Q: [All Ages] This will be our first year celebrating the holidays with our blended family. The problem is, our gift-giving traditions drastically differ. Holidays have always been the one time we splurge and treat the kids to a lot of fun, though not pricy, presents. How do we meld our holidays without having the kids who are used to a big sparkly splash of gifts feel resentful while respecting my spouse’s less commercial feelings about the season?
A: Holiday traditions can be a fairly sensitive piece in the “blending a family” puzzle. There are many variables that influence how one might deal with this scenario such as the age of the children, how the separation/divorce went, how long you have been with your current spouse, etc. If one spouse does not have kids of his/her own, that makes things somewhat less complicated. Let’s face it though, blending families and traditions is NEVER uncomplicated.
The first thing that needs to happen is that you and your spouse have a serious heart to heart about each of your expectations for the holiday season, privately without the children present to take sides. This sit down is not about being right or wrong, but about getting everything out on the table so that you know what you are dealing with and so that you can come up with a clear road map. One of the most common problems with blending families is having expectations that are unmet, something that happens most often because they are never clearly discussed in detail.
We need to make sure that the children are the priority in this equation. I understand and fully agree with a general philosophy of not overindulging children during the holidays or any other time of year. Materialism is a values issue that is too often completely ignored here in Orange County. However, when blending a family we have to keep in mind the possible trauma and loss that have recently rocked the kids’ world. Drastic changes can continue to promote feelings of abandonment, fear and resentment, so minimizing major changes where we possible can have a big payoff.
We also want to do our best to promote a healthy and loving relationship with the new step-parent. If we create huge changes to the holiday traditions immediately following your spouse coming into the picture, who do you think is going to get the blame and resentment?
The key word to this complicated transition is “gradual.” You can gradually implement the kinds of changes you would like to see over the next few holiday seasons. This allows for you and your spouse to create a household environment that reflects your value system and the kids don’t have to feel that their holidays have been hijacked by the new step-parent. This also allows for time to talk with the children about the values that you are trying to instill. During this transitional period, I highly suggest that you begin to experiment with and implement new traditions that prioritize spending time together over material things. Make sure that the children are included in the discussion about the new traditions but do not make a major point about the need to make changes to the old ways, as those are likely dear memories for the children. Keep things positive, geared toward what can be gained.
It is hard to imagine kids having a lot of resentment toward anyone if the transition is done with love, compassion and fun. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
Jay Jameson, LMFT is a family therapist with a private practice in Laguna Hills. He has an extensive background in treating adolescents and families through years working with Orange County Mental Health, OC Social Services as well as with school districts all across Southern California. www.jayjameson.com