Stepfamily Holiday Blues – How to Beat ’em

Stepfamily Holiday Blues – How to Beat ’em

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.]