10 Tips for Stepfamily Sanity this Holiday Season
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5. Choose side by side activities. Puzzles, stringing popcorn, baking, and watching a holiday movie all let you spend time together without interacting "head on," which experts like Patricia Papernow tell us can be more stressful for "steps."
6. Know your limits. Don't do or give in a way that will increase your resentment. If your stepkids habitually forget to bring anything for you, or have a history of not writing thank you notes, don't go overboard with extravagant gifts and efforts. Let them be your guide to avoid martyr syndrome ("I do and I do for them!") during (and after) the holidays.
7. Strategize ahead of time. Stepfamilies aren't first families. There may be tensions, and that's normal. Spouses might have to plan out activities and time alone ahead of time. "I think I'm going to need a break tomorrow. How about a long walk together first thing in the morning?" This is not a failure - just a constructive way of adapting.
8. Remember stepfamily members bond best one-on-one. All-together-now activities can activate stepkids' anxieties about who's an insider and who's an outsider. Give parent and stepparent plenty of one-on-one time with kids and stepkids - and with each other. And don't forget about yourselves as a couple. You need one-on-one time, too.
9. Get out of the house. For stepmothers especially, there can be extraordinary pressure to create that Norman Rockwell aura over the holidays. Before the pressure gets to be too much, get out to see friends and your own family. Take time to pamper, whether it's a spa visit or a coffee with pals who understand and don't judge. Getting out of your own home, away from your stepkids and even your spouse, isn't a sign of failure. It's a necessity, rejuvenating you and helping prevent stepparental burnout.
10. Let go of the guilt. Remember that even first families struggle with unrealistic expectations during the holidays. If things don't go perfectly - if there are squabbles or hurt feelings - have faith that this is normal and won't damage the kids or your marriage irreparably. Stepfamily members are bound to have differences and even blow-ups. By showing your stepkids that people can argue and then move on, you are modeling the kind of resilience that will serve them well for a lifetime. That might be the ultimate holiday gift.
Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: a New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (2009). She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own Web site (www.wednesdaymartin.com). She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News, and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post's parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year's "Books for a Better Life" award.
A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.