Let's be honest. The holidays are chaotic, especially for parents. Yes, the holiday spirit is lovely but it's also an expensive, stressful, and busy time. The mix of time off of school, cold weather making it more difficult to spend time outside, and an increase in sugar mean it is also a time where children can struggle with their behavior. We at the Parent Alliance celebrate all different family structures and this week we wanted to take a look at one in particular; blended families.
Blended families have their own set of unique challenges associated with the holiday season. That's why we sat down with a group of parents and children who all have different experiences with being a part of a blended family to hear their tried and true tips for holiday success. Below are their top 5 tips on how you can help set your blended family up for success this holiday season and the seasons to come.
**If your previous relationship involved abuse of yourself or your children ignore or adapt these tips to your situation. The safety and mental health preservation of you and your children are more important than anything mentioned.**
1. Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.
"You have to be honest about what you expect and ask the other adults in your children's lives to do the same. You need to be on the same page ahead of time so you always show your children a united front; especially with your partner," said Kathy Jones, one of the mothers we spoke with. Jones shared with us that her number one tip for parents in a blended family is to communicate early and often. She went on to say that she and her partner keep no secrets from each other and that communication is the keystone of their marriage. "I know it's hard but you have to share how you are feeling. Your partner is not a mind reader and you need to express what you need from them. This is not just a holiday-specific tip this is a marriage tip. You can never communicate too much especially when children and other parents are involved. But, we do know that the holidays are extra stressful so it's extra important to be on the same page this time of year." said, Jones.
While we know it is not possible for every situation we also spoke with a mother about how important it is to her to practice good communication with her stepsons' mother as well. "We talk all the time and even share pictures back and forth of the kids. I have a lot of respect for her and she has a lot of respect for me. The boys do not have to experience that tension that I know a lot of children in blended families do. The boys never had to question if they were going to get to see both parents enough. My husband and his ex-wife are very good parents and not one of them bring more value to the boys' lives than the other. If the boys are at our house and they wanted mom we made it happen, if you can in your situation try and keep it flexible for them. Especially the holidays. We wanted them to always know the 2 people who brought them into this world think they are the most important people on this earth. That set the tone for them always knowing they had both sides."
2. Do NOT bash anybody involved "My stepdad always made these little comments about my dad and it used to piss me off so much. I promise you a child doesn’t think about what their biological parent does wrong or right-they are almost blind to it. Even if your stepchild’s biological parent has let them down a million times and is not the kind of parent you think they deserve, do not talk to the child about it. It will make them resent you. They just want their parents to love them and show them attention, I didn't care what my dad had done to upset my mom and stepdad when I was little. He was my dad and I wanted to be around him and I looked up to him despite his shortcomings. It put a huge strain on my relationship with my stepdad and I am sure it put my mom in a bad spot. My advice for a stepparent in a similar situation would be to keep your opinions to yourself but be there for your stepchild if they are let down by the actions of their biological parent. They need your support, not your negativity," said Fred Jackson, a 27-year-old man who grew up in a blended family.
This was a topic that came up in every single conversation we had with someone who is in a blended family. "I was a stepchild too and my family did not follow this tip at all. I can see how much it upsets my daughter when my stepmom speaks poorly about my mom. That is her grandma and she doesn't want to hear that kind of stuff. It's just not a good situation to be in as a kid. It builds resentment quickly in my experience." said, Laura Fox another mother that we spoke with. "Because of this, I am very conscious to never speak poorly about my stepson's mother. I always wanted him to love his mom and I didn't want to negatively impact their relationship" said Fox.
"To be honest I wanted my children to form their own opinion about their father. None of them are close to him today and that is very sad but that is because of conclusions they drew on their own and not ones that I talked about in front of them. My husband does not speak about my children's father ever as he is very cautious to never bash him in front of the kids. They don't need that stress from us, especially when they were younger." said, Jones.
3. Remember there are more people involved than just the parents The holidays are a time to get together with family and loved ones. We spoke with a father of 3, Jeremy Davis who shared with us that it can be very easy to forget that your ex has an extended family that loves and wants to spend time with your children. Especially if things ended in a "messy" way.
"I know when emotions run high it can be hard to think straight. I have a lot of anger towards my ex-wife and she is not very involved in our children's lives right now. What I do regret is a span of 3 years where I didn't make an effort to include my children in her families' holiday plans. I know it sounds bad but the holidays were almost easier without her involved because I didn't have to shuttle them around but it is unfair that they didn't get to see that side of their family. They missed out on those traditions and memories with their grandparents and cousins. That is a huge regret. I know it feels like that is not your responsibility but as a parent, it is your job to give them the best childhood you can. And that includes memories and connections with all sides of their families." said, Davis.
Another tip that we loved was to have a conversation with your own extended families that you will not tolerate any bashing of your children's other parents. As we know some families can get very defensive if they feel like an ex wronged you in any way but you should tell them that you do not want that talked about in front of your children ever but especially during the holidays.
4. Get ahead of sibling resentment Sibling resentment is one of our most popular topics. It happens in a majority of families; especially families who have a child who is struggling. “My stepson really struggled with sibling resentment. He got straight A’s, always did the right thing, and was and is a great son. But a lot of that really got overshadowed by the struggles my daughter was dealing with. She was getting all this attention from me, my husband, and everyone at school. Even though a lot of that attention was negative I know that it made him resentful of her and probably even my husband and I.” said Fox. She went on to say, “Resentment is going to happen, especially in blended families. That sucks but it's true. Get ahead of it before it happens. Don't let things fester and if you are able to recognize past mistakes that could have contributed to resentment; apologize for it. That will go a long way with your kids.”
5. Put the children first We know the moment your child took their first breath you have been putting them first. You have probably eaten your fair share of cold mac and cheese and driven them to and from everywhere they needed to go. That being said the holidays add so much stress to our lives that it can be hard to think how we normally do.
“It’s easy to think things like; ‘Well it’s my weekend, so the kids are doing Christmas here.’ But that’s not helpful for the kids. As much as your situation allows, be flexible and put your children and their holiday memories above everything else. Make sure they see all the people that they need to and they get to feel the holiday spirit. For a lot of blended families, children mourn the traditions they once had and the holidays can be a sad time where they reflect on traditions that don't happen anymore because their biological parents are no longer together. Make a point to try and keep some of their traditions alive while establishing new ones for your blended family. Try and get on the same page as your new partner and the children’s other parent about how you will ensure this holiday season is special for the kids. I know that's easier said than done for a lot of people but when adults only think about themselves and their needs the kids are the ones who suffer.” said Fox.
Did you know the Parent Alliance is a nonprofit? If you enjoy these tips directly from parents to parents about how to help your child who is struggling consider donating! We love gathering these resources and need your help to ensure that we can keep doing so.