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Planning, flexibility can ease holiday stress for stepfamilies

The month of December is supposed to usher in “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many families, the holiday season often heaps on a sizeable helping of stress and frustration. Maintaining a healthy balance of peace and cheer can be especially challenging for stepfamilies, also known as blended families, said Anne Jones, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work.

“For most people, the holidays are about spending time with families and family memories,” said Jones, whose work focuses on couple and family relationships. “Not being able to be with one’s former partner, or spend time in the way one used to as part of a nuclear family or for children to share the holiday with both parents at one time can be very painful.”


For children especially, holiday family traditions play a significant role

In the United States, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of children will be part of a stepfamily before they reach age 18, Jones said. Such statistics suggest that unlike biological nuclear families, stepfamilies must spend a lot more time negotiating and compromising during the holidays, she added. The greater the number of people involved, the more complicated the decision making can get.

Some potential issues for stepfamilies to deal with include:

Where will the children spend each holiday and for how long?
How and when will they get from one home to another? (Many children have to travel long distances.)
What activities will take place?
What meals and foods will be prepared and when?

Holiday family traditions play a significant role during this time of the year, especially for children. For example, deciding when to open gifts or what holidays to celebrate when families have mixed religious traditions can be very delicate subjects for newly blended families to tackle. Brainstorming ideas for starting new and different family traditions may help ease the stress, Jones suggested.


Stepfamilies have to think about what old traditions to preserve and what new ones to create

“Stepfamilies have to think about what old traditions to preserve and what new ones to create,” Jones said. “These can be around decorating, baking, socializing or outdoor activities. You just have to keep in mind that expectations can complicate things and that it can be hard for adults to adjust activities and schedules to accommodate everybody.”

Advanced planning, good communication and added flexibility can assist in making the season more enjoyable, Jones said. That means nailing down schedules and sticking to them as much as possible and working through the small details early, such as transportation arrangements, to avoid misunderstandings, conflicts and crises.

“You just really have to be flexible, and I think when there are children involved, you always need to think about them as much as you can and try to be sensitive to their feelings,” she said. “No matter how much parents may try, children may still feel sad at times and that’s to be expected.”

By Susan White