Tips for navigating holidays with stepchildren, your own kids, and an ex (or two).
Holidays can be equal stress and joy at the best of times. All at once, you may be trying to impress the in-laws with your cooking skills, put out the perfect presents, decorate like Martha Stewart, and take on a role in your faith community. What could go wrong? Add a divorce, remarriage or the death of a spouse into the mix, and the potential for anxiety can skyrocket. Even if you think you’re handling it all well, that view may not be shared by others. How can you get through the holidays and make them a happy (as possible) event for everyone involved? We’ve gathered various practical tips for easing you through the season.
- Plans. If you do nothing else, make a plan. Know well ahead of time who’s going to have the kids when, where they’ll eat the day’s big meal and who will be there. Your first job as a parent or grandparent is to remove any insecurity youngsters feel over where they’ll be going, when they’ll be going there, and what will be happening. This is a time to set aside acrimonious feelings and work with your ex-spouse for the sake of the kids. "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.” Having a plan alleviates their anxiety. Communicate about gift giving and holiday plans with your former spouse and new partner. It’s a plus for the kids to hear you all communicating in a positive way.
- Gifts. Don’t be the parent who gets a call from her elated child about the new toy he just got from Dad … the exact same toy that is wrapped and waiting at your house. Have the kids write a list, and then you and your ex-spouse can work together to figure out how you’d like to divide up gift-giving. A parent can make a tradition of taking kids shopping to select appropriate presents for others that fit within a budget. And it’s a good idea to talk to kids and step kids about how to act when they get more gifts, or fewer, than other children. Parents need to remember that it’s unwise to try and compensate for a split by showering a child with presents. Pour down love, hugs and attention instead. Good values last a lot longer than material gifts. Finally, remember that you can only control what happens in your own house. You can choose how to react to an ex-spouse, but you can’t keep that person from acting badly.
- Flexibility. Remember the old saying that you can’t make all the people happy all the time. If you stay flexible, the holidays will go smoother for everyone. You may need to let an extended family member cook the holiday dinner or take over the task yourself. The kids may have to open presents from you the day or week before or after the big celebration. Although it can be wrenching, you’ve got to compromise with your ex to make everything work.
- Priorities. Figure out what’s really important and let the rest go. What ought to matter most? Spending time with your children and extended family. Traditions are a wonderful way to provide continuity, but remember that the timeline can shift. If you decorate the tree or house together a week before the big event instead of two weeks ahead, that’s okay. If your child suddenly decides he doesn’t want to help you make holiday treats, that’s his choice (although it would be wise to ask him why).
- Sadness. You and your children may experience sadness or depression around the holidays, and that’s normal. Something has been lost, even if other traditions and people will fill in over time. Parents and grandparents can have a variety of activities at the ready to combat sadness: Mini golf, anyone? There’s a special exhibit at the museum! Who wants to make a paper tree with me? I’m baking cookies and they need to be decorated! It’s important to let kids know that sorrow is a normal emotion around this time of year, and that it will decrease over time. Acknowledge it, then try to move on. Watch a holiday movie or load up the car to see Christmas lights.
- Giving. How can we capture the true spirit of the season? A great way for blended families to experience some togetherness is to volunteer. Decide as a family what you’ll do, then head out to the soup kitchen to serve a meal, buy and deliver gifts for a needy family, donate time to a local charity, bring food for homeless pets to an animal shelter … there is always need. If you don’t have extra money, choose to give a gift of time. It may even turn into a regular event.
- Expectations. The story of the new stepmom who made a huge dinner and expected all the kids to sit around the table with happy faces, only to have them texting and asking to be excused early, may ring true for many families. Turns out the kids preferred popcorn and a movie night where they could invite their friends, which is what they did at Mom’s house for Hanukkah. Ouch. As children, especially stepchildren, get into their preteens, it’s a good idea to ask them what they like to do for the holidays and adjust accordingly. Maybe this stepparent could have struck a deal where one night they have popcorn and friends over, and the next would be a traditional holiday dinner where the kids get to pick some of the dishes. Or maybe the kids just want a pizza night and the chance to enjoy time off from school. Lower your expectations—way, way down—and you might end up pleasantly surprised.
- Impressing. You’re new to the family and you are going to impress the heck out of all of them! You’ll have the right outfit, stun them with your culinary talent, and buy gifts that will knock their socks off. The absolute best intentions can take a disastrous turn for the worse if your intent is to impress with perfection. Some might even call it flaunting. Instead, go for impressing with your thoughtfulness in small things, your kindness, your smile, your complete acceptance of your stepchildren, and your willingness to step back and let others show you their favorite holiday activities. It’s not always easy, but it’s an approach that will pay dividends for a long time to come.
- Loyalty. Give your children a gift that doesn’t need wrapping by encouraging them to enjoy the other household during the holiday season. When you can say, “Have a great time with Dad and your stepmom! I hope you have lots of fun!” you are releasing the kids from guilt and worry about how you are going to handle it.
- Acceptance. You have no control over what your ex does with the kids. He or she may shower them with expensive gifts and meals, or the children may come back raving about how nice Dad’s new wife is to them. You may be angry and hurt inside but offer your children a calm parent who is willing to listen with equanimity. Swallow your emotions and give them something that costs nothing: love. Sometimes that means listening and letting them go off to spend time with friends when you had time together planned. Look at the long game instead of today and know that opinions can change.
Click below for the other articles in the November 2019 Senior Spirit
Health – Blood Test for Alzheimer’s up to 94% Accurate
Money – How to Keep Your Holiday Budget
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors