Blended Family Holidays

After divorce or remarriage, many things change, including seasonal celebrations. Experts agree that minimizing holiday stress is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their kids -- here's how.

One Year at a Time Many divorced parents agree to alternate visitation: Johnny spends Christmas this year with Mom and next year with Dad. The agreement is spelled out, and there is no reason for Johnny to feel guilty. Margorie Engel, a Boston-based author and consultant on divorce and families, suggests that whether or not you alternate, every year you should do whatever is necessary to avoid putting a child in the position of being torn between families.

"Give yourself permission to color outside the lines," she says. "Don't be locked into only Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Just brainstorm a little."

New Traditions Create a new holiday ritual for your child, Engel suggests. Perhaps every year your celebration will be a December party you host for your daughters friends. Maybe an annual outing to see The Nutcracker can be your special time together. Or maybe from this year on, your big family gathering will be on July 4.

Make Your Plans Known Whatever the situation, The Stepfamily Association of America urges parents to plan. Communicate with former spouses and other relatives, asking for written confirmation on travel plans. Make itineraries for the kids so they will know what to expect. "The kids are uptight, because they're not sure where their base of security is," explains Donald A. Gordon of the Center for Divorce Education in Athens, Ohio. "If both parents have remarried, they don't have a place where they really feel at home." Knowing the specific plans helps alleviate this.

Communicate openly with your former spouse and new partner about holiday plans and gift buying. "That would make the children very happy, to see Mom and Dad consulting positively with each other about them," Gordon says. "Do it so the kids will know you are conferring over something pleasant regarding them -- not about a problem. Holidays and birthdays are probably the only two opportunities during the year to do that. Don't let that opportunity pass."

Parents and stepparents should also communicate about proposed holiday menus and dinnertimes if kids will be visiting more than one house in a day.

"The positive thing about the holidays is that they are a time when a family can begin to build new history," says Judith L. Bauersfeld of Phoenix, Arizona, president of The Stepfamily Association of America. "But for children, there is often a profound sense of loss and sadness in knowing they cannot return to what was before." It is important to acknowledge that loss and allow kids to mourn good times that are gone. They also need to know these feelings are normal.

Sometimes a noncustodial parent shows no interest in the children and may even disappear, acknowledges Gordon. This situation becomes even more painful if a stepsibling receives generous attention from both parents.

In such cases, Gordon recommends establishing a "parent-surrogate," or substitute for the children. "If they're not getting contact with their father, maybe an uncle, grandfather, or stepfather can do something special for them," Gordon suggests. "It's a way of saying, 'There's a male out there who cares about you and wants to spend time with you.' That's a much better way of making it up than trying to buy more gifts."

Many times, fathers need to be encouraged to assume more parental responsibility, she adds. Stepmothers can provide age-appropriate information or other gift-giving suggestions, then let Dad take it from there.

But the real solution for happy holidays ultimately lies in each person's attitude, Engel says. "To some extent, we do control whether it's a good holiday."

"Family standards of gift-giving present a nightmare in stepfamilies," says Bauersfeld. Consider the possibilities: assorted levels of income among Mom's household, Dad's household, extended families, and extended stepfamilies; grandparents who have not yet accepted stepchildren; unfamiliar traditions among new in-laws; and gift overload from multiple celebrations. An almost-certain result is that somewhere along the line, someone's feelings will be hurt.

Ideally, parents should ask children to write a wish list, says Engel. Then the two parents should work together to determine what wants and needs (including winter coats and boots) will be provided by each of them.

Tell relatives how you would prefer gift giving to be handled for stepchildren. Provide sizes, color preferences, and other information about the new family member -- or suggest that money can be a diplomatic gift.

"Be sure to thank the relatives who are cooperating," urges Engel. After all, being an extended step-relative also takes some getting used to.

Parents -- especially noncustodial parents -- might want to make a tradition of taking a special day with children to supervise holiday shopping. Teach them to choose appropriate gifts for family members, including their other parent and stepparents.

Remind kids who receive gifts from many sources that it's unkind to gloat in front of stepsiblings who do not receive such bounties.

Even so, feelings may get hurt, and parents should gently point out that fact to gift givers who haven't considered the impact of their actions. Empty-handed children need consolation, too, as they learn that life is not fair.

Engel says issues like these must be confronted. "Parents need to be able to say, 'You must feel really sad about this.' "

Sometimes both parents subconsciously compete to provide the "best" holiday for their child, which may cause a child to feel pressured into favoring one parent over the other. "Being involved in loyalty conflicts is the most dangerous aspect of divorce," Gordon says. "The children can't win. They feel that they have to hide their love for one parent from the other."

Sometimes a parent or grandparent will try to compensate for the pain of a broken home by showering a child with presents. Don't worry that those gift givers will outdo you, but concentrate on giving your children love and attention. A strong sense of family values will last longer than material gifts.

If all else fails, try to accept the situation, Engel tells parents. "All you really have control of is what's in your household," she says.


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