parent overwhelm

We spoke to Rachael Hempling, barrister, mediator and Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner to unpack ways to overcome the co-parent overwhelm that comes wrapped up with Christmas. Hempling, who is also founder of The Separation Place (an organisation that helps families navigate separation issues without the courts), took us through her top tips to help you:

  • work out the plans for Christmas Day;
  • plan the entire Christmas and New Year break; and 
  • have a rational conversation with your ex.

Hempling’s online course, Family Matters, provides co-parents with the tools to resolve disputes as and when they arise and empowers them to make practical arrangements for co-parenting. 

According to Hempling, neuroscience is behind the higher incidence of family conflict at Christmas time. She says, “the limbic brain, or Grinch brain as I like to call it, is responsible for wicked temper snaps. This part conflicts with the frontal lobe area, the human part of the brain that helps us with logic and forward planning.” Hempling says overcoming conflict requires us to, “pause, tell the Grinch brain to stop and deactivate it.” 

What does the law say?

“The law doesn’t mention parental rights. It talks about parental responsibility,” says Hempling.

“Parental responsibility really means both parents make decisions about the big stuff. Such as food, shelter, education, religion and special occasions. Organising Christmas and holiday care falls into this category,” says Hempling adding, “both parents have joint responsibility unless the court takes it away”.

Reducing conflict

With the law presuming parents will continue to make decisions together after separation, this can be a recipe for conflict, especially when a relationship has broken down. “Conflict is created by a push by one parent and then a push back by the other parent,” says Hempling. 

A push is one parent saying, “You always spend too much on the kids at Christmas,” and the other parent responding with, “I do not, how dare you tell me what to do. I will buy what I want.”

Hempling suggests that this initial push be de-activated and flipped by posing a question such as, “Can we discuss Christmas this year to make sure we are on the same page?”

Don’t trash talk

Hempling also advises not to speak badly of your co-parent. While you may be frustrated or angry or disagree with the way their family celebrates Christmas, “it is important that you don’t run that parent down or discuss it within ear shot of the kids. If you do that, kids start to feel like they need to take sides and protect you. It can change the kids relationship with all parents irreversibly,” advises Hempling.  


Joelene Nel, a Gold Coast family lawyer, has been co-parenting two children with her former partner since 2012.

Nel says, “a solid relationship is a must for successful co-parenting. If you can’t communicate respectfully, how are you going to co-parent?”

Working hard to communicate with her former partner over the years, Nel says, “I text my kids’ dad more than I text anyone else. We also sit down 2 or 3 times a year with our calendars and plot out our schedules, this includes a planning session close to Christmas and New Year so both of us plus the kids know what we will be doing over that period. We can put our leave applications in and book any trips. Forward planning helps to remove triggers for conflict.”

Nel admits that co-parenting can be frustrating. “Little things get to you. A bag of dirty clothes will come home and your immediate reaction is to get cranky. But I have learnt not to sweat the small stuff and look at the bigger picture.” 

Hempling agrees that forward planning Christmas and holiday arrangements help to remove conflict. She also suggests co-parents discuss the amount each parent will spend on gifts for the kids to ensure consistency between both parents.

Don't engage in conflict

As a final tip, Hempling suggests co-parents think before they act. “Don’t pick up the gloves, and don’t get in the ring. You don’t have to attend every fight you are invited to.” 

Good advice and a recipe for a calm Christmas.


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