Are you equipped to share the holidays with your parents, spouse, children, step-children and perhaps more than one set of in-laws and other relatives and friends? Stepfamilies often experience unique challenges during the holiday season -- such as blending new family members and in-laws into the mix. It can be hard to take the high road when dealing with expectations, commitments, time constraints and mixed emotions.
First and foremost, expect storms -- it can take years for the "norm" to take hold. Let's face it, it's a challenge for stepfamilies to create new traditions and memories. For new stepfamilies, the holidays can be an emotional, stressful and chaotic time of year -- especially if they don't have new traditions and support systems in place.
Introducing new family members to each other for the first time can be stressful. I remember our first holiday as a stepfamily, and spending New Year's at my new in-laws home. My daughter (from my first marriage) was withdrawn and unhappy during their holiday party -- obviously feeling out of place. While my mother-in-law did everything she could to try to help her new step-granddaughter feel at ease, they didn't have the advantage of bonding since they only had met once -- at our wedding just a few months before the holiday.
Children are particularly vulnerable to stress because they don't always have the maturity and resources to process all of the stimuli in their worlds. Think about it. Many stepfamilies want holidays to be enjoyable, but they fail to remember that their children are especially vulnerable to stress overload over the holidays. Young children crave predictability and routine, which goes out the window during the holiday season.
For children and adolescents, the holiday season can remind them that their family is now divided, and can elicit loyalty conflicts because they may feel that they are pulled in every direction, and will ultimately disappoint both of their parents. Children may worry that they won't get their needs met. It's important for parents to avoid putting children in the middle by making them a messenger and asking them too many questions about what they did with their other parent.
What can you do to create new, positive holiday memories for your stepfamily? In my opinion, the first step is awareness that this is a chaotic time of year, and that your main goal needs to be to let go of past grudges and bad memories so that you can create wonderful new ones. Holding onto angry feelings toward your former spouse can make you bitter. Remember that your goal is to create new, positive holiday memories for your children that will stay with them for years to come.
Keep some old holiday traditions and make new ones. Make your children's and step-kid's favorite meals, plan a special outing, and create a silly song or dance together. Set up two Christmas trees -- one with memories from the past, and another with a novel theme. Make a new menorah and place it alongside an old one.
10 Tips For Stepfamilies to Navigate the Holidays:
• Adopt a positive mindset and expect storms: Remember that spending time with your kids doing enjoyable activities is the best part of this busy season, but prepare for ups and downs.
• Reduce expectations: Your family won't care if you eat store-bought coffee cake for breakfast. Sleeping in will give you the stamina needed for the rest of the day, rather being sleep-deprived. Don't overdo it, and live within your abilities and financial means.
• Plan ahead: Have a secure schedule in place for your children -- especially if they are young. However, being flexible will model cooperation to your children and stepchildren.
• Communicate clearly with your ex and other family members: Attempt to use email, because phone conversations and texts can get emotional during this busy holiday season.
• Keep Your Emotions in Check. When dealing with dashed expectations, changes in schedules, and feelings of disappointment or frustration, try to stay calm and matter-of-fact.
• Don't express anger towards your ex in front of your children: Be businesslike and civil with your ex and/or their relatives -- this will set a positive tone for the years to come.
• Validate your children's and stepchildren's feelings: Let them know that it's okay to feel sad or disappointed, and you are there for them. Don't make them feel guilty about their time away from you -- they don't need to know you feel lonely without them. Do your best not to put them in the middle by making them a messenger between their parents, or asking them too many questions about their time with their other parent.
• Begin new holiday traditions that will create positive memories for you and your family: For instance, visiting friends, attending a play or concert, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or enjoying a special meal prepared by all of you. Hold onto traditions and activities from the past that worked for you and your kids.
• Practice self-compassion: Most people understand the importance of being kind and nurturing to others. However, treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion as you would a friend will help you to bounce back from setbacks or mistakes you make.
• Remember to laugh and relax with your family: Laughter is one of the best ways to change a negative mood to a positive one. Take time out of every day to de-stress by doing things that you all enjoy -- listen to music, work on a puzzle, or participate in other fun activities.
The Holiday season doesn't have to be a time of stress overload for stepfamilies. Make sure to follow routines and take short breaks to reduce stress. Remember to find time to relax and take on a positive attitude. Creating new family memories isn't a breeze, but it's worth the effort. You and your stepfamily can turn a chaotic holiday gathering into the loving family picture you can view in the years to come.
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