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Ask Yourself

* Is living in a Blended Family or a Stepfamily “more than you bargained for?”

* Does step parenting feel like the most challenging and thankless job of all?

* Is the tension and conflict taking its toll on your relationships

* Are you becoming worried about your children and their well-being?

* Are you constantly arguing with your partner about the kids, discipline and parenting in general?

• Is your ex or your partner's ex causing real problems in your blended family and in your relationship

• Are you at the end of your rope and need some answers NOW

* Are you considering entering into a Blended Family or Stepfamily and want to be prepared?

The Holidays - Friend of Foe?


Step Institute


Can it be the Holidays upon us again, so soon? Well I believe it is that time of year again. Where I live we just had our first snowfall this past week, which is extremely late and highly unusual for any part of Canada. In any case, it is finally starting to feel like winter and now Christmas is less than 2 short weeks away.

For families, this is an exciting, stressful, happy, exhausting, hopeful and expensive time of year all at once. For any of us in blended or stepfamilies, you can add on a few more adjectives or phrases to describe it such as unpredictable, unfamiliar in some cases, sad for those who mourn the loss of previous relationships and traditions and uncertain because there are multiple variables that require extreme balancing and even then you can never know if things will fall into place. It can also be territory people feel the need to tread carefully around because Christmas, the holidays, any special time of year, is inextricably wound up with family and for newly formed families, step, blended or otherwise, the ghosts of former or nuclear families, and the emotions that go along with that, can leave everyone feeling like nothing will ever compare or be as good as the way it once was. The result, being that a stepfamily or blended family at the holiday time, can seem like second best or the runner-up to the first prize or the way it once was or should be. This can be particularly unsettling for stepparents, who don’t long for the way it once was, and misinterpret this longing or nostalgia as another form of rejection or exclusion. It can be challenging, but not impossible, to keep the connection to a new family when everyone else seems bent on living in, or remembering the past.

The first thing to recognize is that it is normal for times like this to bring up memories and longing for the past. We can’t fight it, but neither do we have to indulge it. As the adults in the picture, it is our job to recognize that children will just naturally revert back to times when things were simpler and of course who wouldn’t rather spend one Christmas, in one place with one family, then truck around to 3 or 4 different places where people are unclear on what is happening and how to treat each other and how to handle the new relationships and demands. This is just plain confusing and challenging, without a doubt, especially for the children. So when faced with a difficult emotion like sadness, or loneliness it is better simply to accept that it exists and even validate it, rather than trying to sweep it under the rug or try to talk someone out of their feelings. Anger and even acting out can become accelerated at this time, for young children and teenagers who may or may not even understand their emotional experiences; they know they don’t feel good at times and are either very clear why (they want things to be different) or they don’t know and this can be even more frustrating. It’s normal for a sense of loss to be more prevalent at this time of celebration. It may seem contradictory, but it’s true.

In order to move beyond and find some joy in the newness of the situation, as adults, as parents and stepparents, we can start by recognizing that no situation, even the holidays, comes without it’s challenges and if we have our own experiences of disappointment or sadness or even regret, we can accept that it is real and then move on from there to discover and celebrate the parts of this life that are worth celebrating. This will also put us (not to mention everyone else) in a better frame of mind to handle whatever the children, the ex, the new in-laws, or extended family in general might throw our way. It’s really about taking a realistic and rational approach to the new lives that we have chosen. Unexamined, the challenges can seem unfair and undeserved, but they are exactly what we can expect in step or blended families. The fact that we are surprised by these realizations and taken aback, contributes as much to the sense of disappointment, anger and frustration, as the actual details, events, and yes, even people, that we think are the source of our distress.

