K-State family systems specialist says adults are key to decreasing stress on children
MANHATTAN, Kan. – The holidays are intended to be a joyous time when families get together to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate the true meaning of the season – but that’s not always the case.
Sometimes the holidays bring the opportunity for conflict among blended families – a term also known as a step-family where children live with one biological parent and a new family. The blended family may have come together due to divorce, or perhaps death of one of the biological parents.
Charlotte Shoup Olsen, a family systems specialist at Kansas State University, said it’s important that adults in blended families plan ahead to make the season less stressful.
“When you bring two families together, you have two systems of how things have operated,” Shoup Olsen said. “It can affect everything – communication, expectations, roles in the family, disciplined parenting – and all those issues can be different for the two parents that are now living with the children.
“There are many challenges depending on the family. Some families can work into it very smoothly, while others do not.”
She suggests that parents plan such things as where and when they will celebrate the holiday, possibly including trips to parents’ and grandparents’ and others’ houses. They may also need to juggle a trip for the children to be with the other biological parents’ family.
One strategy for the blended family is to forego some old traditions and develop new ones.
“I might give an example of a particular holiday where one family member or one parent always had their big gathering in the evening. And the other parent who comes into the equation says we did ours in the afternoon,” Shoup Olsen said.
“This is an excellent opportunity to create a new tradition for the blended family. Maybe you’ll settle on doing a brunch on the morning of the celebration, or something else that will create togetherness with the new family.”
Shoup Olsen offered some additional tips to help blended families enjoy the holidays:
Avoid putting children in the middle of decisions. “That really creates loyalty dilemmas within the child and makes it tough on the child,” Shoup Olsen said. “So if the parents can take the leadership without putting the child in the middle, it will reduce the stress on the child.”
Don’t try to ‘out-do’ the other family. Often, one family tries to gain favor with the children by buying more expensive gifts, or hosting a more elaborate party. “Try to look at moderation so that the child doesn’t feel pulled for loyalty because of things,” Shoup Olsen said.
Communicate and cooperate. When both biological parents want time with the children, it’s important that they work together to create the best situation. Sometimes, those discussions can be volatile.
“It’s not easy to do but each parent should look at those conversations with the other biological parent like a business meeting,” Shoup Olsen said. “In other words, ‘Let’s get this accomplished and let’s try to put a hold on our emotions and see what we can come up with.’”
Sometimes, she added, adults can take a “timeout” much like they would give to the children, to settle emotions, then come back and talk through the difficult decisions in a calm manner.
Making holiday decisions for the blended family “can be difficult, but can be easier if you think about the well-being of the children in trying to make it a celebratory holiday rather than a time of conflict between the parents,” Shoup Olsen said.
“The (challenges) magnify themselves during the holidays, but if the adults can get into a pattern that is more conducive to work themselves out collaboratively, that would be good. It’s probably quite accurate to say that these patterns have already been established on how to get along with a blended family, and if they haven’t been productive, this is a time for re-assessing how you are reacting.”
Shoup Olsen, who has studied the dynamics of blended families for more than two decades, often remembers a comment from one stepmother, who said, “It takes time. It could take years to feel like the blended family is a real family.”