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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Everyone knows that the holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Family members come together to share traditions, to connect and give thanks for all of the good people and things in their lives, and to renew their bonds through rituals, food, music, and other meaningful symbols of the season. Too often though, it doesn’t work out that way in stepfamilies.

In addition to the usual holiday challenges of conflicting schedules, limited budgets, and loved ones living all over the place, stepfamilies have a whole extra set of considerations. The pressures of more people to spend time with, navigating torn allegiances, and sensitive feelings all around can make the holidays in a stepfamily something to be muddled through—or just plain avoided.

The Happiest Season of All?

Far from it. For stepfamilies with young adult children, the holidays create the conditions for a perfect storm. Most young adult stepchildren are under pressure to see and spend time with two families of their own, in addition to their friends, romantic partners, and in-laws—and they usually have to do it on very limited vacation time and an even more limited budget. For other young adults with remarried parents, it’s the opposite. These young people find themselves feeling unwanted by a parent, unwelcomed by a stepparent, or crowded out by stepsiblings at this special time of year.

Former spouses who may not have much to do with one another the other 11 months of the year end up having to share—or compete for—a piece of their grown children’s limited time, energy, and attention. And adult kids feel as torn as ever—if not more so—between their two parents. Differences in divorced parents’ philosophies about important things like money, religion, priorities, and the very definition of “family” bubble to the surface at emotionally loaded times like these. And young adults are exquisitely sensitive to these differences.

Stepparents want—or feel compelled—to create a family feeling while at the same time struggling with their own insecurities about their outsider status. Few other annual events have the power to light up our “you’re-not-one-of-us” feelings as acutely as the intense insider-ness of a holiday family gathering. And because the holidays happen every year, they’re always just around the corner.

A Christmas Story

Various combinations of these factors add up to heightened sensitivities, divided loyalties, conflicts, and/or avoidance between members of a stepfamily. That’s because, during periods of increased stress and tension, people tend to make up stories about what’s happening. Here are just a few examples:

From an adult stepchild: “Dear ESM: On holidays, my husband, my 2 kids and I never get an invite to my dad’s home. From many years’ experience, it's pretty clear that my stepmother would rather not have me around at the holidays, let alone any other time.  I'm always made to feel like a very distant relative that causes a lot of work for her, rather than my father's daughter…”

From a remarried father:“Dear ESM: My son just got out of the service, and I would like to be with him for the holidays this year. My wife does not want to invite him because she says that he ‘makes her uncomfortable.’ I fear not inviting him could make things even worse between them, plus I would not want to be excluded if I were him. I have not spent a holiday with him in over 6 years. How should I handle this situation?

From a divorced mother: “Dear ESM: Every year right around Thanksgiving, my former husband’s wife starts trying to lobby me for extra time on with our 20-something kids when they come home for Christmas. I’m sure not going to be the one to force my kids to go to his house and spend time with their stepmother, her children, and her extended family; he needs talk to them himself—not con his wife into working on me. I feel bad for her.”

From a stepdad: “Dear ESM: After their divorce, my wife and her ex continued to celebrate the holidays together with their 3 children—even after he remarried, even after he and his new wife had children of their own… Now that we’re married, I’m expected to go along with their family celebrations. Her ex-husband is insistent that we keep up this tradition ‘for the kids.’… I don’t want to spend Christmas with my wife’s former husband and his new family, and I don’t think my wife should have to, either. He’s not my family, we have our own family now (which includes my children), and their ‘kids’ are 20, 23 and 28, for goodness sake—get over it.”

It’s clear that holidays and the family time that comes with them can be anywhere from uncomfortable to unbearable for stepfamilies with young adults. Grown kids often feel left out or forced to participate in ways they aren’t comfortable with. Divorced parents vie for an ever-smaller slice of their kids’ time. Stepparents get prickly about what’s expected or them, and about their own outsider status. And managing the tension between keeping things the way they used to be and flexing to give them new life is not easy.

A Fresh Chance Every Year

Regardless of how we’ve handled things in the past, the holidays present us with an opportunity to try new ways of being together—every year. Let’s look at some of the ways remarried parents and stepparents can turn down the stress, tension, and drama that are so often a part of stepfamily holidays.

Don’t lose site of your self. Barbra, a remarried mother of two and stepmother of three, felt that she was getting twisted up at the holidays by trying to make everyone happy and accommodate everybody’s schedules. She wanted to change her behavior, but didn’t know where to begin.

