Stepfamily Holiday Blues – How to Beat ’em

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Among the many, many difficulties that stepfamilies face

throughout the

first years of their blending process, enjoying holidays

seems to be one

of the toughest. Your kids and stepkids have had quite a

year, preceding

this season.

Now, into the middle of a home still trying to establish some

sort of

familiarity, come the holidays. And, rather than coming as a

break from

the day to day tension, special family celebrations tend to

add to the

confusion and stress. Just when you thought you had some

sort of routine

worked out and that you had figured out this new clan,

everyone goes

completely nuts over a “joyous” occasion.

Now you find that dynamite can indeed come in small

packages. Such

minute matters as …

* when to open presents – Christmas Eve or Morning, * who

to buy

presents for – immediate family or in-laws or

ex-grandparents, * what to

fix for a “traditional” holiday family dinner – every family has

its own

special traditions that are most important, * or even which


from which family get hung where on the family Christmas


… can have normally civilized families (which leaves out


stepfamilies!) at each other’s throats.

Well, here are a dozen suggestions to help ease the way.

(Sort of a “12

Ways of Christmas.”) These suggestions come from a

variety of sources,

including our own experiences and those of the hundreds of


we’ve worked with.

I’ll a-Have a Blue Christmas

What is it about the end of year holidays – Thanksgiving,

Christmas, and

New Years – that cause so much insanity in so many

people? Even

well-adjusted, normal folks seem to shut down their

reasoning skills at these

times. And that’s the normal minority of families who aren’t

dealing with the

added bonuses we stepfamilies enjoy.

We get to sweat over the logistics and timetables of not one,

but two

households’ holiday schedules. Just as you are frantically

trying to

coordinate everyone’s schedule in your family, your ex

informs you that

he’ll have to have the kids that same day for his time with

them. And

you have to go along, because the kids have to celebrate at

their dad’s

house, too.

We also are visited by Ghosts of Christmases Past, carrying


memories of other family celebrations. None of the

memories are

painless. Bad memories – of, for example, the year your

spouse got drunk and tore

open all the presents before the kids could get to them – will

always be

part of our internal photo album, which opens whenever we

hear certain

carols or smell egg nog.

But the good memories of that happy former family –

enjoying the perfect

Christmas when the kids were so little and sweet – those

can be just as

painful and disturbing in the midst of the chaos of a

blending family’s

labor pains.

We Wish For A Merry Christmas

So, the seasonal insanity of the holidays isn’t the sole

property of

stepfamilies. As noted earlier, everyone seems to suffer

from the virus,

but holidays are much tougher on stepparents. So much

tougher, in fact,

that many civil courts make a practice of allowing extra time

on their

dockets at this time of year for the flood of custody-related


Harsh statistics reveal how hard the blending process can

be. While many

shake their heads over the nearly 50% divorce rate across

America, most

don’t realize that the divorce rate for stepfamilies is closer to

65 to

85 percent for second and third marriages! I believe that


pressures contribute a great deal to that failure record.

It takes a whole-family effort to overcome the stigma and

the hazards of

blending two families with two backgrounds (which include

failures and

pain) into a new single family with a future. Some ex-family


never go away – nor should they.

Holiday gatherings usually involve past relationships that

many feel

would be easier left in the past. It is vitally important though,

especially for stepkids, to maintain contact with their roots.


suffer such disassociation with so many factors of the new

life that

grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins provide

necessary anchors of

assurance for them.

However, right in the middle of a once-a-year reunion,

tempers can flare

and old fights may be revived and more damage than good

may result.

It is natural that these pressures build. What is not natural is

forgetting to care for your children’s needs before your own.


stepfamilies experience tension, fears, frustrations, and

sadness over

unfulfilled dreams.

Where the damage manifests itself during the holidays is

when you either

hold the pressure in until it explodes, or you withdraw from

the world

by natural or chemical means. If we don’t deal with our

wounds, they

will fester and kill us.

On top of the internal pressure is external conflict. Both

stepkids and

adults feel like outsiders in their own home because of new


members who are strangers. Stepkids are expected to

develop an immediate

family feeling for people they know nothing about. At best,


stepchildren at family gatherings are treated like honorary


guests invited in as a token of Christmas kindness.

But what can you do?

Have A Holly Jolly Christmas

Here are some steps you can take to help your family and

you have a

more enjoyable holiday season. These ideas come from a

multitude of

sources. Some are things we have discovered in our own

family. Others

come from the hundreds of stepfamilies we have met with

over the years

in support groups we hold in person and over the Internet.

