At the Center for Relationship Wellness (CRW), we specialize in treating couples who’ve created blended families. When we (Don and Carrie Cole) married many years back, we created one ourselves, so we know the challenges in blending families with different histories, cultures, parenting styles, and traditions.
This holiday season, we’d like to present some thoughts and tips for minimizing stress and maximizing enjoyment to all the blended families out there. We’ll be highlighting points from our past blended family blogs and calling in some experts to add their wisdom to the mix. So let’s get started!
Because holidays are emotionally loaded, they have the potential to go south quickly and even explosively. People have expectations and dreams for their holiday that match what they might have seen on TV and in the movies. They might be expecting to prove themselves by mounting a perfect holiday celebration for family members who have a variety of different, perhaps conflicting, dreams and desires for their own holiday. When expectations are high and emotions intensified, emotional triggers can easily be activated, and sparks can fly. But if you think and plan carefully, most all of this can be avoided. Here’s a tip from one of our previous blogs to get you started:
Hopefully, long before the holidays, you and your partner have put in the time to bond with each child, both separately and together, as a core parent and as a stepparent, and you’ve planned some activities each partner’s kids can join. This investment will pay off to make things much more comfortable when everyone is together in the same space for long periods of time.
First off, meet with your partner. Create a plan to make decisions with your exes on just where and when the festivities will happen, and when each of you will have the children join your family’s holiday celebrations. In rare occasions, all exes will put aside their differences for the sake of the children, creating a sort of extended family tribe that celebrates holidays together. If you can see it in your heart to do this, and are willing to work through any communication snafus that may arise, the benefits may be far beyond your expectations. In any event, make every attempt to curtail hostilities with exes as you craft your plans with them.
For our purposes, let’s assume you are in the majority who will celebrate apart from your ex. Once you have a rough idea of these critical decisions, it’s time to have a meeting with the kids about the holidays.
There are two goals you want to reach in this meeting. First, you want to discuss and set expectations for what the holiday will look like. Second, you want to frame the event by making it a fun and creative experience. In “Tips for navigating the holidays with a blended family” by Molly Cerreta Smith, she gives us a few clues about how to do this. She advises us to “Look to the future, not the past.”
Understand — and help your children understand — that your holidays will be different with the new blended family than holiday celebrations in the past. But look at it as an opportunity to create new and special traditions.
“In most cases family members set themselves up for disappointment by making comparisons with the past,” says Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, who is considered “The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce” and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children – with Love!
Talk to your children about how things are changing, and include them in your decisions.
“Stepparents and stepchildren can erroneously expect the newly formed stepfamily to replicate the close bonds and sense of security within their original family,” she says. “By talking about these realities, sharing expectations and understanding that this new family dynamic is unique and different from the first family, the pressure is released. This opens the door to new traditions, new activities and new ways to spend time together as a blended family.”
Keep in mind that each family member carries with them issues that can trigger negative emotions and pain. The children may be missing family holidays with both parents, wanting the same kind of celebrations, or suffering the pain of remembering the fights that led up to their family’s split. Adults also carry old pain from dysfunctional family patterns they grew up with.
“The challenges in a relationship where both individuals carry unresolved trauma can be illustrated by considering the challenges in blending a step-family. As in a marriage between two individuals with children from other relationships, each individual may bring personal difficulties into the relationship that have nothing to do with their new partner, family member, or loved-one. These painful issues may express themselves in a variety of negative or undesirable symptoms and behaviors.
Putting it briefly, two key ingredients in significant relationships are intimacy and dependency. For traumatized individuals, intimacy and dependency are very substantial challenges in themselves. The experience of trauma—whether prolonged developmental trauma or events of shock trauma—frequently, if not always, damages an individual’s ability to trust and feel safe in the world. Healthy intimacy and dependency require some ability to trust, and the willingness to allow that trust to grow and deepen. Individuals must be able to feel some essential element of safety in the relationship and be willing to help create a safe place for their partners and loved-ones.”
Creating a blended family is challenging regardless. A high pressure situation such as a blended family holiday can result in feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and the potential for being triggered increases.
The new marriage may bring an additional host of insecurities as children joust for position and parents reach for unity upon which to base their new blended family. Deep seated pain, anger, anxiety and fear can hijack seemingly ordinary interactions at a moment’s notice as family members are triggered… Each of these incidents has the potential to drive our loved ones further from us, and weaken relationships with our partner and the children we want to blend into our family and bind to us in trust.
As adults, we may know generally what our deep-seated issues from our core family are, but each of us also has a set of emotional triggers connected with specific experiences we haven’t fully processed yet. Our strong and emotional reactions to people or situations may arise suddenly once we’re in a new marriage complicated by the addition of children.
Just knowing in advance that triggers will happen for everyone can help parents cope when confronted with the surprise of drama. But for extra assurance, competent, skilled counseling can help parents sort through their own triggers, and get tips from a professional therapist on how to ease the transition for children.
