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By Ron L. Deal, Author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family

Traditions—sometimes called rituals—refer to the activities and patterns of interaction that we repeat on a daily, weekly, or even annual basis. How you greet one another at the end of the day is a valuable ritual, and just as important over time as your twenty-year tradition of eating Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's house. Traditions are important because they communicate our identity as family and their predictability provides security to our lives. When traditions are broken or changed—even if the change is preferred—something dies inside us. Most people have no idea how important traditions are to them until they can't do them anymore. Oh, how we'll fight to keep our traditions alive.

The issue of belonging and family identity is very much tied to traditions. During the integration years (generally the first 5-7 years), stepfamilies discover a good bit of positioning taking place between the insiders (those who are biologically related to one another) and outsiders as individuals try to keep their traditions alive. Persons who don't share in a given tradition feel like outsiders and a divided family identity is obvious. But that's to be expected since the family has not had enough time to bring people together in harmony. Finding common ground for traditions over time requires a great deal of flexibility, particularly from adults. When parents and stepparents refuse to be flexible, all too often battle lines are drawn pitting insiders against outsiders.

Holiday traditions in particular put co-parent (or ex-spouse) relationships to the test. If your ex-spouse relationship is rocky at best, don't expect the holidays to work out just as you hoped. Yet even the best co-parent relationship characterized by considerate negotiation regarding time with the children still can't erase sadness over traditions lost and memories from previous family holidays. Getting used to new traditions, different food, and being with strangers in unfamiliar homes is awkward at best.

Holiday experiences open the underlying, hidden dynamics of stepfamily life. On-going silent battles between co-parents, for example, often become open battles as parents pressure children regarding how much time they will have together and how travel plans will be made. Loyalty conflicts and issues of loss can easily spoil the joy of the season for children if parents are not careful.

David, an eleven-year-old whom I was counseling, decided it was just easier to not visit his dad at Christmas one year for a number of reasons. First, his parents maintained a low-grade battle for control that demonstrated itself in proposals and counter-proposals of how David would get to his father's house and for how long. A second reason related to his stepmother who "wants me to be part of her family. I don't want to be with her or my stepbrother when I visit Dad. I just want to be with my dad. Why can't she just leave us alone?" As usual, my conversations with the adults in each household revealed their belief that the other parent was responsible for David not wanting to visit his dad. Mom blamed Dad; Dad and Stepmom blamed Mom. In truth, it was David who thought it best to keep the peace, not make his parents negotiate (which he knew they couldn't do), and avoid feeling intruded upon by his stepmother when he was with his dad. He just stayed home.

Practical Strategies for Combining Holiday and Family Traditions
  • Be flexible and make sacrifices. You cannot make everyone happy all the time. Accepting this truth immediately takes away the pressure to give everyone what they want. Being flexible means realizing you can combine, modify, or sacrifice old traditions during a given year in order to give your stepfamily opportunity to develop new ones. Set the tone for negotiation by showing a willingness to sacrifice. If you won't, why should your children or stepchildren?
  • Plan, plan, plan. As a couple, be proactive in discussing upcoming holiday plans. Determine your preferences and wishes and what sacrifices you will make on behalf of the other home. Then, contact the adults in the other home and start negotiating. If you have three or four homes involved in the equation, start planning very early.
  • Complex stepfamilies may have to be really creative. Stepfamilies that have children from both adults (complex stepfamilies) often find themselves pulled in multiple directions during the holidays. One creative approach is to let each parent and children spend the holidays with the extended family members of their choosing. This may lead them to be in different homes for Easter dinner, yet acknowledges their differing family connections and honors family traditions. This may be particularly useful to new stepfamilies. As the stepfamily integrates over time, the decision to combine holiday activities may be met with less resistance.
  • Do what you can do and accept what you cannot change. Work on your co-parental relationship throughout the year so as to improve your chances of respectful negotiation during the holidays. But realize that ultimately you cannot control the other household and you may have to grin and bear it. When stuck in awkward or tough situations, appeal to difficult family members with "for your dad's sake, let try to put our differences aside."(1) Hopefully this will be motivation enough. In the end, lay what you cannot change at God's feet and go on.
  • Maintain the stepping stone of patience as individual family members grow to accept new traditions. Patience sounds easy on paper, but in real life it’s a tremendous challenge. Ask God to help you live out this fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
  • Live and learn. One stepfather found himself disappointed year after year because his stepson had to be rushed off to his father's house in the middle of Christmas day. He was never able to fully enjoy the day with his wife and stepson because everyone was watching the clock. Eventually he and his wife proposed a change to her ex. As it turned out, her ex-husband was also discouraged each Christmas and was open to changing the visitation agreement. They settled on an alternating arrangement that gave each home an undisturbed Christmas holiday while the other home had an undisturbed Thanksgiving holiday. The loss of togetherness experienced during a given holiday was moderated by the joy they received during the other.
  • Be compassionate regarding your child's preferences during the holidays. At the same time, teach children that sacrifices sometimes have to be made to make the new stepfamily a priority.
  • Daily rituals of connection are important to the integration process. The small, simple behaviors that families repeat on a regular basis communicate care and commitment. Hugs before leaving for school, a special note in a lunch box, Friday night pizza and a family video, and Sunday dinners with Grandma are rituals that keep people connected. Biological parents should strive to keep alive pre-stepfamily rituals of connection while stepparents work to create new comfortable ones. For example, a parent will hug children before leaving for work, and the stepparent may touch them briefly on the arm. A parent may write an "I love you" note and hide it in a backpack while the stepparent's note notifies the child of a raise in allowance. Take advantage of repeated behaviors to communicate care and develop trust in steprelationships.

P. Papernow, "Dealing Across Households: Scripts to Get By On" (Williamsburg, VA: Stepfamily Association of America, 1995), Cassette recording.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.