8 Ways to Enjoy the Holidays with a Blended Family

For blended families, the holidays can be a time when the pressure and strain to be happy unit can become more magnified than usual. Here’s how to help your blended family not only enjoy the holidays, but build bonds that last long after the season is over.

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Christmas dinner table setting
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1. Adjust Your Expectations

For newly blended families, it can be tempting to give in to the fantasy that your holidays together will look like the Brady Bunch Christmas special. When reality falls a bit short of the mark, deflated hopes can wreak havoc with even the merriest group of people. This can happen to any family of course, blended or not, but the stakes can be higher for those within blended families, especially those that are new. “Make your holiday expectations low and create an environment where children, no matter their age, can feel safe to express that holidays may be hard for them, especially if their step-family is new in the making,” says Mary T. Kelly, MA, a therapist and an expert on step-family relationships. “If appropriate, acknowledge that they are missing the parent they aren’t with and may be struggling with feelings of disloyalty. Make your holidays light and full of humour. We tend to take ourselves way too seriously and this, more than anything, can cause us the most suffering.”

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Family giving Christmas gift to young daughter
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2. Find Ways to Incorporate Past Traditions

A newly formed family doesn’t mean that couples need to start from scratch entirely when planning ways to celebrate the holidays, especially if there are ways of celebrating from the past that still bring joy and meaning to all involved. Jaqlynn, a mom of two, recalls the early days of celebrating the holidays with her then-six-year-old daughter and new husband: “We didn’t have the issue of splitting time during the holidays as some blended families do, as I have sole custody of my daughter. Still, it was important to me that as we began to celebrate the holidays as a new family of three, we kept our holiday traditions the same as they had been since my daughter was born. These were the things that were important to me that we kept the same.” Keeping traditions of the past can provide a sense of stability and familiarity for children in blended families, and as long as everyone is on board with them, they can bring just as much joy as they did before.

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Young evergreen trees
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3. Create New Traditions Together

Along with celebrating in some ways you used to, adding in some new traditions is a good way to step into this new chapter of family life together. Having a discussion ahead of time about what might be enjoyable for each family member is a great way to ensure buy-in and participation from everyone. Whether it’s cutting down a fresh Christmas tree or a white elephant gift exchange, beginning something new can truly be the start of enjoyable holidays for years to come. New traditions need not be fancy or expensive. Sometimes the simplest activities can be the most memorable. Find something that works for your own unique family.

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Hanukkah candles
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4. Be Respectful of Time Spent Apart

Even if a marriage has ended, the respect between the two former partners doesn’t have to, especially if there are children involved. Most parents want the holidays to be a time of joy and excitement for their kids, and nothing takes the fun out of the holidays faster than two adults arguing over how much time the other gets to spend with them. For this reason, agreeing upon a set holiday schedule is necessary for everyone involved, and the sooner it is set, the better. Charlotte, a mother of two, who grew up in a blended family says, “We were constantly juggling schedules and going to different homes to celebrate. My parents did a great job of keeping it consistent, though, and we often celebrated the holidays on a different day to accommodate everyone.” The simple act of agreeing to a plan and following through sends a much needed message to children in blended families. It communicates that the love their parents still share for them extends beyond their own disagreements with one another, and they are still partnered together to make sure the children come first.

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Young family in autumn landscape
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5. Discuss the Plans Ahead of Time

In most successful relationships, communication is vital and in blended families it’s no different. Parents can set the tone for the practice of open and honest communication by holding a family meetings where holiday plans are discussed. Talking about them can help bridge the emotional gap that might exist between step siblings, and allow parents to take notes about events or traditions that are important to each child. Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily and director of FamilyLife Blended, says, “I often tell blended families that trying to ‘blend’ all of their traditions might not be a good idea because it often backfires. Instead, the first part of the old wedding tradition that is meant to bring a bride good luck can bring step-families good luck as well. Something old, something new, and something borrowed can be a good rule of thumb when it comes to merging traditions.”

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Blended family on Christmas morning
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6. Expand Your Definition of Family

Extending an invitation to a former partner and even their family members can go a long way in making a holiday enjoyable for the children involved. Britt, who grew up in a blended family, explains how her family made everyone feel welcome. “One thing my mom and my father’s ex-wife always did was put the focus on me and my sister. My father’s former wife and family treated me the same as my sister, and we all celebrated holidays together.” If parents are able to truly get along in this way, it can only be a benefit to the children to see that they can enjoy a holiday with their entire family at the same time. Don’t beat yourself up though, if this is not the case. This is the exception and not the rule, but it is certainly a goal to work toward, if both parents and their families are open to the idea.

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Jewish child and grandmother celebrating Hanukkah
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7. Anticipate Issues Before They Arise

No one wants to go into a celebration already anticipating what could go wrong, but for blended families full of different of personalities and various histories, parents might need to do just that. Looking ahead and thinking about situations that might arise can be helpful in preventing hurt feelings and stressful situations. “The holidays are about spending time with family. It’s a time meant for magic, joy, and love. But many of us know firsthand that holidays can bring up triggers of loss and sadness. Our families may hurt or disappoint us. Step-sfamilies can stir up pain from the past. They are born out of loss and step-children may resent their new step family, longing for the days when their parents were together. The adults in the step family would do well to be aware and sensitive to this,” Kelly advises. For example, if the youngest child in the group is feeling left out as the older siblings begin to form bonds, it might be helpful for the family to play a board game together that is inclusive of all of age groups. Only you know what might be beneficial for your individual family, but brainstorming as a couple ways to bring your family closer together can only be a positive step forward.

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Grandmother and granddaughter at Christmas toy drive
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8. Give Back Together

There is no greater gift than to give, and often times the benefits of acts of generosity reach far beyond the acts themselves. If a family is having trouble working together to find ways of spending time bonding, participating in acts of kindness is one way to warm everyone’s spirit and bring the focus back to what the holiday season is about. Volunteering to take underprivileged children shopping, delivering gifts to less fortunate families, and serving meals at a homeless shelter are all wonderful ways to spend time as a family giving to those in need. Visiting elderly in nursing homes is another option, as well as having the younger children create artwork to brighten their rooms. Sometimes taking the focus off of what isn’t working in a family, and putting it onto working together for the good of others, can make all the difference in the world.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest