When schools break up for the holidays, it can be a difficult time for parents - particularly those who are bringing up children alone.
Complicated childcare arrangements, financial pressures and trying to keep bored children occupied are issues faced by all parents, but for lone parents they are often magnified. Disagreements about where the children will spend time can flare up, underlying the fact that family life has changed and this can be a painful process for children and adults.
A quarter of British families are now headed by a single parent with two million mothers and fathers raising their children single-handedly. At Family Lives we hear from thousands of lone parents every year and we have put together the following tips, for parents by parents to help take the pressure off the school holidays.
During the school holidays, it can be helpful to make a list of all the school holiday dates and how much childcare is needed so that your ex and extended family can understand the situation, especially if you work and are trying to juggle your own annual leave. Spread out your days together over the school holidays so both parents have a chance to spend quality time with children. Plan ahead for all the costs of childcare so that all parties can come to an agreement together, avoiding any misunderstandings or resentment later down the line.
When your children do go off with your ex, you may feel a mixture of emotions from loneliness to relief. And you shouldn't feel guilty for feeling relieved when the children go off for the weekend - it’s tough bringing up children alone and you deserve a break. When the children go, your home will seem exceptionally quiet so try to make the most of the time by catching up with friends or doing something for yourself.
You may feel resentful and hurt about your child spending time with the other parent, particularly at first but it's important to share those feelings with another adult, not the child. Children can pick up on our feelings and can be torn between parents, feel guilty and confused and may react by avoiding one parent or lashing out at the other.
Where possible, it is good for children to have continuing contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles from both sides of their birth family, for the stability they offer and the continuing link with their own origins. Keeping in touch can also offer practical help as they can help with child care.
Involving your children
It's important to involve your children in the decision-making whenever possible, particularly as they get older. You may need to try and work out ground rules with your ex over the bigger issues such as leaving older children unattended. If you can talk to your ex try to keep them up to date on issues your teenager might not disclose such as exam revision so they can encourage them to study when they come to stay.
Once you have negotiated a plan for the year or a period of time, add the dates to a calendar with your children, so that they can have a sense of involvement and will know where they are going to be. Be prepared to review and change arrangements and to discuss these with your children as they grow older. Younger children may need frequent short visits, whereas teenagers may prefer to spend weekends with friends but have regular email or telephone contact and holidays with the non-resident parent.
Look out for any changes in your child. If they seem more moody or withdrawn than usual, it may be due to the changes. Find a quiet time and ask them how they are. Tell them you know it is different and strange. Allowing them to be part of decision-making may help with these feelings.
Finally, don't use contact or time together as a bargaining ploy. You may no longer be partners but you are forever parents, and your children need you to co-parent even if you no longer live together.
Special occasions and holidays
Some holidays will have greater significance than others such as festivals, birthdays or special days. Children could spend the main festival day, a particular school holiday or birthday at one home one year and at the other parent's house the next year. Or, sometimes, children can have more than one Easter or Passover, Diwali or Eid over a holiday period - that way, both parents get to celebrate and the children get double the fun.
If you or your ex wants to take the kids on holiday you may feel anxious, especially if the plan is to go abroad. Clear communication such as sharing information, itineraries, contact details and knowledge e.g. the children's swimming ability or what sun factor they will need, will help put both parents at ease. You should also try to keep in contact during the holiday, even if it's just a quick call or a text.
Have a look for travel companies and insurance packages designed for holidaying single parents and their children. There are some companies who specialise in this, so it’s worth doing a bit of research online before you start planning.
Spending the holidays away from your children
Single parents whose ex-partners have no involvement in the children's lives, could consider striking a deal with friends in the holidays where you take turns to look after each other’s children. It is natural for children to feel hurt and angry about this and they will need lots of reassurance that you will always be there for them. You will also need to be patient will them as this anger may boil over from time to time. The important thing to remember is to keep them involved in all the decisions you make, so that they have a sense of control within the boundaries you set.