Ten tips for a successful stepfamily Christmas
Separation and divorce affects millions of families in the UK from every walk of life. Even Hollywood superstars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will be facing their first Christmas with their children after their couple relationship is over. How do you manage to avoid the pitfalls, and ensure that parents, step-parents, ex partners and children can all enjoy the festive season without additional guilt, worry and stress?
Here are five Dos and Don’ts to help you and your children enjoy and celebrate the holiday season with your extended and blended family.
DO plan ahead. Not knowing where and how they will spend Christmas makes children anxious. Take a deep breath and listen to your ex and their wishes for the children (you don’t have to agree with them, but negotiations will go much more smoothly if they feel properly heard). Some divorce settlements include agreements for how the children will spend Christmas. Remember that your children will feel a loyalty to both of you and your job is to do your best to facilitate a planned and easy transition between two homes, if that’s what’s been agreed.
DO create new traditions. Christmas is a time of change and loss when families move apart, and some cherished traditions may need to be let go in their old form. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create new ones. Talk to your children and stepchildren and find out what their favourite traditions have been in the past. Can you re-work these into something the new family can all enjoy?
DO look for ways to build relationships with stepchildren. Instead of simply asking him or her to tidy their room, can you suggest you dress the tree together or make decorations? Relationships built on fun and companionship flourish more quickly than those run only with rules and regulations.
DO find surrogates among the friends and family who are present to support children who may be missing a mum or a dad on the day. Can Grandpa help someone get their new bike ready for a ride, or can an auntie or visiting friend show a keen interest in a child’s new Star Wars lego?
DO ensure that you give your children the freedom to love both their families equally. It is very hard if your child is not spending Christmas day with you, but they will have a much happier time if you wave them off with a smile and lots of warm encouragement to enjoy their day.
DON’T ignore the wishes of the children when you are planning Christmas. Not all their wishes can be accommodated, and you can explain why if this is the case. Allow them to feel sad if there are people they can’t see on the day. You can say: ‘I can see why you would feel sad about that’, rather than ‘You’ll be getting two lots of presents, so don’t make a fuss’.
DON’T compete with your ex to give bigger presents or create more extravagant celebrations. Children feel uncomfortable if they sense that an adult is using them to score points against a former partner.
DON’T give large presents to your own children and smaller gifts to step-children. You may need to explain to grandparents that, for a new family to succeed, everyone needs to feel fairly treated.
DON”T use the occasion to make critical remarks about your ex’s new partner. Saying things like ‘I can’t imagine she’s a good cook’ or ‘He won’t be able to afford the kind of Christmas we used to have’ will leave your children feeling uneasy and awkward. They may or may not feel a need to defend the new partner, but they will know you won’t want to hear this. If you are still feeling angry or bitter over the ending of your relationship with their mother or father, see a counsellor who will help you work through these feelings. Don’t bring them out in front of your children.
DON’T expect it to be perfect. Perfect family Christmases exist only in television adverts and these people are actors pretending. Real people experiences up and downs throughout the Christmas holiday. There may be some great moments, if you are lucky. And undoubtedly there will be some not-so-great moments too. Accept this, and know that this is the way of family life. Not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.
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About Val Sampson
Val Sampson is an Edinburgh-based couples counsellor and coach. She is the author of four books on sex, health and relationships.