With the help of a stepfamily coach, she worked on figuring out what’s most important to her personally at the holidays. She figured out that it was working with her church’s youth group on the annual Nativity Play. Once she determined what was most important to her during the holidays, she was able to allow some of the other seasonal hubbub – decorating, shopping, wrapping – go to the wayside.

The holiday season is about something unique to each of us; it may be a time for quiet spiritual reflection, for honoring ethnic traditions, or for celebrating with family and friends. When you can uncover and act on what this special time of year means to you personally, you’ve go a better shot at a positive attitude during the holidays.

Celebrate with your mate. The busyness and chaos of the holidays can lead to distance and strain on our primary relationships. By putting your marriage at the top of your holiday to-do list (right after what’s most important to you), you’ll increase you odds of maintaining a positive outlook this holiday season.

As a stepmother of three young adults, our home is a hive of activity throughout the holiday season. The kids, their mates, their friends, and our family and friends are constantly flowing in and out. When I am alone with my husband, it’s shopping, wrapping, baking, or decorating. But we’ve figured out a few ways to celebrate on our own during the holidays.

First, we make any time alone together a celebration. If the task is Christmas shopping, the celebration is a late lunch at our favorite restaurant downtown. If the task is decorating the tree, then we pull up the holiday playlist, heat up some apple cider, and reminisce about childhood holidays while we hang the ornaments. Second, we take off as soon as we can after New Years Day and go away on our own for at least a few days. A weekend in Santa Barbara, a train ride to Boston, a long drive down the Oregon Coast—it doesn’t matter. Knowing that I’m going to get my husband all to myself for a few days has changed my perspective on the holidays. “Right now it’s crazy,” I tell myself, but in two weeks I’ll be curled up with my great love and a big pile of new books!”

Give others a choice. As a stepfamily therapist, I’ve seen over and over again that it’s not just ourselves we expect too much from at the holidays. After years of frustrating, disappointing holidays as a stepfamily with three busy young adults, Jane, 49, and her husband decided to send an itinerary of their holiday schedule to each of their three 20- and 30-something children (two hers, one his). “We tell them what will be happening and when—the annual extended family Secret Santa party, tree trimming, Dad’s molasses cookie baking, Christmas Eve dinner (right down to the menu), reading of The Night Before Christmas, opening of presents, Christmas morning breakfast at Aunt Sharon’s house – and we let them know that they are welcome to join us for any or all of the holiday activities we’ve planned.” She reports that her young family members seem to like the open invitation and appreciate the freedom to choose. “They even invite friends sometimes,” says Jane. “I think that’s a good sign.”

If we want to enjoy our holiday season, and if we want others to enjoy theirs, then inviting them with freedom and flexibility – rather than duty and pressure – is the way to go. Whether they chose to join you or not, you’ll still be doing what’s important to you.

Make your young people feel welcome. I am a “Miss Manners” kind of hostess. I like to have good food, clean towels, and bright conversation ready for my guests. Which is why I used to get upset when one of my young adult stepchildren would drop in for a visit and find us without food or drink, let alone let alone fresh flowers and a blazing fire in the hearth.

It is a blessing when a busy young person wants to spend time in your home, and even more so when they want their friends to come “home” with them. So lighten up on them and yourself, and put some emergency young adult food in your pantry or freezer. A few frozen French bread pizzas, a can of mixed nuts, and a pint or 2 of Ben and Jerry’s will almost always work for hungry (and often broke) young people. Usually they’re just dropping in on their way someplace else, so try to keep quick prep in mind.

The easier you make it for them to be there, the better time you’ll have with them.

Focus on celebrating the kids’ drop-ins and surprise visits this year. Learning to lower your standards and spend time with people you genuinely enjoy is a gift to yourself at the holidays. And the more relaxed you are, the more likely they’ll be to visit again soon.

Lighten up for the holidays. Instead of grumbling, complaining, or apologizing, be glad when your stepkids are with you. They’ll feel it if you’re happy to see them rather than frustrated by or anxious about having them in your home. No one wants to feel like a burden, certainly not with family. And season after season of knowing you’re glad to see them adds up to less tension year after year.

Take it from someone who has survived the late teens and 20’s with 3 young adults now: Your stepchildren’s brains will firm up, they will give you a gift list, they will make plans—in advance—to visit you and their parent, and they will enjoy their time with their stepfamily. Probably by the time they’re 40. Until then, focus on figuring out what this season means to you, find special ways to celebrate with your mate, and think of every chance to be with your stepkids as a holiday.

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