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Advice from a Stepchild to Stepparents:
How to Drop the Drama and Stay Connected During the Holidays

The holiday season can be chaotic: family members coming in from out of town, the challenge of finding just the right gifts for the special people in our lives, and lots of extra socializing—all on top of our usual daily routines. It’s easy to see why this is a time of year when stress levels rise.

As a young adult stepchild, it’s not always easy relax and enjoy holiday visits with my family (and I have a great family). There are often unspoken expectations and pressures coming from my parents and stepparents – who will I stay with? Will all the gifts I selected feel equally thoughtful so no one feels slighted? How much time do I need to spend at home to give everyone enough attention? Over years of experimenting in my own family and talking with other young adults who live in stepfamilies, I've come up with some advice for stepparents to help you keep your relationship with your young adult stepchild(ren) positive during the holidays.

Please remember that we have lives. We are thrilled to be home and sharing the holidays with the ones we love, but that doesn't mean we haven't had to sacrifice to be here. We have to get time off work to visit, time that we're probably not getting paid for. Many jobs, like my own, don't allow time off during the busy holiday season – so we're lucky if we get a couple of unpaid days. So if we only come home for a quick trip, it's not because we don't want to spend time with you. We’re just really busy, and often really broke, too.

Mom and Dad come first. When we're home, try to respect that our top priority is most likely going to be seeing our mom and dad. Of course we want to stay connected with our stepparents and hear how you're doing. But if we spend more time with our parents, please don't take it personally.

Gift-giving. Presents are wonderful, but sometimes finding the right one can be a torturous ordeal. Please know that we, young adult stepchildren, try our best to find gifts that you'll love. I remind other young adults that their remarried parent is a great source of gift ideas for stepparents. I’ll tell you the same thing: your spouse can help get your creative juices flowing when it comes to finding meaningful gifts for your stepchildren.

When you’re trying to find just the right thing for your young adult stepkids, know that most of us would absolutely love a thoughtful, personal gift from you. It doesn't have to be on our top five list—in fact, it would be much more special if it were something else, something that showed us you truly care. If you're having a hard time coming up with ideas (which is okay), ask your spouse for suggestions, or consult your stepchild's siblings, partners, or friends. Whatever you choose, try not to stress about it – we'll appreciate your effort, I promise.

Traditions. Family traditions are important, especially for stepfamilies. They incorporate the old with the new, and are something that everyone can count on and enjoy. Please remember to honor your stepchild's traditions, too. It's likely that they have special things they’ve done over the years, things that evoke happy childhood memories. It might be something like making cookies with dad (just the two of us), getting to hang particular ornaments on the tree, or cooking Christmas breakfast. Whatever their traditions are, try to let the kids keep them.

It might be tough when these traditions don't involve you, but if you can understand that having some predictability from year to year is important to other family members, they'll respect you more for it. That being said, I do believe that whole family traditions are important as well, and they will help you all feel connected and close during the holidays. Maybe you've had them for years, or maybe it's time to create some new ones. Whatever the case, carry them out – they'll get better and better each year.

Take time for yourself. I gave this advice to young adults, and I'm giving it to you. When your out-of-town relatives arrive, when the kids all come home, when shopping needs to happen and gifts need to be wrapped – stop what you're doing, and go somewhere quiet. You might not have the luxury of a whole hour, but maybe you do. It doesn't matter--what matters is that you excuse yourself (or slip away), lock the bedroom door, stroll down the driveway, or pretend to go look for something in the basement. Take that time whatever you can, and be still. Be quiet. Un-focus your overly crowded brain. You'll be calmer, happier, and more enjoyable (to yourself and others). It's worth it, I promise.

So, stepparents, if you make sure to take care of yourself, respect parent-child relationships, and can dial down your expectations, you will find us stepchildren much more relaxed and happier. Everyone will benefit, and the holiday season will be brighter. 

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