This is the eighth article in a series about stepfamilies and the holidays.
Q: What are some suggestions to reduce stepfamily holiday conflicts?
A: An article from the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in 2014 states new stepfamily spouses spend a lot of time deciding when and how to avoid ex-spouses. When holidays come, they have to shift gears and work out how to share their holidays and cooperate.
Recommendations to new stepfamilies include suggestions from two authors. Maggie Scarf, author of "The Remarriage Blueprint: How Remarried Couples and Their Families Succeed or Fail," believes the early years are the most difficult for stepfamilies. Author and therapist Ron Deal, "The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family," recommends new stepfamilies pick their battles. For example, don't force stepsiblings to attend all of each other's activities. Family unity at all costs is a mistake. When it creates animosity and resentment among stepsiblings in the early years, it is counterproductive and can be irreversible.
Edward Farber, Reston Family Center in Virginia, suggests bonding activities not under the eyes of families and friends, which invite criticism. Scarf reinforces the idea of spending a lot of one-on-one time before holidays among various stepfamily members to facilitate bonding in new stepfamilies.
Ron Deal emphasizes not to try forcing stepsiblings to love one another or their stepparents. Such parental pressure often backfires. Treating stepfamily members with respect and acceptance instead is much better.
Scarf emphasizes everyone needs personal space to feel whatever he or she feels. The children should not be forced to think they have to love stepfamily members. Some do's and don'ts for holidays were written by Mary Jo Ropini in 2012. She says to never speak ill about the child's other biological parent. There is a situation in which one divorced parent intentionally tries to turn the child against the other divorced parent. The dysfunction is called Parent Alienation Syndrome and is a frequent phenomenon in conflicted, divorced adults who are full of animosity toward one another.
Gift-giving should not be used to win stepchildren's affection. Stepchildren will come to love stepparents more if they feel stepparents understand them and accept their biological families. Listening means more than spending money to win over stepchildren.
Another set of tips for stepfamily holidays comes from Dr. Patricia Papernow, author of "Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies: What Works and What Doesn't." Her first suggestion is to remember the pace of holidays for the children. They have to celebrate twice, once with Mom and once with Dad, and, most likely, once with extended family on both sides. Thus, many children suffer from over-stimulation and exhaustion. They do better if parents alternate holidays. The parent whose year is not to have the holiday vacation gets an equal amount of time either before or after the holiday or vacation. Ex-spouses who are cooperative can also switch designated holidays.
Stepparent families need to keep in mind even small differences can upset children. Discussion and negotiation resolve many differences. When the adults in the stepfamily are just as upset by differences as the children, serious conflicts result. The adults have to step up to the plate and set an example for the children. Everyone learns by mistakes. Accepting those of the children is so important, and not unloading criticism or making fun of them is of paramount importance.
In research by Dawn Baxter, she found holidays were negative turning points for one third of stepfamilies. In really toxic stepfamily groups, celebrating holidays or special events with biological families might be better than ruining everyone's holidays in stepfamilies.
Alternating holidays or creating new holiday celebrations might be ways to overcome anyone having to give up anything. Inventing a holiday or celebration could be an effective bonding activity for new stepfamilies.
Papernow has a final suggestion for keeping the peace with ex-spouses. Holidays breed tension between ex-spouses. However, research documents divorce or living in stepfamilies are not the most powerful contributors to poor outcomes in children. The most powerful factors are conflict and stress. Children, also young adults and adult children, from divorced, low-conflict families score higher in well-being than children from high-conflict, intact families. Buffering kids from intense conflict is more important than whether or not the children are from divorced families or other family types.
In an article on holiday trips, Angela Amman presents tips from moms about holidays. They emphasize consistency for the children. Also, most important are planning ahead and trying to spread out family holiday visits.
The most surprising suggestion proposed by one of the mothers was to consider combining holiday celebrations with an ex-spouse. The tip is probably the least common practice with ex-spouses. However, some divorced ex-spouses do sit together at programs, eat meals together when exchanging children, and attend teacher conferences together. These shorter, less difficult shared functions of divorced biological parents mean a lot to children.
* Next week will continue the discussion about suggestions for stepfamily holidays.
Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State
University. Send your questions in care of the department of
sociology and social work.