And still

others have been gleaned from e-mails sent to our web



On the FIRST day of Christmas:

Begin your holiday survival plan by acknowledging to

yourself, and for

every member of your new family, that it’s OK to feel sad

during “happy


Allow for some down time, but don’t stay there. These

feelings that

we’ve discussed and which you are starting to feel are

natural. They are

shared by nearly every stepfamily around the world – over 20

million in

America alone!

Realize where you are in your life. This is a starting point to

a whole

future. Statistics show over and over that it takes an average

of four

to seven years for stepfamilies to blend. Too many couples

enter into a

stepfamily with unrealistic dreams that they will fall right into


happy home life in the first year – or the first months, even!

Accept that blending two families is tough, everyone has the

same fears.

Then move on. This is just one holiday season. Get through

this one with

at least some good times, and the next one will be easier.

On the SECOND day of Christmas:

Develop flexibility in your holiday plans. Everything doesn’t

have to be

perfect. Again, realize that this is one celebration out of

many to

come. Next year, everyone will be a little more familiar with


other, a little more accepting. This is just one step in the


process, not the whole thing.

Being in a stepfamily means dealing with multiple family

plans. Your ex

– or you spouse’s ex – will most likely have family

celebration plans of

their own, involving your kids. Naturally, it will be easier if you


work together in cooperation to coordinate both sets of


programs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often. If


spouse’s plans conflict with yours, you will have to find a

way to

compromise. More on this later.

Remember that the purpose of family holidays is supposed

to be for loved

ones to gather and – well, love each other. If your family gets


about the seating arrangements around the dinner table,

love them

anyway. You are building a new family, with new traditions.

Maybe one of

those new traditions can be that little things don’t matter so


On the THIRD Day of Christmas:

Keep a holiday journal of this, and every coming, holiday

gathering. Without some perspective, you will likely feel that

you are making no progress. But you will make progress.

So, keep a journal. Record in it gifts given by and to whom,

where you

went, and some of the more notable things said and done.

These days are

valuable lessons, don’t lose them.

On the FOURTH Day of Christmas:

Concentrate on making these Holy Days instead of

holidays. Through the

years, commercialism and frantic expectations have

distracted us from

the true reason we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, the

New Year, and


Some families even hold birthday parties for Jesus! Rather

than give all

the gifts to each other, the best gifts go to homeless, poor,

or sick

families nearby. Whether you are a Christian, or you practice


faith, or none at all, this practice can move your holiday

mindset from

competition and frustration to reflection and patience.

On the FIFTH Day of Christmas:

Begin new traditions just for your new family. Every family,

every clan,

every culture has its own special traditions for holiday


You developed deeply rooted patterns in your former

household, and so

did your spouse’s family. Many stepfamily conflicts involve


trying to continue to do things the same way they always did

them. This

is a recipe for trouble!

Far better, many believe, is to scrap all the old ways and find


traditions. Begin by letting everyone have a say about what

they would

like to do. You may have to push past some resistance as

members try to

hold on to old memories of what they did before. But it is


that everyone is part of the process. If one member tries to

force their

opinion or ideas on the whole group, it usually won’t work as

well. Keep

a positive attitude about the process.

Everyone can participate in passing out food or gifts at


shelters, orphanages, or halfway houses. Adopt a family to

share your

abundance with. Don’t just give money; get the kids involved.

Let them

see how much more fortunate they are to live in your


Have a cookout. If you live somewhere warm, that’s OK, but

this activity

will be more of an adventure if there is snow involved! Roast

hot dogs

and marshmallows. Look at the stars in the crisp, cold sky.


Christmas stories. Carols are optional.

The point is to look for new activities you can repeat year

after year

to develop a kinship between the new family members. The

second, third,

and fourth times you do this, it will feel more comfortable,

and it will

bring back memories of this family’s holidays.

On the SIXTH Day of Christmas:

Exchange life stories. Have the whole family – as many as

you can gather

together, old and new – prepare a short description of their



This story can be about a funny time, a painful time, a trip, a


friend, etc. No one needs to comment on the stories. If the

stepkids want to talk

about old times when mom and dad were still together,

that’s OK. Spouses

should refrain from that, though.

As the stories are told, look for insights into the teller’s


and dreams. You may get a glimpse of how your stepkids

really feel. Some

games, such as LifeStories, can be useful here to help

every one get to

know one another better.

On the SEVENTH Day of Christmas:

Switch days to celebrate to ease the pressure. If your kids’

non-custodial parent must (or just chooses to) have your

kids on the

holiday, you may want to consider this alternative. Many


have found that having flexibility in this area makes everyone



Tell them you want them to have two Christmases this year,

one with Dad

and one with you and stepdad. Then, don’t scrimp on the


Whatever new traditions you’re going to practice, give them

as much

attention as your other activities.

