If you’re part of a blended family, you know: Navigating the politics of new spouses, new stepsiblings, and new sets of in-laws can be tough. Around the holidays it’s even tougher. When school’s in session, parents and kids are busy and overscheduled, so it’s easy to brush faulty family dynamics under the rug. But over the upcoming holiday breaks, tensions can escalate faster than you can say “mistletoe.” Between the kids being out of school, family celebrations, and unwelcome input from visiting in-laws, everyone just wants to hibernate until spring.
“While blended families are far from rare, it’s shocking how few of them set up standards and rules to live by,” says life coach and professional consultant Leaha Mattinson. “From Thanksgiving up until New Year’s Day, this oversight really makes itself known. The sheer amount of togetherness around the holidays shines a light on how disconnected, unhappy, and dysfunctional blended families can be when they don’t deliberately set up specific operating principles.”
If this describes your blended family, Mattinson suggests using the upcoming holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas as a trial run for establishing a thoughtful set of rules to live by together. After all, you’ll have plenty of quality time to reset less-than-perfect dynamics and move forward as a team in the new year. Keep reading for 12 ways to make sure your blended family finds the seasonal harmony you’re hoping for.
First, get clear on what you need from your spouse. “It’s key to be candid with your partner,” says Mattinson. “You need a solid foundation of trust and mutual respect to maintain a lasting relationship and to support your collective children as well.”
Mattinson recommends communicating often with your partner and being rigorously honest as you listen to and try to understand their needs. Remember also that what you both needed five years ago from each other is likely different from what you need today. And keep checking in throughout the year, making sure to appreciate each other and cherish your relationship together.
2. Reflect on your values as a family. Figuring out what you want to stand for is the first step in successfully blending a family. Have a family discussion about the key values you want to live by as a newly minted team. Some values to get you started are: honesty, togetherness, fairness, respect for each other, and so forth.
3. Create ground rules together and encourage buy-in. Next, hold a family meeting and figure out the rules your blended family will operate under. For example: Make your bed in the morning, say “please” and “thank you,” eat dinner as a family whenever possible, no cell phones at the table, own up to your mistakes, apologize if you hurt someone. Let everyone give input into these ground rules and be respectful of everyone’s needs.
“When you have established your family ground rules, write them into a family charter and give everyone a copy,” suggests Mattinson. “If there are ground rules that some members can’t agree on, put them in a jar and come back to them in a week or two to see if anything has changed.”
4. Make sure the adults are a collaborative unit for the kids. All adult members of the child-rearing team should work together for the good of the children. This can be tricky for non-residing stepparents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc., but it truly does take a village to raise kids. So try to enforce ground rules, protect all boundaries, and keep squabbles, hurt feelings, and disagreements out of the process.
“If a member of the team simply won’t cooperate or carries a grudge—perhaps a bitter parent or in-law—don’t force direct communication,” instructs Mattinson. “Instead, use an intermediary to relay information and try not to take it personally. The moment they’re ready to cooperate, respond immediately with welcoming kindness. Remember that resentment and bitterness delays the healing of the unit. This is about the kids.”
5. Allow each family member to establish their own boundaries… “A boundary is a limit that exists to honor your own needs, and everyone deserves to lay out their boundaries and have others respect them,” says Mattinson. “I have a boundary that no one swears at me. Maybe you have a boundary that no one borrows your car without permission. Let every family member list their boundaries so everyone knows each other’s wishes.”
6. …and respect everyone’s boundaries. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries respected and adhered to, even the kids. Mattinson urges families to make a game out of it, by saying “ouch” whenever someone crosses the line. This technique teaches children to respect each other from a young age and creates a “shorthand” language to keep each family member in check.
7. Help grandparents adjust to new dynamics. A growing family can rearrange the status quo, in a way that often results in hurt feelings, coalitions, and drama. For example, adding a new stepmom to a family may make Grandma—a trusted advisor—feel that her input is no longer valued. Mattinson insists that it is vital to address these boundary shifts when they happen. Assure Grandma that her wisdom is still appreciated, but you and your partner will be making the major family decisions.
“It takes a long time to repair damaged interfamily relationships, so do your best to gently reinforce new boundaries before they become a problem,” says Mattinson. “And be sure to invite grandparents to your holiday parties and dinners so they feel included. A little graciousness can go a long way.”
8. Don’t bestow special privileges or presents on certain children (thus shortchanging others). Sadly, the stereotype of an unwanted stepchild is a heartbreaking reality for many children, and the effects of being left out or treated as “less than” can last a lifetime. No matter what, strive to treat all your children with the same love, compassion, and care. In other words, everyone gets to go skiing or receives a great gift—not just one lucky child.
“It’s not that everyone has to do the exact same activities or receive the same presents, but the value of activities and gifts should be equal or at least close to equal,” says Mattinson. “Believe me: Mom’s kids notice when Stepdad’s kids get bigger allowances, more clothes, and more exciting vacations. They will remember for a lifetime, in fact.”
9. Give immediate rewards when kids do the right thing. “We’re hardwired to respond to positive feedback, so a simple rewards-based system encourages your children to follow ground rules and respect everyone’s boundaries,” Mattinson says. “If my children clean up after themselves, I respond with an enthusiastic, ‘Thanks, guys! Wow, this place looks great!’ It rewards them and reinforces the ground rule of keeping a clean home. But larger rewards this time of year could also be going ice skating, inviting friends over for a kids’ holiday party, or baking gingerbread cookies together.”
10. And make sure the “reward” resonates with the receiver. Different people are motivated by different things; affection, gifts, and food are just a few examples. Reinforce good behavior in your children by tailoring the rewards to the specific child you hope to encourage. For example, let your television-loving son pick the film for family movie night as a reward for tidying up the house.
11. Work to build trust among all family members. All families work if they come from a place of mutual respect and trust. Parents should be in charge of this ongoing mission. To build trust with all of your family members, be impeccable with your word. In short, this means honoring promises you make to your kids. For example, if you promise to take them sledding in exchange for two weeks of completing their chores, you must fulfill your part of the agreement. Going back on your promises (even small ones) teaches others that you waver and dissolves your trustworthiness. But fulfilling agreements, being candid and truthful at all times, and adhering to the boundaries you’ve all agreed upon builds mutual respect and trust among everyone.
12. Check in with family members regularly and reassess rules. As time passes, revisit your charter and encourage each family member to assess whether they’re fulfilling their part of the family vision. Make sure that all ground rules are still relevant and update each other about new boundaries that need to be respected. Every family is changing all the time, so be willing to evolve and compromise right along with it.
“Even though belonging to a blended family can be tricky around the holidays, you can make it work and make it work well,” concludes Mattinson. “If everyone communicates, listens, and, most importantly, has their hearts in the right place, you can overcome typical challenges and growing pains, and can truly become one big happy family—or at least one big functional family.”
ABOUT LEAHA MATTINSON
Leaha Mattinson, author of the book Silver Linings: The Essential Guide to Building Courage, Self-Respect and Wellness (Balboa Press, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-5043-5918-4, $13.99), says the three big mistakes blended families most often make are: setting ineffective ground rules, failing to respect boundaries, and not effectively managing the changes that inevitably happen when families merge. These oversights set off chain reactions of negativity that cause friction, hurt, and confusion.