120: Blended Family Christmas: Tips to reduce holiday stress
The holidays can be a stressful time juggling visitations, planning family activities, and managing all the feelings in the Christmas season. Emotions in blended families are often magnified during Christmas. Gayla Grace and Ron Deal offer practical ways to be sensitive and promote positivity so your holiday can be a truly joyous time.
About the Guest
Holidays can be a stressful time juggling visitations, planning activities, and managing feelings. Emotions in blended families are often magnified during Christmas. Gayla & Ron offer practical ways to promote positivity so your holiday can be enjoyable.
120: Blended Family Christmas: Tips to reduce holiday stress
Gayla: My husband and I both had a former spouse, and so when it comes to the holidays, you're just working around even more schedules. And that's one of the biggest things in my opinion, that you have to start planning ahead, at least planting some seeds with those other people outside of your family and say, “We've got a lot of people here that we're dealing with, and we are trying to make plans.”
Now, if you have a divorce decree and it's mandated—some people do and they go strictly by that, but then others can be more flexible. And so, if that's the case, then you have to be more proactive about working it out, but everybody's going to be different with that.
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, to pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm joined in the Little Rock FamilyLife Blended studio with Gayla Grace. Thanks for being here.
Gayla: Good to be here, Ron.
Ron: If you don't know Gayla, she's an author and speaker. She's on our staff and she's the host of the monthly livestream. Women and blended families.
Ron: Always very exciting.
Gayla: It's great. We're having some good guests, lots of good conversation.
Ron: I'm excited Gayla, because this is our holiday edition for 2023.
Gayla: I know.
Ron: And that means you get a car, and the listener gets a car, and everybody gets a car.
Gayla: A car?
Ron: No, nobody gets a car. It's a—I don't even have a Hot Wheels. We can't even do that. But no, we're not giving away gifts. And somebody's listening right now and they're going, “Okay, it's September. Why in the world are we talking about the holidays?” Well, we have an answer to that question, and it will come up a little bit later. You just have to stay with us.
But first, I've got an email and a question that came in. Gayla, first, the email from Catherine. She says, “I am so grateful to have found your podcast. I do not feel so alone anymore, and I feel affirmed and understood.” That's a great thing. We always love that.
Gayla: Right, right.
Ron: “Since listening,” she says, “I feel more hope and energy. Thank you so much again for what you're doing for blended families. Five stars all the way.” We'll take that.
Gayla: Oh, yes.
Ron: “Blessings to you and your team.” Catherine, thanks for taking the time to write into us. We love hearing from our listeners and the five-star rating, that's awesome because that helps other people find our podcast. We appreciate that very much.
Okay, now, Gayla, we also got a question from a listener, Katie.
Gayla: Kind of a lengthy question, yes.
Ron: Yes, and a good one. She says, “I could use some advice. I've been remarried for two and a half years. I was a widow with three boys and married a divorced man with two boys.” That's five boys.
Gayla: Yes, that's a lot of boys.
Ron: That's a lot of testosterone right there. “Just recently,” she says, “I displayed a few pictures of my new husband and I as well as the new blended family. My 12-year-old asked me to take them down. When I asked him why, he fought back tears,” she says, “and he said, ‘It hurts too much.’” She asks, “Should I put them away? I want to be sensitive to my son and allow time for his emotions, but I also want to honor my husband. What would your advice be?” You got a first reaction to that?
Gayla: Oh, it's such a sensitive situation because as the adults we're excited about our new life. We want to be able to display these new pictures. That's the life we're living. Obviously there would still be grief for her also, I'm sure.
Gayla: But it's a balance between trying to meet the needs of her son and also reconcile with the place that she's at.
Ron: Yes, that's exactly right. She's caught between his grief and the first family—you know the connections there, if we could say it that way—and then their new life. And so, for her, she's excited about the new life, and it's the family that she's living in and so, of course, it's a difficult place to be. I, you know, the way I like to say this is there's always a little bitter that comes with any sweet. After you've had a hard thing happen and you have something new and positive happen, even redemptive, the bitter always comes along with it.
