How to Have a Happy Blended-Family Holiday
As a Family Therapist, I know that blended families are challenging. And the holiday season can make them even more so. Here are some ideas that I’ve been sharing with my Denver therapy and coaching clients as they prepare for their blended-family holidays. I hope these tips also help you to make it as happy a holiday as possible — for everyone.
1). Be Okay With People Not Being Okay:
It doesn’t matter if it was really, truly and genuinely the very best thing for all parties involved that a divorce and remarriage occurred. Children — both school-age and adult — frequently experience feelings of sadness that are triggered by holidays. Memories of past holidays will be surface, comparisons will be made between then and now, the people who aren’t there will be missed, and there will be resentment towards the new interlopers now populating the once-sacred family holiday scene.
This is normal and expected. Make space for dark emotions, and be okay with the fact that everyone is not going to be okay — especially in the first years after a re-marriage. Having compassion for the (at best) mixed emotions of children in a blended-family situation is the fastest way to building solid relationships with them in the future.
So take a deep breath and get ready to be okay with kids who need to be sulky, quiet, alone, or reserved — without criticism or judgment. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time for them. Validating their feelings will ease them. Whatever you do, do not punish children for expressing their feelings. Instead, give them outlets for it.
2). Spend Time Apart.
It will be especially important for parents to spend some time alone with their respective kids over the holiday, as opposed to forcing non-stop blended-family togetherness. During this alone time, it may be very helpful for bio-parents to explicitly ask their kids how they’re feeling… and have compassion and tolerance for whatever that may be.
Expecting your kids to be just as thrilled about your new partner as you are is not only unrealistic, it is potentially destructive to your relationship with your kids. They didn’t get re-married, you did. The more validating and understanding you are about their ambivalence towards their new blended family situation, the sooner they will be able to work through their grief and loss and start to accept their new step-family members.
Planning to have some separate time helps preserve and strengthen the bond between bio-parents and kids, as well as negotiate balancing different traditions between the two families. For example if Step Mom & Offspring always watched football after dinner but Step Dad & Offspring always went to the movies, there is no need to have conflict or compromise. Simply go ahead and keep those traditions — separately. It will strengthen the kid’s trust in their parent to be there for them, no matter what, and tone down any brewing resentments towards the step parent for “ruining” the holiday.
I’ve worked with countless grown-children of divorced families, and have people well into their twenties, thirties, and beyond still working through the trauma of feeling that their parents chose their new spouses over the kids. Children experience your “unity” with your new spouse as abandonment of them. Your new marriage needs to be strong enough (and both partners need to be mature enough) for each of you to prioritize the feelings of your kids over those of your spouse sometimes — particularly during sensitive moments like the holidays. You and your beloved can delight in each other for the other three-hundred-and-sixty odd days in the year.
Partners: It’s okay to develop happy new holiday traditions in your marriage, but don’t expect to have the first few holidays be a reflection of your new union. Make lots of space for each other to tend to your respective children, and find other ways to share the holiday together. For example, it’s okay for you to exchange presents or develop new traditions without incorporating the kids.
3). Don’t Try Too Hard, and Lower Your Expectations
The first few years in to a new marriage and a blended family, don’t try too hard over the holidays. Expect that whatever you do, it won’t be good enough. Don’t try to impress your step-children with your cooking, bribe them with gifts or trips, orchestrate the-best-ever-new-traditions, or attempt to outshine their former-family experience in any way. Doing so will simply infect the holiday with a new layer of resentment and loathing towards you — the new, unwanted interloper.
The reason why is that kids usually feel guilty if the like the new step-parent. It makes them feel disloyal to the parent who has been “replaced.” Respect their connection with, and preference for, their parent by acknowledging the fact that they’re there to be with their parent — not you. Over time they may come to like and respect you, but you can’t force it. Be kind, be pleasant, do your thing, and give them time to get to know you before deciding if they like you.
The holiday will be much more peaceful for you, as the step-parent, if you lower your expectations. Especially in those first few fragile years after a divorce and remarriage. Don’t expect people to be particularly appreciative of you, happy to be there, or to take great pleasure in spending the holiday together. Kids are still grieving, angry, and working through often complex feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anger, and exhaustion / overstimulation from all the bouncing around.
4). Practice Compassion.
Remember, above all else having compassion is the “secret sauce” of having a good holiday together. Have compassion for what the kids are going through. Have compassion for the commitments and pressures that are pulling your partner in different directions. Have compassion for respective exes that are in pain, and may not behaving well. And above all else – have compassion for yourself. Blended families are challenging, and holidays make them especially so.
So breathe, get some exercise, and don’t beat yourself up when things go off the rails. It will get better in time, so long as you’re practicing compassion for yourself and everyone else in your new blended family.