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 ornaments from which family get hung where on the family Christmas tree,

. . can have normally civilized families (which leaves out many 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 stepfamilies 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 bittersweet 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 cases.

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 holiday 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 members 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. Stepkids 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. All 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 family members who are strangers. Stepkids are expected to develop an immediate family feeling for people they know nothing about. At best, many stepchildren at family gatherings are treated like honorary homeless 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 site (

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 holidays".

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 a 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 each other, a little more accepting. This is just one step in the blending 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 can work together in cooperation to coordinate both sets of parents’ programs. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. If your 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 snippy 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 much.

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 Easter.

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 another 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 celebrations. You developed deeply rooted patterns in your former household, and so did your spouse's family. Many stepfamily conflicts involve couples 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 new 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 important 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 homeless 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 stepfamily!

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. Tell 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 favorite memory.

This story can be about a funny time, a painful time, a trip, a lost 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 personality 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 stepparents have found that having flexibility in this area makes everyone more relaxed.

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 festivities. 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 home.

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 stepkids.

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 familiar 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 should 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, in their eyes.

On the NINTH Day of Christmas:

If kids come to visit you for the holidays, don't neglect them. Whether 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 two categories. They are either an extended part of the family, or complete outsiders. Kids who visit every other weekend or just twice a year deserve some permanent consideration. Make sure they are comfortable and settled.

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 prepared 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 year. 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 a 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 are!

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 nothing major changed over the holidays, unless it was for the good by strengthening ties.

Through all the families we've worked with, it has become increasingly 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 are willing to make an effort to raise them.

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

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 fighting over? Or would you be better off letting it go and trying something else.

For the sake of your kids, act like Christian adults! It's Christmas, don't blaspheme the holiday by destroying what you've taught all year long.

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. ]

Bobby Collins is a stepdad first, then a minister, a certified family mediator, and founder of STEP-Carefully! for Stepparents!, the largest faith-based support organization for stepfamilies in the country. His articles have appeared in national publications and he has appeared on national TV and radio programs always teaching stepparents how to have healthier, happier families. His organization can be reached on the Internet at where visitors will find free articles, a free newsletter, and a book store with proven stepfamily resources for sale. Collins is best known for his private family mediation between husbands and wives, ex-spouses, and stepparents and their stepkids. With over a decade of experience, he has helped thousands of stepfamilies survive and succeed. Contact him directly at


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