Ron: This is almost inevitable that somebody has some mixed feelings about the new family pictures and so here's my suggestion to her. First of all, talk to your husband. You and I have talked about this before and I know that one of the things that happens for that new spouse is they can feel offended.
Ron: You know “Why is your son? Does he not like me?” And translate that into rejection. No, no, no, no. Don't overdo it. Just see it for what it is—a little bit of sadness along with the new. Talk to your husband, reassure him it's okay, and then have a conversation around the importance of being sensitive to this boy's feelings.
Ron: Not that we're going to cater in every way, but we might make some accommodations. And her husband shouldn't take that as her not supporting him or anything like that.
Gayla: Right, right. It's not about him. It's about what's going on with this young son. And it's very natural that he is experiencing these feelings.
Ron: Yes. So again, check in with your husband first, get that settled. Now go and talk to your son and explore this. See this as a window into his grief and ask him about it.
Gayla: Right. And that's the other thing I was thinking too, a window into his grief, because be intentional in how you can continue to have conversations with him about his grief. If it is his biological dad's birthday, or you know, just a great time to bring it up,
“Hey, I'm thinking about your dad today. I bet you are too.” So just find times because he needs to talk about that grief. He needs to talk about his feelings.
Ron: Yes. Curious and compassionate. If she could get curious about what he is feeling, ask questions, listen, not fix, not try to explain. Just be curious about and compassionate about “Yes. Oh goodness. You're right. Yes, that's hard and it makes you—Dad, you miss him. You miss who we were as a family. Yes, of course you do.”
Ron: Curious and compassionate is the posture she wants to have. At the end of that conversation, you still go, “But do we leave the pictures up or do we take them down?”
But don't miss taking the time to connect and listen and affirm; helps you then get to a better solution when you come to that. If you skip over the curious and compassionate part and you just go, “Sorry, we're leaving the pictures up,” or whatever, now the child feels dismissed.
Ron: And you've just made it harder for them to trust you and to be more open with their feelings in the future.
Gayla: Right; to express their feelings in the future. Yes, so I think too, then you want to come to a compromise about the pictures. So maybe for the son, he can have whatever pictures he wants in his bedroom. I mean, that makes sense. But then maybe there's other places that the new family—you are going to put up some pictures of the new family too.
Ron: And, you know, in my heart, I would love for mom to accommodate her son in some small way.
Gayla: Of course, I agree.
Ron: Maybe there's a picture up someplace and she's going to offer to say, “You know what, let me take that one down. Would that make you feel better? But in this space, we're leaving it up. Your bedroom, maybe the hallway or something where there's a little bit of a compromise.” By the way, compromise means both people are disappointed on some level.
Gayla: [Laughter] That's a good point.
Ron: It’s never the perfect solution.
Gayla: Right, it’s not.
Ron: But the point is you're trying to show concern and that you hear what he's feeling and you're going to give him more time and space.
Gayla: Yes, that's the other thing. They're just two and a half years in so this is new and so he's still grappling with a new stepdad, a relationship that probably isn't bonded well yet. And all of those things are influencing his feelings, even about the pictures and that has to be considered also. It could change over time.
Ron: Yes, you revisit it. Good, so Katie, thank you for that question. Whether you knew it or not, you were giving us a great lead into our conversation. Here we are talking about the holidays today.
Gayla: Right, right.
Ron: And you know, we have already started talking about the holidays with this question about pictures because the emotional journey that this child is going through about new family photos is the exact same thing people go through when it comes to Christmas and holidays and traditions and the old meets the new, and that often puts people in this awkward place, doesn't it?
Gayla: Yes, it does; a place that they don't know how they're supposed to feel. And that's one of the things, right off the bat to talk about how there's grief and there's sadness, but then there's also joy and that they can all coexist at the same time. But sometimes that's hard for us to recognize.
Ron: It is, and especially for those of us in the Christian world, I think we just want joy to overwhelm sadness. [Laughter] So therefore we should never be concerned about, you know, anything ever. It just doesn't work that way.
Gayla: No, it doesn't work that way.