This brings up a very important point. The primary focus of

most holiday

celebrations is the children. However, in trying to give our

kids the

best holiday experience, we can get carried away. If your

honest desire

is to make you kids happy this season, then think of them

first. Constant bickering, tension and pressure to be happy

and have fun, and tug of wars over whose home, when will

not produce the desired result.

Compromise, then make up lost time when they come


On the EIGHTH Day of Christmas:

If your kids do have to travel to visit Dad, don’t whine about it.

Family ties are important to all children, but especially so for


After spending all year in a new home with new family

members to adjust

to, your kids probably will feel relieved to be back around


faces. Let them. Don’t fret or obsess about their being gone.

Enjoy the free time; find some time just for yourself at least

every other day.

When plans are being made for your kids’ or stepkids’ visit

away from

home, look for positives about the trip. Make sure you don’t

make them

feel guilty about wanting to see their parent.

It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you


take care to never – ever – put down your ex or your

spouse’s ex in

front of their kids. Never tell your children how awful you

think their

Dad or Mom is! First of all, you wouldn’t want them to hear

the same

sort of thing about you. And secondly, regardless of how you

feel about

him, he is still your kids daddy. To belittle him belittles them,


their eyes.

On the NINTH Day of Christmas:

If kids come to visit you for the holidays, don’t neglect them.


they are your own children, for whom your spouse has

custody, or your

stepkids, make them part of everything that goes on.

They are not ropes for a tug of war game. They are not

enemy spies from

the ex. They are children hoping to have some enjoyment

during a special

time of the year, in a place that is not their home. You have

the power

to make a positive or a negative impact on them.

Children who visit their other parent’s home seem to fall into


categories. They are either an extended part of the family, or


outsiders. Kids who visit every other weekend or just twice a


deserve some permanent consideration. Make sure they

are comfortable and


They’re not pets dropped off on you for a kennel stay. (Can

you say, “Grinch”?) They are children who are basically at

the mercy of your courtesies. If you live in a small house and

have little extra money, be creative. Save up and buy (or even

borrow) some furniture – a bed, a chest of drawers – it

doesn’t have to be a lot. The

point is to make an effort just for them out of love.

These could be the kids who care for you when you are old!

On the TENTH Day of Christmas:

Wear thicker skin over the holidays. As the inevitable

pressures build

(in those unfortunate enough to have not read this book!), be


to be an example of patience and lovingkindness.

Be careful that you don’t lose control of yourself and damage

relationships you have to maintain throughout the rest of the


Someone has to be the adult, it might as well be you. And

don’t be a

martyr about it, telling everyone how tough it is, just do it with


smile. Even if no one else appreciates your strength, you

can feel proud

of yourself on January 4th!

The kids who come visit you may very well be less than

gracious about your efforts to include them and make them

feel comfortable. Never mind. It’s not really important how

well someone receives a gift from you. It’s how you give the

gift that matters.

The visiting kids may have been “prepped” by their mom or

dad to expect

you to be a monster, so they are putting up the best defense

– a good

offense. Well, you just prove to them what kind of a person

you really


And you will, good or bad.

On the ELEVENTH Day of Christmas:

Get back into your daily routine as quickly as possible.

Children (and

adults, too) thrive on consistency. Give them assurance that


major changed over the holidays, unless it was for the good


strengthening ties.

Through all the families we’ve worked with, it has become


clear that kids need order in their lives. They want rules and

directions and security. Oh, they will deny it to the death! But

stepkids who have opened up to me have by and large

agreed that it makes

them feel safe and cared for to know what the rules are and

that they

will be enforced regularly. This tells them that their parents


willing to make an effort to raise them.

It’s easy to just let things go. It’s harder to insist on


On the TWELFTH Day of Christmas:

Keep your perspective. What’s the bottom line in dealing

with holiday

madness in a stepfamily? The same three C’s we teach in

all our

resources at STEP-Carefully! – Caring, Consideration, and

Common sense.

** Care for your loved ones. Care about how you are

teaching them to be

adults. Care about the reputation you will be carrying

through life.

** Be Considerate of others’ feelings. Show consideration

and respect

for your new family’s need for a solid, peaceful home.

** Use Common sense in handling problems. Some of the

battles just

aren’t worth the effort. Common sense means backing up to

look at the

larger picture. Is this particular old holiday custom worth


over? Or would you be better off letting it go and trying



For the sake of your kids, act like Christian adults! It’s


don’t blaspheme the holiday by destroying what you’ve

taught all year


By Bobby Collins

©Copyright 1999


[IMPORTANT NOTE: this text version is copied from our

original resource by the name “Beat the Holiday Blues”,

which is copyrighted 1999, Bobby Collins,, and all international copyright

restrictions apply. Please be careful to include the copyright

and contact information.]

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