The kids had been with their dad all Christmas morning, and Nancy was excited to finally open presents with them that afternoon. As soon as they opened their gifts, the kids immediately started texting their dad to tell him what they had received. “It was a total killjoy,” Nancy said. And her husband, the kids’ stepdad, felt rejected and insulted. Instead of telling him how much they appreciated his thoughtfulness and sacrifice, they were talking to their dad.

When it comes to the holidays, most people think, Let’s take advantage of the holidays and get the most for our family. We reason we have more time and opportunities to be with extended family and extra time with the kids while on school break, so we want to make the most of it.

But stepfamily dynamics can change the whole holiday experience. Hectic holiday schedules, between-home dilemmas, and the undercurrent of loss that sometimes rises to the surface in both children and adults can add stress to stepfamilies during this season of opportunity.

But all is not lost. Stepfamilies can have fun memory-filled holidays, too. It just takes some extra work. To optimize your holidays, take these proactive steps.

1. Manage between-home contact.

Remember Nancy’s story at the opening of the article? Both Nancy and her new husband were hurt that the kids wanted to talk to their dad right in the middle of their special time as a family. But at the same time, it is their dad, and they want him to feel a part of their lives, too. What guidelines should you and your children abide by when it comes to contacting the other home during holiday visits?

It may help to consider how you feel when your children are at your former spouse’s home. No matter what you’re doing, a part of you is thinking about them, wondering what they are doing and how life is going for them. Children think the same way about each of their parents in the other home. They are mindful of their other parent and loved ones, and those thoughts and feelings are especially strong during big family holidays. Therefore, they ought to be free to connect with their other parent when desired.

It is fitting, however, to channel that need to an appropriate time. If your children are interrupting family time by contacting their other parent, you can go to them in a loving attitude and say something like, “I know you’ll want to touch base with your dad in a while to tell him about your gifts; that’s fine. But we are asking you not to do so for a couple of hours. Please wait till after dinner.” The key (though not a guarantee) to a cordial holiday between homes is your decision to respect the people in your children’s other home and give your kids your permission to like, get along with, or love those people however they choose. An attitude of grace encourages basic cooperation and decency between homes.

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2. Respect your visitation schedule.

Not all stepfamilies have another home in their family web, but if you do, you know how important a visitation schedule is and how it can affect the holidays.

Frequently, major holidays prompt both homes to make changes to the visitation schedule. One parent may explain, “We’re having Thanksgiving on Sunday because that’s when my brother can come to town. So, can the kids come to our house then, instead?” Or another might say, “I know it’s your turn to have the kids on Christmas Day, but Grandma can’t stay any longer. Can I have them on Christmas?”

Now here’s where I want to be careful. There is no black and white answer to these dilemmas. I am a strong advocate for flexibility and sacrificial consideration in co-parenting whenever possible. Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  That is a good admonition and valuable for most every occasion; however, there is a time and place for sticking to the schedule. It’s one thing to accommodate the other household once in a while; it’s another to make a habit of it.

One example of too much flexibility is a dad named Jacob who inadvertently undercut his contact with his own daughters by repeatedly accommodating their mother’s requests to have the girls at Thanksgiving. “Because of my complacency,” he said, “I haven’t had Thanksgiving dinner with my daughters for three years now.” He then added his advice, “Don’t be Mr. Niceguy or you will miss out.”

There most certainly is a time and place for sacrifice. But there is also a time and place to respect the schedule as it is and politely say “no” to a request to change it. Protecting your boundaries while being considerate of the others is an important balance to seek.

3. Deal with extended family hiccups.

Almost every extended family, especially stepfamilies, has some kind of tension when everyone is put in the same room for an extended period of time. Differences in preferences, traditions, religious or political beliefs—the list of possible antagonisms goes on and on—can cause stress, tension, or conflict.

For one family, it was the way one set of stepsiblings treated the other. This mom said, “My kids used their allowance to buy their stepbrother a gift for Christmas, but my stepson spent his allowance on himself. He is so selfish. Should I tell my kids not to do things for him anymore?”

My advice to her is absolutely not. She should do the right thing even if her stepson doesn’t. Romans 12:17 reminds us not to repay evil with evil, but to repay evil with good. Just as two wrongs don’t make a right, fostering selfishness in her kids won’t help her stepson become selfless, and it’s likely it will only make his attitude worse.

Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page about what you expect from your children. Then communicate that clearly and directly (each of you to your own biological children) and hold them to it.

Situations like these feel rather personal to parents, but try to view it as a teachable moment for a child instead. This son needs direction and to be called up to consider others before himself. Yes, there’s tension between stepsiblings and parents, but don’t make it bigger than it is. Teach the needed lesson and move on.

4. Lower your expectations.

Many disappointments could be avoided during the holidays if parents would learn to lower their expectations and maintain an upbeat attitude. The holidays, like all of life, are an opportunity to provide guidance, structure, and training to our children—and ourselves. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” When you come across these moments of hurt or frustration, remember God knows more than you do. He might be inviting you to be patient to teach your kids how to handle conflict. He may be using your graceful compliance to share the love of God and save your ex-spouse’s soul.

This coming holiday season, look for the many opportunities to give the gifts of love, peace, and kindness. Optimize those attributes whenever possible. You’ll be amazed at how they can make the holidays a whole new experience.

Copyright © 2018 by Ron Deal. Used with permission.