Ron: You know, bitter comes with sweet; they walk side by side. We do the best we can with ourselves to manage those feelings and then to also help our children manage theirs.
Gayla: And know that it's okay though to have good days. Don't feel guilty about that. I mean, if you are still grieving things that are affecting your holidays, but then you have a good day, enjoy it. Don't think, “Oh, I don't deserve this,” because really joy and grief can coexist.
Ron: Yes, so one more comment I have about joy and grief is, by definition, joy reminds us of other joyful times. And if in this case of this 12-year-old who's lost his dad, the happy moments that you feel in your new family always reminds you of the happy moments you felt in your other family, your previous family.
Ron: And that's going to bring a measure of grief with it.
Gayla: Of course.
Ron: Because you don't have that anymore. There's really no way to do this without a little of the sadness coming along for the ride. And parents just have to understand that for themselves and for their children so that you don't end up running over your kids' feelings or pressing them too hard.
Gayla: Or trying to fix them. That's the other thing I think as parents we're so guilty because we don't like to see our kids sad. But the reality is we can't fix them, and we want to talk them through it and help them find their own ways to cope.
Ron: Yes, so the holidays, just like the family photos scenario, also raises the issue of adults versus children. So mom, with the family photos question was like excited, new family, new photos, right.
Ron: And at the same time, her son's going, “Yes, but I want that. I miss the old. I'm holding onto this.” Holidays, traditions, all of that kind of does the same thing. Adults are excited about the new. Children may be finding themselves dragging their feet a little bit about the new and holding onto the past. Again, don't see this as, “Oh, our family's broken.” No. It just means this is how it rolls, and you have to acknowledge both of those things as you try to find your new, new family tradition.
Gayla: Right, and I think it's exacerbated in the early years because it's natural that nobody knows their place. Nobody knows what the traditions are supposed to be. Nobody knows how they're going to manage the schedule, and so there's a lot of anxiety that can go along with it and then just uncertainty and emotions just kind of blow up sometimes.
Ron: Yes. Two other quick observations, again, common within the holiday scenarios as well as this family photo question is biological parent feeling stuck in the middle. You know you're trying to consider everybody and make everybody happy and have, bring peace, and that's an awkward place to be.
And then the other part of that is the stepparent may be feeling like, “Whoa, your kid's having too much say in what goes on around here.” Again, that's why I encourage couples to check in with each other to make sure you're saying what this is and what this is not. We're not letting the 12-year-old or the 6-year-old or the 19-year-old dictate our Christmas holiday or how we're going to do everything, but we are sensitive to it.
Gayla: Yes, absolutely.
Ron: And we're going to make accommodations at times, not everything but perhaps something as a way of saying, “We see you,” “We understand,” “You're right. This is hard so we'll be sensitive to that.”
Gayla: Yes, and I think we have to remember these are kids and so especially when they're younger, they can't process their emotions like adults can. And so especially in those early years, we really do need to be sensitive to the feelings that those kids are experiencing because it's hard and they don't have a way except for maybe through misbehavior to express their feelings sometimes. And so that misbehavior speaks to us, and we need to consider what are the feelings behind that misbehavior.
Ron: Yes, that's really good. Misbehavior—what are some ways that misbehavior shows up? Like just a bad attitude at times?
Gayla: Can be, could even be regression.
Gayla: Yes, disobedience. But then regression in a young child who had moved into another stage and all of a sudden, they move backwards. It could just simply be they're not transitioning well into the new family.
Ron: Okay, so you're saying see it for what it is. Disobedience is still disobedience, but it might also be the child's way of commenting on, showing you their sadness.
Gayla: Yes. I'm not coping well here. And they don't—they're not going to come up and say, “Mom, I'm really feeling sad today.” I mean, maybe a ten- or twelve-year-old—
Ron: There you go. [Laughter]
Gayla: —but a five-year old's not going to, or a three. I mean, they're just not. So we always have to be looking behind the behavior to, “What are they really saying to us?”
