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updated: 12/16/2011 11:52 AM

Holidays aren't easy for divorced, blended families

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The holiday season is stressful for everyone, but especially so for families that have experienced divorce and for blended families that bring together two families in the same household.

It's not that holidays are a picnic for other families, but divorced and blended families face some special challenges. It seems like all the stuff that can make life difficult for divorced and blended families gets stirred up around holidays.

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There are questions that must be addressed: Who spends what day with whom? Which family gatherings take precedence? Where are the family allegiances when it comes to stepparents, stepchildren, etc.?

And because our culture continues to idealize the image of the intact, two-parent, 2.3 child household at the holidays, divorced and blended families also can feel like they don't really fit -- like there is something wrong with them. As with all families, divorced and blended families also don't tend to do their best problem solving during the extra-stressful holiday periods.

With that in mind, let me offer some suggestions for how divorced and blended families can best negotiate the holidays.

First, agree to a holiday schedule, in writing if necessary, that covers days, times, events, etc. If you can accommodate traditional family gatherings -- her family opens gifts Christmas Eve, his opens gifts Christmas Day -- all the better. If you can't, you need to examine options that are fair to all involved. For example, spending Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with different family on alternating years.

Second, accept that everyone will have a bit different understanding of "family" at such times and different ideas about how to honor family connections. When a husband wants to say "Merry Christmas" to his former mother-in-law, that is not necessarily a threat to his current marriage.

When a son wants to spend extra time with his biological father rather than his stepdad, that is normal and healthy.

With blended families, don't demand that steps -- parents, children or whoever -- are treated like biological family. Let everyone do what seems comfortable. That probably needs to be explained, especially to children. Sure, there are limits, but whenever you can, give each other the freedom to be family with whomever you need to.

Third, cut everybody some slack. During the holidays we are all a bit more uptight and frustrated than usual, so make a special effort to forgive and forget. At such times, what we don't say often is more important than what we do say.

A word of criticism not spoken, an objection not put into words, hurt or angry feelings thought through before they are talked through -- these all can make a big difference in how holidays turn out.

Finally, we need to get help if things seem to be getting out of control. When families start to fall apart from holiday stress, it is a good idea to touch base with a family therapist to sort out what's causing the problems and learn what we can do about it.

Holidays can be wonderful times; they also can be times we just try to survive. With a bit of work, though, most of us can celebrate the holidays in ways that bring out the best in the family relationships we cherish.

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