The holiday season has arrived! For blended families, this can be a time of additional stress as parents and stepparents attempt to maintain special traditions and create memories with their new or still-adjusting family members. Below are some tips that can help you create a positive holiday experience for everyone in your blended family.
Plan Together—Co-parents, Partners, and Children.
Collaborate with your co-parent to create a schedule that accommodates both sets of parents and offers opportunities for children to spend quality time with everyone. You could share the holiday if your families (i.e., both sets of parents) live in the same area. Co-parents who live in different cities or states may want to establish a time when children can call and talk to the other parent. Discussing specific details at least a week before the drop off or pick up occurs can help ensure all members of all families know what to expect for the holiday. Details could include what time and where the children will be picked up or dropped off and the items they will need to pack or bring along. You may want to involve your children in the decision-making process if appropriate. For example, ask children to suggest activities they would like to participate in with the family or meals they would like to have.
Be Flexible with Scheduling.
Be flexible with schedules. Members of a blended family may have multiple celebrations to attend. Understand that compromises may be necessary. Flexibility often involves finding a middle ground that accommodates the needs and wishes of different family members. In addition, recognize that plans may need to change due to unforeseen circumstances. Having a backup plan or being open to spontaneous adjustments can reduce stress and tension.
Another option may be to consider celebrating holidays on different days or at different times. This can provide added flexibility to accommodate various family commitments. For example, instead of hosting an extended family dinner, you may choose to host a brunch event, so your stepchildren can be in attendance. The memories created are often more significant than the specific date or time of the celebration.
Respect and Embrace Traditions.
Discuss traditions openly with all members of your blended family. Sharing the importance of traditions and understanding each family member’s perspective can create opportunities for compromise during the holidays and can help family members embrace and celebrate the diversity of their blended family. If your blended family comes from different cultural or religious backgrounds, consider celebrating multiple holidays. Using this option creates respect for everyone’s traditions and provides an opportunity for learning and understanding.
Create New Traditions.
Ask everyone to offer their opinion regarding how they would like to celebrate. Gaining insight into what the others in your blended family desire from the holiday season might help you plan, together and individually, for this season and seasons to come. Traditions can be very simple, such as serving special foods, gathering for a movie night, or taking a walk together. New traditions may also emerge organically over time, and they may help create a sense of unity and connection within the new family structure.
Blended families may face challenges during the holidays, and it is important to manage expectations and be adaptable to changes. For example, memories of past holidays may surface, comparisons may be made between then and now, people who are not present may be missed, and resentment toward the new individuals who are now part of the family holiday scene could emerge. Be prepared for the possibility that painful emotions may surface. Notice, name, and validate feelings to help the emotions flow, and offer support and discussion to prevent situations from escalating.
Focus on the Positive.
Focus on the positive aspects of the holiday season as a blended family to help create a joyful and harmonious atmosphere. Encourage a spirit of gratitude and appreciation, and help children (and coparents and partners!) see the holidays as a time for togetherness and creating happy memories.
When plans do not go as intended—you burn the main course and must grab take-out, or you forget to purchase movie tickets before they sell out—acknowledge the disappointment, and move on. Mistakes can make for laughable memories, and, sometimes, the alternative plan may be even more enjoyable than the original one!
Some individuals may need space or have specific preferences for how they celebrate. Discuss and honor these boundaries. And set your own boundaries if needed. For example, if your stepchildren will not be warmly received at your Aunt Edi’s annual cookie exchange, you may decide to decline that invitation. Boundaries may also include protecting time for your own self-care, such as maintaining a morning run before your cup of coffee. As you nurture yourself, you are also providing a healthy model for your children and stepchildren.
Include Everyone in the Holiday Festivities.
Ensure that everyone feels included and valued. Stepparents can play a crucial role in fostering a sense of belonging for stepchildren during the holiday season. This can be as simple as making time for children to call Mom on Christmas Eve or attend a special holiday event with Dad. If visiting others, such as extended family, for holiday events ensure that all children are included in activities, like gift exchanges. This will require advance planning to let friends and relatives know to expect additional children at their event, and you may be responsible for providing the extra gifts. No one in your family should be left out.
Be Patient and Understanding.
Recognize that blending families takes time and effort. Offer patience and understanding, especially during the holiday season, as emotions can run high. Manage your own expectations, and realize that you can only control your own behaviors and feelings. Even if others may not be happy to be in your home for the holidays or to be participating in a certain activity, you can still manage your emotions and reactions and be a positive role model. Acknowledge that children may be grieving or they may have a significant mental load as they work through feelings of guilt or anger. Children in your blended family may exhibit irritability or anxiety if they are overstimulated because they have attended or will attend multiple holiday celebrations. Your patience and support can provide a sense of comfort for children with a busy holiday schedule.
Prioritize Quality Time.
Create meaningful experiences and connections during the holidays that can benefit your family for years to come. Consider activities that involve all family members, such as group games, shared meals, and seasonal outings like ice skating or sledding to help your blended family create unique memories and establish new holiday traditions. In the years ahead, children may not remember the gifts they received, but they may remember the time Mom sang holiday karaoke. If gift giving is part of your holiday celebration, go over the children’s wish lists with your co-parent to decide who is going to buy what and set a spending limit.
BONUS TIP: After the holidays have passed, gather feedback so you can consider making adjustments to next year’s celebration. Ask each member of the family to tell you what they enjoyed, what they thought worked well, and what was challenging. Ask them to offer their input about future celebrations. Some family members may want to provide fresh feedback immediately after the holidays, so their thoughts and feelings are validated. Others may wish to wait until closer to the next holiday season to discuss their ideas, so they have time for thought and reflection.
Coparenting Supplemental Parent-Education Module: https://thrive.psu.edu/modules/supplemental/
Breathe to Thrive: Mindfulness Strategies for You and Your Child: https://thrive.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Breathe-to-THRIVE.pdf
Moving to Thrive: Physical Activity and Playtime Guide: https://thrive.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Moving-to-THRIVE.pdf
Calleja, D. (2023, September 21). 5 tips for celebrating the holidays with a blended family. Today’s Parent. https://www.todaysparent.com/family/blended-families-celebrating-the-holidays/
Conway, P. (2021, December 18). 8 ways to better navigate the holidays as a blended family. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90704686/8-ways-to-better-navigate-the-holidays-as-a-blended-family