Getting to know each other takes time and is important — especially for families who have been "blended" together by a mother or father's remarriage. But the holidays pose some tough questions for stepfamilies trying to figure out the right balance of together and apart, old traditions and new.
"The early years of being a stepfamily are the toughest," Maggie Scarf, author of "The Remarriage Blueprint: How Remarried Couples and their Families Succeed or Fail," told the Chicago Tribune's Heidi Stevens. "You're still getting to know each other."
It's especially tricky to figure it out because full siblings don't always care to go to each other's holiday events. Asked family therapist Ron Deal: if an older son doesn't want to attend little sister's Thanksgiving production, how excited is a stepbrother going to be?
Deal, who wrote "The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family," told Stevens that it's important for families to pick their battles.
"Seek balance when you're insisting that kids be involved in activities you're not really excited about. If there are five activities on the calendar, it's perfectly OK to insist that everyone goes to three and cut them a break on the other two. There's nothing wrong with compartmentalizing family members," he said.
Experts agree one of the ways to figure all this out is be sure the parents each spend time getting to know individual stepchildren.
In a Beliefnet blog, family counselor Wednesday Martin argues that stepfamilies blend at their own pace. It's often quite slow, as in four to 12 years.
"Particularly at holiday time, stepkids of any age may feel their loyalty binds more acutely, thinking, for example, that 'Dad’s remarried but Mom’s not so I should spend the whole holiday with her.' And sometimes in spite of a stepparent’s best efforts, a stepchild may keep his or her distance, taking a 'stand' at holiday time. Don’t expect your stepfamily to resemble an eggnog smoothie during the holidays and you’ll spare yourself and your marriage a lot of aggravation," she counsels.
She suggests that spouses make a plan in advance for how they'll handle the holidays. They should plan activities that take the group outside the house and that they also look at "side-by-side" activities like doing puzzles or watching movies that allow steps to interact without going face-to-face on everything, she said.
Margorie Engel, Ph.D., president of the Stepfamily Association of America, told Barbara Loera of PsychCentral that difficulties of a stepfamily facing the holidays are similar to challenges faced by newlyweds: ”Two families are coming together to form a new entity, and the expectations and pressures are enormous.”
Besides that, wrote Loera, “stepfamilies face the additional stresses of ex-spouses, multiple sets of grandparents, joint custody arrangements and children with divided loyalties. This can present unique challenges around the holidays. Sometimes, just the sheer number of people involved turns holiday gatherings into logistical hurdles.”
Engel said stepfamilies need to establish new traditions of their own.
“You have to recognize that holidays will be different now no matter what,” she said. “If you try to approach them in the same way you used to, you’re doomed to failure.”
On a different blog, this one for Psychology Today, Martin noted that it’s a myth that families that have failed to blend “have blown it.”
Martin is the author of “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way They Do.”
Family Education notes in a stepfamily article that “Holidays can be brutal for the children of divorced parents. Kids very often feel incomplete. If they spend the time with you and your partner, they'll no doubt feel torn about not being with poor Mom or Dad. Try to respect the fact that the kids are thinking of their other bioparent and that their nostalgia for the past is not a direct shot at you. Yes, it's true, you don't picture into their fantasies of parental togetherness. It's nothing personal.”
If they’re spending the holiday with the other parent, they’re apt to be missing you, the article said.