With divorce and remarriage "the new normal" in many American families, holidays can be a time for both happiness and struggle for children. Sarah Feuerbacher, director of SMU's Center for Family Counseling, offers ten tips she's learned form counseling blended families to help make the holidays fun – not stressful – for the youngest members of these re-arranged households.
- Parents should understand it takes time to grieve for lost family or traditions, and it will only make it more difficult on children if they are forced to have a holly, jolly holiday.
- Four sets of grandparents, three step-siblings, two sets of parents, a child caught in the middle… and a partridge in a pear tree. A child will feel guilt if she hears her parent complaining about limited time, or how much the parent will miss the child. Be upbeat and focus on the fact that your child has many people who want to share a special day with her.
- Allow your child to know his schedule in advance so there is consistency and predictability. He can have some peace in knowing where he'll be home for the holidays.
- Remember, your celebration does not have to be on the actual holiday. There's no guarantee that you'll always be with your child on those days. Instead, make your own traditions that are not necessarily tied to a specific date and that can be done no matter when or where you happen to be. Join your child in baking cookies or making homemade cards, and assist her in delivering them to people she cares about. Or, select a family to sponsor from an Angel Tree and spend time together shopping for their wish list and wrapping the gifts. These memories can be treasured any day of the year!
- Deck the halls… and then deck them again. It's absolutely fine to keep your traditions, but recognize that children may feel left out if you've already had your holiday celebration or big meal when they arrive at your house. Therefore, make a special effort to allow them to experience a celebration in your household whenever they arrive, and if that means one more big meal, count your blessings.
- Start new traditions that take the focus off of gifts. Create games that can allow members of the family to get to know each other even better. For example, with Secret Santa, you have to learn about a family member to find the perfect gift just for them. A child to feels unique in receiving a gift, but also connects further by selecting an individualized present for someone else in the family.
- You may be dreaming of a white Christmas, but don't set your expectations higher than what a child can handle. For example, the child may not be thinking of buying a gift for his new stepfather, but is trying to figure out what to get his dad who doesn't live in the house. Focus on what the child is comfortable doing. If you are that stepfather, perhaps, you could offer to take him shopping to purchase a gift for his dad and the quality time spent together will go a long way in building your relationship.
- Be very aware of what kinds of gifts you get for your step-children. Be sure all things are equal – in other words, don't get your children brand new bicycles while the stepchild gets a book (or worse yet, nothing at all). It is not a child's choice who becomes his family, but it is his right to be given fairness, and this will allow all of the children to have themselves a merry little Christmas.
- Santa Claus is coming… with rules? Santa brings gifts to children, not to a house. Allowing your child to take her new gifts to and from each of her houses let's her feel comfortable and happy wherever she may be.
- If the adults and families can get along and it makes your children more comfortable, consider sharing a meal or the entire holiday together. Remember, the best gift you can give your children is to allow them to have their loved ones together for happy holidays.
Explore further: Seven ways parents can manage holiday stress