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Stepfamilies should be prepared for holiday stress

Published on -2/4/2013, 9:25 AM

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This is the ninth in a series of articles about holiday stress.

Q. What are additional tips for managing holiday stress in divorced families and stepfamilies?

A: The Step and Blended Family Institute from Ontario, Canada, emphasizes coping skills especially suitable for stepfamilies and blended families. The involved adults must plan well and communicate everything. Too much is preferable to not enough. The institute emphasizes being prepared for the unexpected, such as last-minute changes from others involved or really disruptive behavior from stepchildren.

Other suggestions include being prepared for difficult transitions when the children go from place to place. Parents need to stay positive and not overreact to the children's behavior. Parents also should resist the temptation to overanalyze and concentrate on being supportive and accepting. Many times younger children don't understand their own behaviors, and they certainly cannot explain themselves to adults.

In Life 123 online, Philip Lop emphasizes keeping in mind the holidays are emotionally draining, but they will pass. The very task of planning well, recommended by all experts, might not go well. Compromise is the key to divorced families and stepfamily planning and can be chaotic when dealing with rigid and inflexible ex-spouses, new spouses and multiple extended family groups.

On the Family Education website, stepfamilies are cautioned about conflicts between biological children and stepchildren. There is no hard and fast rule about who to include in holiday activities because all families are different. Parents and stepparents alike need to have lots of discussions with the children to be sure they respect the children's feelings and preferences. Another stressor in the article mentions adult children and stepchildren who marry and start families compound the confusion for holidays. The more groups in the family, the greater the need for communication and planning.

Children of divorced parents entertain fantasies of their parents reuniting, even many years past the divorce and even when biological parents have remarried. Children can be nostalgic during holidays and consequently emotional. Guilt and loyalty issues are common, even when the adults respect the children's feelings.

On the website of BeyondWork Inc., author Lora White addresses parent and teen conflicts during the holidays. Teens can develop negative and condescending attitudes about family traditions they used to enjoy. They don't want to spend time with relatives, they are bored, and they resent navigating back and forth between divorced households and stepfamilies. Teens miss spending time with friends.

Options to compromise with teens include measures such as having teens attend some family activities but not all of them. Parents also can include friends of teens and then allow teens to attend family activities of their friends, in return. Parents need to remember adolescents rebel as part of the developmental process and holiday resistance simply could be part of that process.

Author Peter K. Gerlach, MSW, offers suggestions about how to improve family holidays for divorced families and stepfamilies. First, the adults need to admit and try to resolve emotional baggage from previous relationships in order to avoid entering new relationships with old, unresolved issues. Divorced families and stepfamilies are difficult enough without unfinished business from past significant others.

A second strategy is to take the long view of rebuilding new families and not focus solely on trying to create perfect holidays. Families need to aim for improvement and progress in sharing holidays. Readjustments take years.

Another area to work out is expectations. The myths about "happily ever after" for stepfamilies is damaging. This false assumption leads to much disillusionment and premature feelings of failure in stepfamilies. The adults need to recognize and understand not everyone will like everyone else, and not everyone needs to be included in everything in order to have successful holidays. Criteria for stepfamily celebrations should include patience and recognition of the impacts of change. A variant from one stepfamily to another is the quality of parenting skills of the adults. If stepparents have no biological children, they will need a lot of education and support from biological parents.

Adults also need to educate their children about realistic expectations and to encourage them to express their inner fears and anxieties. Children need opportunities to grieve the losses of their biological families, and new stepfamilies should not feel threatened by their needs to grieve. Grieving does not mean stepfamilies are failing. As a matter of fact, there will be better bonds in stepfamilies if children are allowed to grieve. Holidays can be painful for everyone.

All stepfamily members should be encouraged to express their needs and preferences for the holidays. These verbalizations should include what they like and what hurts their feelings, what they want and what they don't want. Concerns of the children can be significant, such as issues of neglect or rejection, or insignificant, such as games they hate to play.

The role of guilt is another variable in stepfamilies. Many times children feel guilty if they really like stepparents. One of the primary stressors in stepfamilies is loyalty conflicts, which then generate unnecessary guilt. Children have difficulty accepting and loving new stepparents and not feeling disloyal to their biological parents. Holidays intensify loyalty conflicts.

Another high stress conflict for children is divisive values, conflicts between the ways of former families versus the ways of new stepfamilies. Finally, stepparents and biological parents should strive to avoid relationship triangles in which one person talks about a second person to a third person. These indirect communications are by and large negative and destructive and can derail successful holiday celebrations.

* Next week's article will discuss how to manage stress after the holidays.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.

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