If you’re part of a stepfamily, you can help save your sanity these Christmas holidays by emphasising fairness, pulling together as ‘one team’ and spending quality time together.
There is nothing like a special occasion to bring out the best and the worst in any family, and the Christmas holidays are no exception. Throw a stepfamily into the mix and you have the potential for either great times and fantastic memories, or a reason to permanently dread Christmas and the emotional turmoil it brings.
Children seem to have a inbuilt fairness radar, and it goes into hypersensitive mode when they live in a stepfamily. Parents and stepparents should also be mindful that research has shown children behave in a hostile manner when they feel they have been treated unfairly. So this leads to important questions on how to achieve fairness and harmony during the holidays, and more importantly, how to cope with the holidays as a stepfamily.
Each stepfamily is unique. No matter how or when the family merged together, it is important to develop a ‘one team’ mindset rather than holding on to individual groups within the household (i.e., biological versus step). The more you can create this ‘one team’ identity within your stepfamily, the greater your chances are of achieving harmony. The Christmas holidays are a great time to help develop this.
Do things together, such as going to the beach, movies or playing games together. If your stepfamily intends to go away for the holidays, get each member of the family to choose an activity that everyone can participate in. This will help to maintain everyone’s perception of fairness. Holding a family meeting before leaving for the holiday, where everyone has a chance to discuss what they want to do, will also help.
Christmas can be a financially difficult time for many families. This is a time that parents may want to compensate for any possible guilty feelings or emotional pain, especially if their children are not residing with them full-time. In some cases, parents try to make it up to their children by buying extravagant gifts, at times spending far more than they can afford. Remember that children would rather have quality time with their parents than an extra game or plastic toy under the Christmas tree that will doubtless be forgotten about by the following year. It is what you do together that will be meaningful to your children and therefore strongly remembered for years to come.
One way to help create a sense of belonging within your stepfamily is to get everyone in the household, including your stepchildren, to sign cards being sent to extended family and friends. Another is by giving your children gifts from both yourself and their stepparent. The more the family can include their stepchildren/stepparents as core members within their family unit, the stronger the sense of belonging will be for everyone. It is also useful to encourage extended family to include your stepchildren as core members of your family unit. Encourage your siblings and parents to make your stepchildren feel welcome when they come to visit, and to take an interest in them as they would with your own biological children.
In an ideal world, everyone would celebrate at one location on Christmas Day. However, this probably wouldn’t work for most stepfamilies. Some try to share the children by shipping them between the two families on the same day. This can create a lot of stress as everyone is rushing around trying to fit everything in, and that is before considering visits to grandparent households. By the end of the day, the children can be left feeling over-stimulated, cranky and possibly upset.
One option is to consider alternating full Christmas Days with and without your kids. This has its advantages and disadvantages. An obvious disadvantage is that you would probably miss your children not being with you on that special day. However, this could be seen as a very good opportunity to spend quality time with your partner and have a fun and/or romantic adult Christmas, reliving the pre-children days. And this also doesn’t mean that you cannot create another special day to celebrate such as Boxing Day or whenever your children return. (Your children won’t complain about having two Christmas Days!)
Due to the chaos that school holidays can bring, aim to have simple household rules that apply to everyone. It is always a good idea to develop your family’s unique household rules by holding a family meeting where every member of the household (including young children) can contribute to the establishment of the family rules. Also, encourage the children to think of consequences that could occur if those rules are broken. Not only may you be surprised that they may come up with effective consequences for themselves, but this is also one of the best ways to gain compliance towards those rules. Rules work well when they are fair, few, and applied consistently.
The most important thing to do as a parent or stepparent is to make sure you take time out for yourself, especially during a tiring time such as the Christmas holidays. Look after yourself – parenting is a very stressful job, and can be done more effectively if you are not burnt out.
Ages & Stages
Here are some bonding holiday activities you could do with your stepchild:
- Build sandcastles at the beach
- Collect shells and make a collage together
- Play dress-ups and do some face painting
5- to 8-years
- Make Christmas or Thank You cards
- Join them in the local pool
- Take them for a bike ride off the beaten track
9- to 12-years
- Play Twister (you are never too old!)
- Play outdoor sports – tennis, cricket, soccer
- Go for walks ‘n’ talks
The more the family can include their stepchildren/stepparents as core members within their family unit, the stronger the sense of belonging will be for everyone.
Celia Falchi is part of a research group called CHERUBS (Children’s Environments: Research Unit for Behavioural Studies) at Massey University, and a Doctoral Student in Clinical Psychology. She is presently recruiting stepfamilies with stepchildren between 9- and 17-years old to take part in a nationwide study supported by the Families Commission. The purpose of the research is to explore how everyday NZ stepfamilies manage fairness in everyday life. Each participating family will receive either a family movie pass or equivalent New World vouchers. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 027 446 0732.