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The Informed Parent

Celebrating Holidays In Blended Families

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Dec. 07, 2009

About one-third of children in the United States will be part of a blended family by age 18. These families are created when one or both partners bring children into the new unit. It takes commitment, patience, and realistic expectations for them to work happily.

This is especially true for families where the children are shared in joint custody. While difficulties ebb and flow, holidays offer challenges that, when not addressed, create stress.

To bring a sense of celebration and well being into holidays, accommodations must be made. The following suggestions have been used successfully in many families. Some may work for you.

Take Turns

Usually both parents from the family of origin want to have the children for holidays, and this includes birthdays. One way of handling this is to year-by-year switch the special days children spend with each family. It is wise for both families to keep a three-year calendar of which days the children spend with them. Written documentation helps to avoid unnecessary conflict, which benefits both the children and parents.

It is best not to have much flexibility with this plan, especially in newly blended families. Make a decision and stick with it. This causes less friction between the birth parents and provides a sense of security for the children. Everyone gets along better when they know what to expect.

Stay With The Schedule

Some families find it easier to simply stick with whatever regular exchange days the children have between families. If a holiday comes during time with Dad, that’s where the day is spent. If it’s during time at Mom’s the day is celebrated there.

This can be hard, if holidays are an important part of your life. As time goes on, it becomes easier. It’s okay to communicate your feelings by saying something like, “I’ll miss having you at our home for Christmas.” It is important not to make too much of your disappointment. This can make children feel guilty. It can also lead to them feeling responsible for your happiness or lack of.

Change The Day

For many of us, the calendar date of a holiday is not what is important. It is the festivities and celebration surrounding it. If celebrating is important to you, choose a date when you have the children to acknowledge a birthday, Valentine’s Day, or other important events. Have the children help with the choice. That way they know that special times will be shared in both families. There are a number of advantages to this approach. First, the children get to celebrate twice--once at Dad’s and once at Mom’s. Second, regardless of the chosen day, it ends up feeling like the actual holiday. Third, there may be less stress than often occurs during big holiday times.

Create A Combination

This may seem cumbersome but works in some families. If a holiday that is important to you always falls during the time the children are with the other parent, do a year-by-year or partial exchange. A partial exchange is when part of the special day is spent in one family and part in the other. Stick with the schedule for holidays that are not as meaningful. For those, create a celebration when the kids are with you.

When my girls were young, they were on a two-week exchange between families. Their birth dad had them the last two weeks of each month; thus, Christmas was always when they were with him. That is my favorite holiday. It was not an important time for him. We arranged to have the girls celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with my family. He had them for Christmas afternoon and the remainder of his regularly scheduled time. The rest of the holidays the girls celebrated at whichever home they were in. In our home, we created the special days they missed at a different time.

What's Important

The most important thing when considering holidays in blended families is keeping the children in mind. They did not ask for the family of birth to dissolve, whether by the death of a parent or divorce. Establishing a new family is not easy for them. They have lots to contend with learning to live with a stepparent, new family dynamics, a new home, and perhaps even a new community. They do not need to worry about how you will fare during special times.

Include the children in creating new traditions and ways of celebration. Help them understand that the holidays will be different from before and that they can be just as much fun. Handle your own feelings appropriately. Talk to other parents, with a trusted friend, or seek assistance from a spiritual or psychological professional. Remember that holidays are special because of what you and the children put into them. They can occur at any time and in any way.

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