Ron: Okay, so you, the listener, what we're doing today is we're talking around the experience of holidays and the kinds of things and dynamics that this will bring up sometimes in blended families. And so, you may see yourself in some or all of this discussion. And so far, we've been talking around just those dynamics with couples and kids, but I want to just point out a couple other things that people report to us.
We've heard this for years, that people experience when it comes to the holidays and one of them is just powerlessness—you know there are things you can't control.
Gayla: Oh, it’s so true; a lot of things you can't control. [Laughter]
Ron: And they come from all sides. I just made a little bit of a list. Gayla, react to this, a former spouse's attitude and how that affects custody or visitation or schedules or whatever. There’re travel schedules, right? Because when it comes to holidays, it's not just your home and the other home. It's aunts and uncles and grandparents—
Gayla: Grandparents, right.
Ron: —and all kinds of other people, right, and what's going on with them. There's when extended family want to plan things.
Gayla: Right, and they guilt trip you.
Ron: There you go. [Laughter] You know, they've got their clear ideas of what should happen and how it should happen on Thanksgiving, for example. And you're like, “Well, we just can't make that happen given our schedule,” or given these other factors. And it's hard, it's frustrating. There’re teens—kids who are fine with all the changes in the first few years of their blended family and then they become teenagers and now they have this huge investment in their friendships. And they want to be close to their friends and “What? We got to go where? For how many days?” And all of a sudden, they're a pain.
Gayla: Yes, for sure.
Ron: That's difficult. Then you have adult children. I'm thinking we hear a lot from later life couples who are forming their blended marriage and creating adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. That later life couple, it's pretty easy for them because they're foot loose and fancy free. They don't have any kids in the house. They're empty nest. Their schedule is their own, but they have adult children who say, “No.” [Laughter] “We're not going to do it that way,” “We can't do it that way. I've got to work this. We got this factor and this factor. And by the way, we used to celebrate Christmas this way for the last 30 years of my life and now you want to change it.” And all of a sudden, they're unhappy about all of that.
Gayla: Yes. Well, and if that adult child is married, then you have another person who’s out there who could very well be speaking to that adult child saying, “I'm not doing that.”
Ron: Good point.
Gayla: And the adult child has to be the one to come back to the parent and say, “Well, no, we're not doing it that way.”
Ron: Yes, difficult.
Gayla: Oh, my goodness.
Ron: Okay, so we're going to—by the way, listener, hang on. We're going to talk about some practical things to do, but we just want to point out here in the beginning some of the factors that you may find yourself dealing with when it comes to the holidays. Rigid expectations and traditions. We've already hinted at this, but somebody who just has a clear sense of how things should be, and they don't understand why they have to change it. And by the way, I mean, the beautiful thing about traditions is that it means something to us because we do it this way every year, and anytime somebody goes and messes with that, now you feel minimized and pushed aside.
Gayla: Yes. It's a sense of belonging; a tradition provides belonging in a family. You start messing with that and all of a sudden that changes all the dynamics.
Ron: It does bring up anger, hurt, or different things in people.
Gayla: Of course, right.
Ron: See that for what it is. We always say around here, “Chase the pain,” right. “Okay, wow. You had a strong reaction to this idea; tell me what's behind that.”
Ron: Listen, get curious, get compassionate; that's always a good first place to start.
You'll get more information as you're curious and compassionate that will then help you make decisions about what you say or do next. So at least that's always a good place to start, but recognize some people are not very flexible. [Laughter]
Gayla: Oh, no. Kids especially.
Ron: Kids especially. Speaking of kids, one last little dynamic here I want to point out is when kids choose the path of least resistance. In The Smart Stepfamily book, I gave an example that—I'll never forget sitting in a counseling session with this family and this kid finally coming to this and saying it out loud and watching all the parents and siblings go “Oh wow. We had no idea.” And here's what was going on. For this kid, dad and mom, separate homes, divorced, unable to get along, he had just chosen the path of least resistance for a long time in order to keep the conflict low between his parents. So he never had an opinion about anything.
Gayla: Oh gosh.
