The parenting charity Family Lives discusses the festive stress many families are feeling, and why it's bracing itself for a huge influx of extra calls to its helpline from stressed-out mums and dads, some of whom will see their relationship crumble over Christmas.
By Lisa Salmon
It's supposed to be the season to be jolly, but the reality is that many families fall apart during the Christmas festivities.
Financial problems and tension caused by all the family being together for long periods can cause family stress - and for separated parents who disagree over where the kids spend Christmas, the problems can be even worse.
It's not surprising, therefore, that the parenting charity Family Lives sees a huge surge in calls over the festive period - it received more than 2,000 calls to its helpline in just over two weeks at Christmas and New Year last year.
Jeremy Todd, Family Lives chief executive, says: "Christmas can be the toughest time of all for some families.
"At a time when emotions run high and stresses and strains increase, many support groups close for the Christmas period, meaning cries for help are left unanswered, and the fall-out from the pressures of the festive period can often culminate in couples deciding to separate."
He says many calls are from separated parents struggling to make contact with their children or make relations with a former partner work at Christmas.
"It's important that parents are supported to find a way of communicating and working together for the sake of their children," he stresses.
A survey by the charity found 45% of respondents had access issues, suggesting they might not be able to see their children over the festive period.
Claire Walker, Family Lives' policy director, says many calls before Christmas are from separated parents struggling to come to satisfactory arrangements about where the children spend Christmas, or simply feeling upset that they won't see the children over the festive period.
"We also get a lot of calls about relationship issues - it's a time when families are expected to be happy, and if family life isn't like that then we get calls from people who need help," she says.
Financial problems can also be a huge strain at Christmas, she says, and callers worry that they can't provide for their children or can't give them the gifts they want.
Walker says mothers in particular feel a huge amount of stress because of the extra work Christmas brings on top of an already busy life, and at a difficult economic time.
"For some families, it's a hugely stressful time of year."
She says helpline staff will listen to problems, and get parents to think about what they can do to improve the situation.
"For many parents it's about having a safe place to turn to, where they can share their views and they know they're not going to be judged," she says.
However, she points out that providing such a useful service costs money, and the charity is appealing for £14,000 to keep the helpline running.
To help families avoid reaching crisis point at Christmas, Family Lives offers the following tips:
:: Get together and write a list of what everyone wants to do. With older children, discuss family time and time with friends so you get a happy balance.
:: Set a realistic budget for presents, food, and other things and try to keep to it as much as possible.
:: If a child wants something that's beyond the budget, explain as best you can why they can't have it.
:: Make a list of who needs to see who.
:: If you're separated and unable to spend Christmas with your children, perhaps arrange to have your own special Christmas Day when they return. Christmas Day may be difficult without your children, so perhaps you can arrange to meet friends instead.
:: If this is your first Christmas as a stepfamily, your child may feel confused and maybe even angry - try to allocate some time that you can spend alone together to reassure them.
:: Don't try to do everything yourself - make a list of jobs which need to be done and allocate them between family or other guests.
:: Don't try to keep everyone happy all the time, and schedule in some time to recharge your batteries.
:: If things get heated between family members and everything gets too much, remove yourself from the situation and perhaps call a friend or relative.
:: Plan a family treat to avoid that deflated feeling after the holiday season, so you have something to look forward to.
:: The Family Lives helpline is on 0808 800 2222, or visit www.familylives.org.uk
To donate to Family Lives, text FMLY01 £X to 70070, replacing X with the amount you want to give.
Ask the expert
Q: "My husband and I have split up and I've got custody of our young children, but he's very angry that I've won custody and as he's a dual-national, I'm worried he might take the kids to his country of origin. How common is that, and how could I get the kids back if he abducted them?"
A: Daisy Organ, head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Child Abduction Section, says: "Parental child abduction can have a devastating emotional impact on all those concerned, particularly the child. If your husband does abduct your child he may be committing a crime.
"As well as the emotional distress, both you and your husband may face severe financial difficulties as you fight for custody of your child through foreign courts.
"People tend to underestimate just how much getting a child back costs, including legal fees overseas and in the UK which may continue to mount even after the child is returned to this country.
"The reality is that while help is available, parental child abduction cases can take years to resolve, with significant impact on those concerned and the strong possibility that the child may never be returned.
"It's also much harder to return a child from a country that has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention, an international agreement between certain countries which aims to ensure the return of a child who has been abducted by a parent.
"So it's important that you're aware of the issue and, if necessary, seek advice and take preventative steps to ensure your child remains in the UK.
"The FCO has seen an 88% increase in the number of parental child abductions and international custody cases in just under a decade.
"In the last year alone the Child Abduction Section fielded an average of four calls per day to its advice line.
"We know that before or during school holidays is one of the most common times for a child to be abducted and so we've just launched a campaign to help inform and educate the UK public and encourage parents thinking of abducting their child to think twice before they cause significant distress to both the child and their family."
:: Parents worried their child might be abducted can contact the FCO Child Abduction Section on 020 7008 0878, www.fco.gov.uk/childabduction, or the child abduction charity Reunite on 0116 255 6234.
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