How does your stepfamily “endure/enjoy” the holidays?
Bringing two families together can be quite interesting, especially around the holidays. This time of year somehow intensifies emotions and relationships that may already be on edge. But that can happen even in nuclear families. Navigating the celebration waters throughout the year can feel like fighting against a strong current or gliding on a lake of glass.
To keep you on the “gliding on a lake of glass” scenario, you have to look at your attitude. Think of it as a way to use your creative juices to start new memories or family history. And during the birthing of this new family history, there may be birthing pains that, in the long run, will be totally worth it. Laughter is key.
Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays can set the tone for the rest of the year! Here are a few ideas to navigate those celebrations waters
1. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Let go of the idea that it has to be the way it has always been. Don’t expect everyone to be happy. The holidays may be a time of grief due to the loss of a spouse or the absence of a parent, through death or divorce. Remember, kids did not ask for the divorce or the death of their parents. Allow each family member to grieve their way. Help your “new” family to grow together in grace, through your circumstances. Keep your children’s best interests at heart. This is a wonderful opportunity for your new family to start new traditions.
2. Be flexible and creative. Try to peacefully negotiate a schedule that works for everyone, as much as possible. Although Christmas is traditionally celebrated on December 25, be flexible enough to celebrate on another day if it will contribute to a more peaceful season. Remember, do whatever it takes to NOT have the kids in the middle of miscommunications and misunderstandings. If it is difficult to talk with your ex-spouse, then honor the agreement that is in place.
3. Get ahead of the curve. Pull everyone together for a family meeting. Don’t wait until you’ve done all the Christmas cookie baking to find out that your stepdaughter always had that job and wanted to do it herself. Sit down together and have a holiday planning meeting, including reviewing custody schedules, planning meals (each person contributes one favorite dish to the menu), gift-giving (draw names if desirable), activities and decorating. Be sure each family member is involved and everyone abides by ground rules (i.e., must show respect to each family member). Keep it positive and make sure everyone’s voice has been heard.
4. Be “co-operate colleagues” with your ex. Minimize the conflict with your ex-spouse to provide stability for your children. It is never too late to begin building a healthy, successful co-parenting team. Start by confessing your lack of cooperation and ask for forgiveness.
Learn to separate your marital issues from your parenting issues. Think of your former spouse as your business partner in the life-long business of parenting your children. Do not criticize your former spouse or the “other household”. Every time you do, you are hurting your child’s heart; your child is part of the other parent too. Your criticism is hurting your child and results in long-term emotional distress.
You cannot control your ex-spouse but you can exercise self-control. If you have a difficult ex-spouse and are unable to communicate effectively, try setting healthy boundaries by informing him/her that you will communicate only in writing or by email and only on parenting issues (unless there is an emergency). In a remarriage, this is especially important to honor your new spouse.
5. Gifts. There is a balancing act happening between honoring the child’s loyalty to the biological parent and teaching him how to honor stepparent as well. Teach the child to respect the stepparent, as you would any other adult authority. Allow children to talk about their feelings. You may help younger children make a card with their handprints for their stepparent. For adolescents and teenagers, encourage a card or gift, but leave the choice to them. Forcing them to buy a card or gift may cause distress, anger and further alienation from the stepparent.
It is common for a child to feel that if he is being good to his stepmom he is being disloyal to his biological mom. Stepparents, your stepchild may not give you a card or gift, especially early in the remarriage. Acknowledge their loss and loyalty issues.
How about your ex? Offer to take the child shopping for a card or small gift for their other bio parent. This is an excellent way to model for your child how to be a cheerful giver and honor her father and mother. The child has permission to love both biological parents and doesn’t feel she has to choose between them.
Traditions and holidays. These can be treacherous waters but can be conquered and become a starting point for history! And, if an idea you come up with total bombs, no fear; it’ll be recalled over and over with a lot of laughter and “I can’t believe you made us do that” comments that only bring more bonding. As we’ve said over and over, laughter is key.
One last thought about holidays and stepfamilies. Do not forget to invest and protect your marriage, especially during stressful times. If your marriage isn’t strong it will affect the kids.
“If you ain’t got the marriage, you ain’t got nothin’.”