Ron: When one of them said, “Well, we can't do Christmas this day. We're going to have to move it to that.” He's, “Fine.” And then this one year came up where he just said, “You know, I don't even want to go to dad's house.” And he just made it sound like he didn't like dad or, you know, mom's like, “What's going on at dad's house?” No, it wasn't about any of that. It was about this kid just basically saying, “I put myself aside to keep you guys happy and to keep you from fighting.”
Ron: To me that's sad. We’ve got to just stop and go, wait a minute, wait a minute. That may make life convenient for you adults but listen to what your child is doing.
Gayla: And look at the pattern he's developing that will carry over into adulthood that will not serve him well.
Ron: Exactly, so somebody needs to go, “Wait a minute. We need to see this child. We need to give this child some voice. We need to make a way for this child to find some peace, rather than giving up everything.”
Gayla: And just being passive, and just saying, “I'm just going to go along because it's easier for you guys.”
Ron: Yes, yes.
Okay, so again, listener, the reason we're talking about all this stuff in September is because our number one strategy that we want to give you in managing your holiday experience and your blended family is to plan ahead. We're well aware that in the past, we've done podcasts on this topic in December, and it doesn't really give you much time. [Laughter] So here it is in September. Let's get out in front of this thing and start thinking about November, December, January. You always have birthdays and anniversaries and things that hit during the course of the year, but the big holiday season, try to get out in front and plan.
Gayla: Well, and the truth is, there are stores that already have their Christmas stuff up, so we're being reminded of it already.
Ron: Good point; good point. Okay, so get out in front. Do you have any experience with that?
Gayla: I do. I would say for one, and one of the things we didn't bring up as much is in regard to former spouses. My husband and I both had a former spouse, and so when it comes to the holidays, you're just working around even more schedules. And that's one of the biggest things in my opinion that you have to start planning ahead. At least planting some seeds with those other people outside of your family and say, “We've got a lot of people here that we're dealing with, and we are trying to make plans of what the schedule's going to look like.”
Now if you have a divorce decree and it's mandated—some people do and they go strictly by that, but then others can be more flexible and so if that's the case, then you have to be more proactive about working it out. Sometimes I think that's better because you can work out a schedule that really fits everybody instead of just, you know, “This is how it is,” and being very rigid. But everybody's going to be different with that.
Ron: Right, your side of the family and extended family and grandparents and there's a lot of people to connect with and just try to figure out schedules and start the dialogue.
Gayla: Yes, and the other thing I would say, Ron, is it's okay to set some boundaries around your family, your blended family, because you're trying to establish relationships with your family, and that means that you need to be able to have time with just them when the grandparents aren't there, when the aunts and uncles aren't there, especially in the early years. I just think it's helpful when you're trying to bond relationships that you guard some time. Now, we had five kids. So, you know, we're trying to figure out how do we get all of our family together, just our family of seven, without even talking about the outsiders.
Ron: We asked on Facebook and social media; we just put out a request for some life wisdom from some of our constituents and here's what one person said, “Plan early.” They said, “We have a lot of families to accommodate over the holidays. At Christmas we've created two blocks of time: after supper on the 23rd until supper on the 25th, and then after supper on the 25th until the 27th.” So basically, two-day windows there. “We rotate each of these. You either get A or B, but either way it's close to Christmas. The extended family then fills in the gaps based on how those two days are going to roll.”
Now this brings up something I think is insightful. It's going to change over time. If this is your first holiday season, since your blended family has formed, there's lots of questions to ask. And you might not really know how it's going to roll. Start that conversation early with the other household and everybody involved and try to figure something out. But as time goes on, you'll begin to figure out what the rhythms are that seem to work.
Ron: You'll have some catastrophe that doesn't work, [Laughter] and you'll learn not to do that again, but you'll figure out what works best. So this family, “Hey, the two blocks of time works for us and the other household and we alternate every other year.” You know that's creative.
Gayla: And everybody gets some on Christmas. It may be a very short period of time for one of those blocks, but everybody has a little bit of time with kids on Christmas Day.
