Blending Family Traditions

If you think your holidays are stressful, step into a blended family’s world. Between new spouses who have to earn the love, respect and affections that seem to come more naturally in a biological family, and children who have to find their place in a new home, things can get pretty complicated.

We’re not talking about ‘June Cleaver’ stress, which yearns for the perfect cookie or décor, but a deeper stress, bubbling from your desire for the perfectly unified family. These uniquely blended families can survive the holidays with a little effort and a generous sense of humor.

Executive Pastor at Henderson Hills Baptist Church, Kim Swyden married Julane, a counselor, 15 years ago. He had two daughters, she had one.  Pastor Swyden says problems often result when everyone wants to do things the way they’ve done them for years. “It’s always going to be a problem if you try to bring your traditions to your blended family,” said Swyden. “In doing that, we often unintentionally create stress and crisis, and it ends up being the 12 days of Christmas we never intended. We have to create a new tradition.”

Jackie Shaw, executive director of Edmond Family Counseling, said starting meaningful and fun traditions can bring everyone together. “Keep celebrations manageable and enjoyable. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten they’re supposed to be fun. I knew a family who all made turkeys from a paper sack of supplies. Some really strange things came out of those sacks and it was hilarious. They do it every year,” she says. “Some families volunteer to make Christmas baskets, deliver gifts or serve meals to needy families. Others take in a live nativity or read the Christmas Story. Having a good time together helps everyone, especially for someone in the family who is upset.”

Swyden realized they had to evaluate which traditions were most important, which ones to cherish as memories and how to flexibly create new ones. “For us being at church Christmas Eve was very important and everyone respected that. With my oldest daughter’s marriage, things got a little complicated since she wanted to start her own traditions with her new family. I wasn’t going to ask her to decorate three Christmas trees, attend half a dozen dinners and drag along her baby to do it.”

The Swydens knew they would have to compromise and plan ahead. “We decided to tell our loved ones that we would plan our holiday around their schedule. Our daughters love to get together on Christmas Day so we moved things around to do that and now we spend the end of the day together every year. We’ve just connected as people who can be flexible and fit in. We’re relaxed, we have an expectation of the day and though it seemed like a sacrifice at first, it’s really a happy, lovely time.”  

Shaw said another way to run a smooth holiday is to communicate with younger children who don’t know what to expect for their day or how they should feel about the new home. “Communication is vital. Parents forget that it’s really important for kids to know what’s going to happen. For those little people who don’t feel like they have any control in their lives, it’s very important they know what to expect and where they will be or they will be more likely to act out,” she said. “Also keep in mind sometimes kids feel disloyal to the absent parent, so encourage them to express their feelings, allowing the child to talk about their sadness, guilt or regret. Doing this before the holiday event is a gift to the child. Give him permission to enjoy himself with the parent he visits.”

Pastor Swyden emphasizes the importance of making Christmas all it was intended to be and setting a good example for your children. “I’m not sure the holidays were ever intended to be stressful. I think they were intended to be celebratory, by celebrating the birth of the Savior of the world. It’s been our goal to keep Christmas about Christmas by expressing the same love He came to demonstrate to us. It puts things on a plain from which we get our perspective,” said Swyden. “There will be stress, there will be people who miss the real meaning of Christmas because of their issues and struggles but it’s very important for our children to see us in a way we want them to model as adults. What we model for our children today, will be what our grandchildren model tomorrow.”

As to dealing with difficult people who let their emotions get the best of them, Shaw said, “Do your best to stay out of power struggles, especially with your former spouse. Work to be flexible, but reasonable, and look for the good and the funny moments in all that goes on. Sidestep competition, rise above animosity and enjoy your family’s uniqueness.”

Planning ahead, staying flexible, and communicating with family members is great advice for any family. Although blended families have their work cut out for them, they will enjoy a lifetime of love and cherished memories – the true reward.

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