Four parents, 16 grandparents, 10 Christmas celebrations, split holiday vacation…
While this could be some strange rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” it actually represents the challenging reality blended families face. The holidays add stress every family must navigate, but those stressors multiply exponentially within blended families.
One step-mother described it as “attempting to hit a moving target.” But while the holidays create unusual and stressful circumstances for blended families, they also offer unique opportunities to bond around both new and well-established traditions.
By taking some practical steps, blended families can enjoy a holiday season filled with peace and wonderful memories while simultaneously minimizing any stress, conflict, and pain experienced.
Five strategies for minimizing the “Yours, Mine and Ours” blended family holiday stress
1. Plan…Plan…Patiently Plan.
Adults and children within blended families must have a clear understanding of what is going to happen as far ahead of time as possible. Spontaneity can and should occur, but children (and adults) become more anxious when plans are not clearly established.
The National Stepfamily Resource Center (formerly the Stepfamily Association of America) advocates for parents to plan, communicate with former spouses and relatives, and put travel plans and itineraries in writing for children and adults involved so everyone knows what to expect. This is particularly important if parents have remarried because children may not have a place that feels like home. Understanding where they will be and what they will do while they are there helps children feel they are included and belong.
2. Communicate and then…Communicate Again.
Communicate openly with former spouses, new partners and all children involved about both holiday plans and gift buying.
Children are relieved when the adults in their lives demonstrate civility and respect toward one another. While the behavior of others is never within your control, conflict can be minimized by making the children’s needs the priority and working to remain calm and in control of your own behavior regardless of the behavior of others.
If children will be attending multiple holiday celebrations, communicating about proposed menus and dinner times creates a more enjoyable experience. Coordinating gifts purchased to avoid duplication is extremely important so children don’t have to negotiate uncomfortable situations.
It is also important to communicate about how and when children will have down time and how to pace things to avoid overwhelming them. Including all children (both step and biological) in as many activities as possible is important and requires open communication so schedules remain manageable for everyone involved.
3. Something Old and Something New.
Holidays don’t have to be done “The way we’ve always done it.” Combining old and new traditions is important.
Talk about what traditions are important to each individual and be particularly sensitive to anyone sharing this holiday with the family for the first time. Don’t assume stepparents want to go along with the way things have always been done without having input. Keep traditions which fit and establish new traditions honoring changes.
Remember what the holidays signify within the family and prioritize activities which best fit this meaning. The holiday frenzy causes many to forget both the meaning of the holidays and the fact that what matters most to children is what happens the other 364 days of the year.
Hectic schedules can cause parents to neglect simple activities communicating love and keeping the family connected. Hugs, family fun times, bedtime stories, and meals together create connectedness and should remain priorities.
4. Equity Matters.
Step-parents and step-grandparents did not chose all members of the new family configuration, but should welcome, embrace and love every member of the family…even prickly adolescents who say they “hate” the new family.
Children watch how others within the family are treated, so strive for equality in time and in gift giving. Step-parents and stepchildren should choose gifts that feel appropriate to their unique relationship. Grandparents, step-grandparents and extended family should be encouraged to be equitable in gift giving to all biological and stepchildren present.
5. Talk about Feelings.
No matter how long ago the family structure shifted, children struggle with loss. Being with Mom means not being with Dad and often feels disloyal. Be sensitive to children’s losses and give them permission to have conflicting feelings. Listen, hug and reassure them through their expressions of sadness, anger or “wishes” that things were different.
Give children permission to enjoy both households and be clear that you will be okay while they are away from you. This frees children from loyalty binds and from feeling responsible for your well-being.
Navigating your blended family through the holidays can feel like making your way through a field of landmines at times. However, by implementing these strategies, many of the land mines can be removed and the potential to enjoy time as a family increases substantially.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.