Ron: I love it. We had another comment come, that came in. “One of the things we did in the beginning was to have a rotating schedule. If my ex had Thanksgiving, then I had Christmas, and the next year we rotated. That worked for a few years. Then we began to celebrate holidays on weekends that they were scheduled to be with us.” In other words, whenever the kids were naturally coming for visitation.
Gayla: Right, they went ahead and celebrated.
Ron: “So it might be a week after or before the given holiday. We found ways to make it memorable even in the chaos.” Now there's a nice landing attitude. We found ways to make it memorable. That spirit of make the schedule work. You know we've said that on so many episodes of this podcast talking about co-parenting. Your attitude about this makes all the difference. If you're walking around grumpy and upset about the schedule, it makes kids grumpy and upset.
Gayla: Yes, for sure.
Ron: That ripples into the other, so it may not be what you want, but you find some way of making it work. You do the best you can with what you have.
Gayla: Right. And then, you know, we had another comment from a Facebook listener who said that for them if they couldn't make it work how they wanted, then they found other ways to celebrate in other times of the year. So, for instance, if they loved to make homemade cookies and decorate with their kids, and it didn't work because it didn't, they didn't get the time they wanted to gather during Christmas, they did it during Valentine's. I mean, that's another perfect time to have fun with your kids in the kitchen, make cookies.
There’re so many different ways when we say be flexible; there's so many different ways that that applies.
Ron: You just led into our next major suggestion. The first one is plan ahead, get out in front, and then be flexible, so this is the balance because we all know since there's things you can't control, and you're planning well in advance, but then as you get closer to the actual holiday event, emotions rise and all of a sudden, attitudes shift. You’ve got to be willing to flex as well. Somebody wrote in and said, keep expectations low.
Gayla: Oh, yes. Yes, that's a given.
Ron: Oh, it's yes, because if you're set with—you set yourself up to be disappointed If you're like, “We've got this all figured out.”
Ron: You know, “Everything's going to go as planned.” And it might but—
Gayla: Oh, it might, but for one year. [Laughter] And I do think that's the other thing. Every year is different. So just because you have a hard year, don't think, “Oh, we're doomed. We're never going to get this right.” That's really not true.
Ron: Again, somebody wrote in “Flexibility is key,” they said, “Remember that the kids have a lot of adults that love them and want to be with them.” Right. Parents, grandparents, in-laws, find a day on the calendar that everyone can attend and enjoy, rather than making them squish in all the stops on the actual holiday. There's another good, again, attitude there. Yes, of course you want Christmas morning, but it may not be your year and so you're going to make the day before, the day after, the weekend after, whatever it is, you're going to make that as exciting as you possibly can. And no, it's not Christmas day, but if you're forcing the kids into that mold—
Gayla: Yes, squishing them into this schedule. It's not fun for anybody.
Ron: You squish kids; that's for your need.
Ron: I think, right?
Gayla: No, I agree. Well, and because you think you are doing what the kids want but there's no way they're going to enjoy that.
Ron: Another example, we had one couple who gave up Christmas Day with the kids because the other home had some scheduling complications that particular year that they couldn't control and so they were very kind in saying, “We will make a sacrifice.” I realize that makes a comment on your co-parent relationship in general. You know if you're willing to work with one another, then you'll make those, sort of, spur of the moment accommodations. If nobody's cooperating, then those things get more difficult to do but yes, what a wonderful thing for them to do.
Gayla: And the kids see that. We're modeling something that could speak volumes to those kids.
Ron: Yes. Another suggestion that we have is just thinking about traditions for a bit. You know, we started by talking about how grief and joy can be side by side. So I think when it comes to managing traditions, try to keep some of the old, try to bring those forward. That's acknowledging what was. It's recognizing that it had value then, it still has value now. But at the very same time, you're going to try to create new traditions and time together that are memorable.
Gayla: Right. And you know, one of our listeners said that “Traditions are usually made in the most unexpected moments. The traditions we tried to create often fell flat, but the moments, meals or activities that randomly happened have become the ones that kids want to hang onto.” I think that's interesting. Sometimes as adults, we try really hard. We come up with these traditions that we think are going to be perfect and the kids could care less about them.
