Holidays can be especially tricky to maneuver as a newly remarried couple. It takes time to settle into the new normal -- for you, your ex, and your children from your respective former marriages. While it may be challenging, the holidays actually can be a wonderful time for you and your new spouse to restructure your family holiday traditions and teach your children by example.
If you are a stepparent, here is what I know: to make the most of the holiday season, you must both let go of guilt and remember that although your marriage may be dissolved, your children's and stepchildren's needs must be met.
Here are some tips to help step-parents navigate the holiday season:
1. United you stand, divided you fall. When in front of each of your children, you and your new partner must present a united front. Whether you agree or disagree should be saved for private moments. Both sets of children need to see you two working together as a strong unit. This helps give them a sense of security and reinforces the bonds of your new family structure.
2. Don't be reactive. If your children or your partner's children act out over a situation or details you may deem unimportant or benign, realize that they may be projecting emotions they have from the whole new life that they have been thrust into. You can however, learn not to take every outburst or angry moment personally, and empathize with the children.
3. Act in your adult. This means rising above, and remembering to parent your child -- and your new partner's children. If you react to a situation with childish behavior, this will only put you on par with your children in an adversarial position. Remember: the child tree in your forest doesn't have the capacity to help you in times of stress, only your conscious adult tree does. Your adult tree has choices.
4. Listen to your children empathically. My empathic process is the best way to communicate. This means don't ask your children or your partner's children how they feel, only to then defend your position while emotionally beating them up for having told you their truth as they see it. Rather, value and respect what they are willing to share with you, without giving up your right to parent. This allows children to be clear in their communication without getting over-invested in the outcome. This creates a safe and, more importantly, neutral space for all parties to return to, often with a softer and sometimes change of heart.
5. Don't assume anyone's motives. Remember what the old adage said about assumptions. It is important to keep in mind that, often, children are unconscious of their motives. This can hold true for adults as well.
6. Do your best and be kind to yourself. The holidays are already a stressful time of year, without the added stress of learning to combine families and longstanding holiday traditions. If you are authentic in your behavior and do your best, you are more likely to secure a positive outcome. Keep in mind that you are modeling behavior and your children are taking their cues from you and your new partner.
7. Establish boundaries with your new partner and involve your children in creating new family rules. If children are involved in the making of the new combined family rules, they are invested, and therefore, more likely to follow them.
Since grief is the central player in divorce and in the new families created from divorce, it must be honored and given time to heal. The grief may be especially accented over the holidays, so be gentle with your children, your partner's children, your partner and yourself during this time.
The holidays can be a wonderful opportunity to model for your children what a good marriage is about. Stand together, make room for the kids and work together to make new combined family holiday memories.