So keeping all this in mind, what’s the best approach to take? The experts at Psychology Today present their best ideas:
- Take calm-down breaks. Soon after you awake, close your eyes, take several deep breaths and meditate or just relax. Imagine yourself in a beautiful place, think of a happy memory or visualize yourself succeeding at a cherished goal. “Quieting down your mind before you begin your day can help it get off to a great start and things will flow for you,” says Debra Berndt, an expert in creative visualization and hypnosis… In addition, whenever you get stressed out, anxious or feel overwhelmed during the day, take quick relaxation breaks of 1 to 5 minutes to calm yourself down. Conscious, slow breathing can help you when you’re feeling frustrated waiting in line at the supermarket, post office or drug store.
- Put on rose-colored glasses. When people try to push their bad habits on you during this holiday season, tune into their motivations. For instance, before you get annoyed at Aunt Jane, who keeps urging you to try a piece of her apple pie, or your co-worker Frank, who keeps trying to fill your glass with booze, first take a deep breath. Then, step into their shoes and realize that Jane is just showing that she loves you, and Frank is merely trying to be convivial. Then graciously thank them for their misguided attention. Rather than view your situation with annoyance, be grateful instead.
- Get moving. Perhaps one of the best ways to overcome stress during the holidays or any other time is to exercise regularly. Research shows that physical activity not boosts your fitness and energy levels but can also elevate your moods. In addition, exercise has been found to reduce anger, tension, fatigue and confusion. Despite the many demands on your time, this is not the season to stop exercising. Indeed, when regular exercisers are inactive, they begin to feel depressed and fatigued after just one week, according to a study from scientists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Exercise also can give you that much-acclaimed “runner’s high.” Indeed, research shows that rigorous physical activity of any kind pumps up production of endorphins, your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
- Go for real foods mostly. Inevitably, at this time of year, you’ll be tempted with sugary, empty-calorie “treats” just about wherever you go. But to be your most energetic, focused and happy self, it’s best to eat foods that grow on trees or on the ground (vegetables and fruits) and to choose healthy fats (such as olive oil and flax seeds), lean protein (such as fish and organic chicken) and legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Take polite portions of “comfort” foods and drinks. During the holidays, it’s easy to “fall off the wagon” and use—or over-use—alcohol, sugar and caffeine. It’s best to think before you treat your body like a trash can instead of a temple. The best way to stay true to the best you is to limit your consumption of such comfort or pleasure foods and drinks as apple pie, cookies, pasta and eggnog. When offered these and other “goodies,” try to take three to five “polite” bites and sips—and only after having a well-balanced meal with smart carbs (vegetables, fruits or whole grains), fats and protein…Be aware that if you’re a sugar addict, you must be especially vigilant when it comes to desserts and quickie carbs.
- Prepare “Nice To Do For Me” and “Need to Do For You” lists. Writing down all that you have to do during the holidays will help you realize how do-able your tasks are. Be realistic as to what you put on your lists. Then start tackling one item from each list in turn. For example, after buying gifts for your mom or significant other, take time to work out, too. By alternating between lists, you won’t feel deprived, because you’re being good to yourself. Better yet, as Cheryl Richardson suggests in her fabulous book, Take Time for Your Life: A 7-Step Program for Creating the Life you Want, prepare an “Absolute Yes” list, which will reflect priorities that inspire you to use your gift of time well. “When you practice extreme self-care and put yourself first, you are then fully available to others without resentment or anger,” she aptly points out.
- Be generous. One of the best ways to stay calm, content and cheerful this time of year is to act generously with your loved ones, co-workers and friends. This doesn’t have to mean you’re spending a lot of money. You can be generous with your compliments. You can generously offer to do a loved one’s dreaded errand. You can generously write a fun, short poem. When you are creative with your gifts and thank you’s, people will appreciate your real, heartfelt sentiments.
Finally, aside from our own recommendations to have an initial meeting to set expectations, create a calendar of commitments for everyone in the family, discuss everyone’s desires and visions for what matters this season, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Ease up on the expectation that you will do everything together. Especially if you have teens in the house, don’t expect them to want to stay around the adults all day long
- “Be chill” – if something goes wrong, and it will, roll with it, and if you can, handle it with humor
- Especially in the early years, curtail your public displays of affection with your partner
- Leave enough time to sneak away for a few moments alone with a child if he or she needs it
- Be open to compromise if the situation changes for any reason
- Insist on respect all around
- Have everyone share what they are thankful for or what the highlights of their year have been
- Be flexible about who is defined as family – it may be a best friend, a favorite uncle or a cousin
- Try to grab a little time alone with your partner, even if it’s just one drink and a chat in front of the fireplace
- Reward yourself for surviving it all
- Savor and enjoy!
The Center for Relationship Wellness would like to wish all our readers an extra special, warm and wonderful holiday season.