Ron: Yes, you can over orchestrate certain things and find that it flops.
Ron: But when you happen upon something that works, by all means, keep doing it.
Gayla: Yes. Because as we said earlier, traditions help fill the gap for belonging that all of us need in a family, but particularly in blended families. You're trying to form a sense of belonging.
Ron: Yes, so I guess the summary would be, be intentional about trying to find new traditions for your family but when you happen upon something that just works, by all means, keep doing it. Whether it was your great idea or not, just keep doing that.
Ron: One thing we haven't talked about is, if the kids are at the other home, and maybe the schedule's not what you wish it would've been, you happen to find some time with people in your home. Maybe it's just your spouse. Maybe all the kids are gone.
Or maybe it's your kids are there, or their kids are with you, hey, let that be something good too. Invest in those people. If it's just you and your spouse for a day or two or a weekend, make the most of that.
Gayla: Capitalize on it, absolutely.
Ron: Yes. And I think sometimes people feel guilty if their kids are away. “I'm here with my stepchildren. We can't really do anything super cool because my kids are missing out on that.” That's an understandable feeling.
Gayla: It is, but you know what, the truth is the more that we learn to flex and accept the situation as it is and make the best of it in the long run, the better off we are because these kids grow up and leave home. And they begin to establish their own routines and likely it's, they're not going to be with us every Christmas, especially when they start having families of their own. And so, when we can learn to be flexible at this stage of life, it's easier when our kids become adults.
Ron: Last suggestion just about kids I can think of here is give them a blessing when they leave your household to go to the other home.
Gayla: Yes, no drama.
Ron: That's right, no drama. Your permission to like, love, get along with, have a good time while they're in the other home, that always deals with the loyalty issue that children are sort of feeling internally. And if you can say, “Look, you don't owe me anything.” That's essentially what you're doing when you say, “Have a good time at your mom's house this weekend. I can't wait to hear about it.”
Gayla: Yes, you're given them permission—
Ron: It’s huge.
Gayla: —to have relationships over in that other home. They need that.
Ron: And in the same way, give yourself permission to connect with these new expanded stepfamily members that are now part of your life.
Somebody listening right now is an adult stepchild, and mom or dad got married a little bit later in life and you now have, what, stepcousins, you know, and people are showing up and you don't even know who they are. Give yourself permission to be open to creating new relationship with them and at least take an interest in who they are.
You may have something inside you that says, “This should not be. I wish this would've never happened.” Okay, got it; but it did, and so at least push yourself into that realm of, maybe there's something here.
Gayla: Right, and you never know who you might find that you connect with that is a new family member for you. You'll never know until you're curious and you do begin to at least reach out and try to form relationships.
Ron: Gayla, we've got a few ideas about gift giving, just maybe some tips that we've acquired over the years. One of them is encourage steprelationships to give authentic gifts. Like if you're in the store and you're coaching your child to give their stepsibling an ooey gooey gushy sort of card or gift or what, yes, if that's not them, that's just trying to force love and not a good idea.
Gayla: Yes, yes, and you know what we did, Ron, with our five kids as they got a little older is we just drew names among the kids so that everybody wasn't buying for all the other kids. But that way it gave them a different chance every year to get a gift for a different child. Maybe it was their biological sibling, maybe it was their stepsibling. It just kind of evens the field a little bit.
Ron: That's good. Sometimes kids can have a different wish list that they give to Santa at dad's house and to Santa at mom's house.
Gayla: [Laughter] Right.
Ron: So that they're not necessarily getting duplicate gifts. Some co-parents can actually have a conversation about what kind of gift they're giving to the child, so they coordinate but some co-parents can't do that. So that's another way around it to just have a different list.
Gayla: Yes, and then also with grandparents. I think that's a big thing. Sometimes we have to help educate grandparents that they've got to be fair in regard to their biological grandkids and their stepgrandkids, because the kids are going to see what's going on and it can really create some hurt feelings.
