Reduce stepfamily stress with new holiday plans

Stepfamilies face unique challenges during the holidays, but with a little effort and a lot of patience, families can create memories instead of mayhem.

Joe Wilmoth, an assistant professor in Mississippi State University's School of Human Sciences, said people come into the holiday season with high hopes. These are compounded by the unrealistic expectations stepfamilies often have for their relationships.

"Developing relationships takes time," he said. "One myth about stepfamilies is that just because there is a lot of love in a new marriage, it will carry over to the children. Love is not automatic, and the complicating factors of holidays, custody and travel can turn a festive time of year into one fraught with tension."

Clear communication about schedules, traditions and gift-giving can help everyone feel like part of the celebrations, Wilmoth said.

"If a child has to be away from a custodial parent, understand that the child may feel resentful about being pulled away from friends, family and routines," he said. "Make sure the child feels like he is a part of the non-custodial family during the visit and not a guest.

"Children want to belong, and having a clearly identified sleeping arrangement and space, as well as rules to follow like other children in the house, will help them feel less like outsiders," Wilmoth said.

Sometimes a stepparent needs to step aside during the holidays to allow children time alone with their biological parent, Wilmoth said.

"When parents divorce, children lose the regular access they once had to one parent," Wilmoth said. "If that parent has remarried, the children may feel another barrier has been created. Time alone with their parent can help them feel connected."

Tommy Phillips, assistant professor in MSU's School of Human Sciences, has personal and professional experience with stepfamilies. Phillips met his wife, Laura, when her son was 5.

"During the holidays, my stepson likes to visit his dad," Phillips said. "I encourage him to spend time with his biological father. He loves his dad and looks up to him, but he also loves me and looks up to me. I recognize that when he expresses affection for his dad and wants to spend time with him, it's not a rejection of me."

Phillips, a family life expert, said it is important for stepparents to understand that their stepchildren may have mixed feelings toward them, the fact that one of their biological parents is elsewhere, or the current family arrangement. While this ambivalence may be a problem ordinarily, it can become even more evident during holidays.

"Sometimes stepchildren feel like they're betraying their biological parents if they show affection for their stepparents, or if they don't want to spend time with a noncustodial parent during the holidays," he said. "Or stepchildren can feel like they're being disloyal to their stepparents or their new family if they want to spend time during the holidays with their noncustodial parent."

Phillips said stepfamilies can be affected by behaviors, habits, attitudes, traditions and emotions from the previous marriage and family. He suggested involving stepchildren in developing new holiday traditions.

"Don't try to force stepchildren to adopt your traditions," he said. "Form new traditions with their input."

A holiday breakfast instead of dinner, opening presents on a different day or at a different time, or establishing a new gift-giving tradition, such as adopting a less fortunate family, can take the focus off of past practices.

If several family members who are not usually together will be under one roof, plan side-by-side activities, such as baking cookies, watching a movie or going to see holiday lights.

"Throughout the year, being a stepparent requires tons of patience and understanding," Phillips said. "The holidays require even more effort, but the outcomes can be worth the investment."

Keri Collins Lewis | MSU Ag Communications

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