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Child-Centered Emphasis: How Stepfamilies Can Enjoy the Holidays

By C. Russell Clifton, Ph.D., Private Practice Gainesville Florida

Reprinted with Permission from GAINESVILLE FAMILY MAGAZINE    .pdf version
All Rights Reserved

Step-families come in a variety of shapes and sizes and with varied histories, from those that formed because a natural parent died to those created by divorce and remarriage and other histories as well. For those step-families where the children have a regular relationship with the non-residential biological parent, the family-oriented holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah can be more complex than for many intact families. Even for those families where the biological parent is dead, the child's imaginings can complicate the holidays and family relationships. Not only do the children have expectations about the holidays, but both the residential and the non-residential biological parents have expectations about developing traditions and about broadening and deepening the relationships, and stepparents too have expectations about the relationships nurtured in special ways during holidays. The ways the parents and stepparents manage the relations with stepchildren often has a strong influence on the ultimate step-relationships.

In families, there is a simple issue that many have not stopped to consider. That issue is simply the number of personal interactions that are possible and often significant in family systems. For example, in a family with one stepparent and the biological parent and one child whose nonresidential parent has a significant relationship, the following sets of interactions occur:

1. Child & Biological Parent Female (F);
2. Child & Biological Parent Male (M);
3. Child & Stepparent;
4. Child & Biological Parent F & Biological Parent M;
5. Child & Biological Parent F & Stepparent;
6. Child & Biological Parent M & Stepparent;
7. Biological Parent F and Stepparent;
8. Biological Parent M and Stepparent; and
9. Biological Parent F & Biological Parent Male.

There are nine possible interactions of two or three people from those four people. If both parents are step-parents (of course also increasing the number of children to at least two) in that family system, the number of interactions increases exponentially to more than 20 interaction combinations. When grandparents are added, the number of interactions (relationships) alone is highly complex even without considering individual differences and normal conflicts. This is not a characteristic of families that they can change unless they isolate themselves from the other family (which is not recommended). The purpose of emphasizing this characteristic is to help step-families grasp that the complexity of scheduling visits and contacts during the holidays which seems often overwhelming does not mean that there is something wrong with the family system or its members. At its foundation, the complexity is the adding of relationships in the different combinations. Any emotional or family conflicts simply build on this base complexity.

As priorities are established and schedules are made it is important to keep in mind a basic rule of custody and visitation; namely “the best interest of the child.” This is not only a strong legal and psycho-social principle but also has important practical value in the sense that the child will feel more secure as the adults encourage and nurture sound and trustworthy relationships with all the supportive adults in the child’s life. That sense of trust and security is an essential foundation for positive self-esteem and self-management. There is then less need for the child to act-out in order to deal with conflicts that distress the child who may be unable or unwilling to express verbally the distress at seeing conflict between or among the adults who care for hun or her. With mutual nurturing rather than competition, the child is more likely to feel positively toward the parenting persons in his or her life and is more likely to behave better.

Holidays are often emotionally-charged events for families without the challenges of blending relationships; and it is essential for all the adults (parent figures) to review and understand the nurturing and encouraging behaviors that support the child as well as the patterns and potentials for conflict.

A few principles will guide step-families during the holidays:

1) Adults should listen carefully to the views and feelings of the children about visitation and various celebrations, but should not place the child in the awkward position of having to express a choice, unless all parents are genuinely willing to accept and respect the child’s decision readily and openly. Otherwise the choice becomes a popularity contest which is often highly conflicted for the child and the parents. If there is any doubt about any parent's ability to fully support the child's decision, it is much better to stay with the arrangement developed as part of the legal custody agreement. This is especially important with children elementary school age or younger.

2) Despite the best efforts of caring biological parents who are separated by divorce or by death, the children sometimes have difficulty with the split during holidays, especially if they are old enough to recall family traditions, and experience emotional distress. If time has allowed the stepparent to develop a good listening relationship with the child, holidays may be a primary opportunity for the stepparent to support the child. Empathetic listening that accepts and respects the child's feelings as real and natural, even if their thinking is not, becomes a win-win action, developing the child’s respect for legitimate emotions and nurturing the supportive relationship with the stepparent. This must be done without taking sides regarding either biological parent, including the stepparents spouse. The positive value lies in supporting the child’s verbal expression of his or her feelings without having to act-out their often-confusing feelings. It is important to let the child know that it is normal for him or her to have such mixed feelings and that it often means he or she loves both parents very much.

3)The step-family must not overemphasize the power of one holiday season to heal or to destroy relationships or traditions. Step-families often over-generalize about the influence of a single holiday, imaging great miracles or catastrophes. As with many other aspects of family life, consistency and patterning are keys to lasting influence.

4) Finally, as emphasized earlier, both biological parents and stepparents should focus on the best interest of the child. All adults involved in holiday planning should carefully consider whether scheduling and arrangements support the child's sense of connection, support, and enjoyment, and compassionately avoid using the holiday for adult agendas.

The special events of holidays do offer special opportunities for positive experiences and growth. Make it so.

Related Articles:   Coping with Holiday Stress       Connecting with your Stepchild   

                               Effects of Divorce on Children                Blended Families

Dr. Clifton is a Clinical Psychologist with training in child psychology. He maintains an independent practice at the offices of Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida CPANCF.COM (352) 336-2888

The author of this article and Clinical Psychology Associates of N.C. Florida  do not endorse or offer any warranties or representations about any linked books or products.

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