Ron: That's huge. Because we've heard from people who don't have that from grandparents and it's a really awkward moment when one child opens a gift and gets something super cool and high dollar and the other child doesn't. Right, we want to avoid that moment.
Ron: Let's drill down just a little bit because somebody's listening going, “Yes, but how do I do that? Because it's my parent that is the culprit here. And like, how do I manage that a little bit?” Getting proactive is one strategy. “Hey, just want you guys to know we really appreciate all you do for the kids. This year we're hoping you'll do X and X and X and we're hoping for, you know, around $50 gifts for each child.” And you're giving that message of equity. But after a couple of years, and there's a lack of willingness to fit that mold, then I think you just got to be direct.
Gayla: Yes, you do.
Ron: And blood talks to blood, so I’ve got to talk to my parent, and you’ve got to talk to your parent if that's the case. And you’ve got to find your courage and your strength to just gently, but directly say, “We've had some difficulties as a result of some of the gifts you've given. And my guess is you have no idea how that impacts the kids. Here's what I need you to do.
Gayla: Yes, and I think that's part of it, Ron. If you explain “This is how it's impacting the kids, and we're having a really hard time helping them feel okay with what's happened.” Maybe that would give a little more motivation.
Ron: One last thought is, don't compete when it comes to gift giving.
Gayla: Oh, my goodness. And it's not just gift giving, Ron. Don't compete when it comes to buying the biggest Christmas tree or making sure your house is so absolutely well decorated that you're competing with the other home. There’re so many ways that you can compete with the other home. Don't do it.
Ron: Yes, when you do a little gut check and you just, you just know, you're doing this thing or buying that thing or making these cookies just because you really want—
Gayla: —are trying to impress or, yes.
Ron: Yes, trying to win loyalty with the kids or whatever it is, or send a message to the other household. My goodness, that's not helpful.
Gayla: No, it's not.
Ron: It just continues the war. Well, I even wrote down in my notes the Serenity Prayer.
Gayla: I—you know I love the Serenity Prayer. I had it plastered all over our house for years. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, it really is good. For those of you that—by the way, the prayer is really long, but AA has just made the first part of it really famous. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Wow, right, just pause right there. The serenity to accept the things I cannot change. There are so many things in a mama or daddy's heart that you want to orchestrate for your kids and life will not let you get it done the way you want to get it done. Circumstances, all these dynamics we've been talking about, people's attitudes, whatever it is, you just can't do it.
Ron: “Lord, let me be okay with this thing not happening.” And then he goes on, he says, but the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. It does take courage to talk to your parent about equitable gifts at Christmas.
Gayla: Right. Or talk to your former spouse about a situation that is difficult. It does take courage.
Ron: Sometimes we're not sure whether to step in or step out, and that's why we're praying for wisdom there to know the difference.
Gayla: Right, absolutely.
Ron: Gayla, thanks for being with me.
Gayla: Yes, it's been great; good conversation. We pray it blesses others.
Ron: If you want to learn more about any of these suggestions, we've got articles at FamilyLife.com that we'd love for you to check out. They relate to the holidays. Just look in the show notes, and you can find some more information. If you want to leave us a question or a comment or make a suggestion for a future episode of FamilyLife Blended, we'd be happy to hear from you.
And just a quick reminder, we are a tax-deductible donor supported ministry. FamilyLife Blended is a part of FamilyLife, donor supported ministry, and this podcast is donor supported as well. So any gift you make, just as a way of saying thank you, really goes a long way to helping us continue this ministry.
If you're looking for my speaking calendar—we've had some people reach out about that—you're going to go to SmartStepfamilies.com. In the next few months, I'm going to be doing events in Alabama, Texas, and Ohio, and some virtual professional training for therapists. If you're interested in any of that, go to SmartStepfamilies.com.
Well, next time I'm going to be talking with Chris and Yodit Brooks about all things blended plus adoption and multicultural dynamics going on in blended families. That's next time on FamilyLife Blended. I hope you'll join me.
I'm Ron Deal, thanks for listening. FamilyLife Blended is part of the FamilyLife Podcast Network. Helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
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