Here’s a good example. It does make it more complicated to have to talk and figure out and coordinate with people who you barely know, about how and what to buy for the kids, the step grandkids and everyone else in the picture, in a way that is equitable and fair, respects old traditions but also welcomes new members into the family. It isn’t easy – far from it. But is it a real and necessary piece of forming a new family. How could it not be? So we can either get on with the job of sorting it out, between ourselves as parents and partners first, and then among extended families, or we can ache about it, feel put upon, and continue to think long and hard about how uncomfortable and unfair it is that we even have to do it. Trust me, I’ve been there and spent more than my fair share of time wallowing in misery over things that I just needed to get on with and get done. In hindsight, the wallowing cost me more emotionally, than the work involved in preparing for this reality of Christmas with my new family ever did. Of course, a partner who listens and supports, even when they don’t completely understand your struggle, always goes a long way towards building resilience and connectedness throughout these challenges.

Christmas, the holidays, whatever we’re talking about is what we make of it. I only wish someone had given me this advice 14 years ago when I was first starting out as a new stepmom, wet behind the ears, optimistic and frustrated, hopeful and resentful, all at the same time, for the better part of the first 5-6 years. My best advice now to everyone who finds them selves frustrated or even exhausted by the demands of the holiday season in your stepfamily, old or new, is to try to put some perspective on it. It may help to talk with other parents or stepparents who are struggling, and it can often help to speak to a coach to help you identify your own strengths and what you can do to make the season as pleasurable as possible, not perfect. Extreme approaches never work and yet they seem to be our first recourse. Making it all about everyone else will lead to burnout and resentment. Making it all about ourselves, only focuses us on the fact that it will never be exactly what we had hoped for, creating more disappointment for us, while we alienate those around us. How about a balanced approach?

When working with Step or Blended Families my aim is always to find solutions that recognize everyone’s needs and gets EVERYONE some of what they want, .. not all. A good example in the case of the holidays, is protecting and honoring many of the traditions that existed in the former or nuclear family as this makes the children feel safe and that it’s okay to remember and not lose that important part of who they are (a connection to their biological parents and their family history), while ushering in some new traditions and practices. With the entry of a new stepparent or the blending of two families, comes an incredible opportunity to begin some new traditions or activities that celebrate the new family and the individuals that make up that new family. One is not done to the exclusion of the other, but allows for the existence of both. Does this require a great deal of maturity on the parts of family members (it can) ,is it always easy (of course not) and are all families ready for this amazing growth and transformation in the first years of being together (maybe not). But what in any family is easy and doesn’t come with some challenges and require some patience over time to get it where you want it to be? The addition of new rituals and the inclusion of perhaps a tradition that a new stepparent wants to celebrate, is a way of teaching the children how we respect individual differences and everyone’s needs, even for adults who aren’t supposed to have any needs, right? And it goes a long way towards making the new person or persons, feel welcomed, accepted, comfortable and included on the inner circle, as opposed to left on the outside looking in.

Everything that is wonderful has the potential of feeling awful at times. Everything that holds promise, when that promise is not fulfilled, holds the potential of disappointment. The holidays are no exception. We choose our partners, and our relationships, and along with that come some things we didn’t choose and some challenges that we weren’t necessarily prepared for. Try to remember why you made a commitment to be in this stepfamily or blended family in the first place, remember the big picture, the things you’re striving to attain over time and the parts of your life that are worth celebrating. I’m not advocating denial of the challenges as I’ve been, there, I’m still there, and I’m a strong believer in talking about and working on these challenges. However, dwelling on them at times like these will only take away from the magic of the holidays. For most of us in stepfamilies, we have work to do and issues to work through with our spouse and our families and there is a definite place and time for that.

So make a commitment now to sit down with your partner in the New Year and carve out a family plan that will get everyone some of what they want in 2010 and that will help your family grow together. And then get on with the task at hand – the holidays. Knowing that you have a plan to either talk about difficult issues together, get help from a coach/counselor, find a support group or read a great book together that will help you in your family journey, will bring a sense of relief and purpose and hopefully an ability to relax a bit and go into the holidays with a renewed sense of purpose and maybe even more energy. Okay, maybe not energy, but you get the picture.

All the best to Every One from now until the New Year.






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