Family Change During the Holidays

The holidays are a time of tradition. Whether it’s Christmas Eve at Grandma’s or, as it is in my family, all the women getting together days before to make rouladen and semmelknodel. But for more and more families each year the holidays have become a time to prepare for new traditions.

According to the Stepfamily Foundation, 1300 new stepfamilies are forming every day. The pressure to have a stress-free, perfect holiday where everyone is pleased is very real. This can feel even more important when going through family change.

Family change during the holidays may mean accepting new family members and some of their traditions, going to and from multiple homes rather than experiencing the holiday in one place, being uncomfortable, or changing tradition after years of doing the same thing in the same place. It can also mean having the opportunity to try something new, creating new friendships, discovering bravery and strength, and cherishing the time together with loved ones more deeply.

Change is not easy, but inevitable. We can choose to fight it or embrace it. As the holiday season approaches, if your family is going through some change, keep these tips in mind:

Have Realistic Expectations:

It is tempting to want to provide children with a holiday so wonderful that they do not feel sad. Their feelings about the changing dynamics and relationships will happen regardless of how many presents they have or how busy their schedule is.

Include Children in Making Decisions:

Involve your children in decision-making where it makes sense and answer their questions to the best of your ability. When possible, include them in the process of creating new traditions and saying goodbye to old ones. Being transparent with the planning process will help your children anticipate the changes and new activities rather than just reacting to whatever happens.

Validate the Experience:

Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay. Acknowledge their feelings, normalize them, and provide opportunities for them to express themselves authentically. It is possible to feel sad and happy in the same moment and it is important for children to know that we are all capable of happiness in the midst of loss or pain. Don’t shy away from the tough stuff because ‘it’s a holiday and we’re supposed to be happy!’ Instead, use phrases like, “I know you’re [insert emotion] about [insert situation], at the same time, it’s time for you to go with your dad to your grandparent’s house. I love you.”

Choose Your Battles:

As frustrating as it might be to keep your cool when emotions are riding high, be your best self for your children and cherish the time you have with them. Think beyond the one difficult day or moment and set a positive example for them. After asking a family member what they wish someone had said during their first Christmas Eve without their children she replied, “I wish someone had said, ‘It’s one day.’ Any day could be Christmas Eve, look at all the other days you get to spend with your kids; enjoy the time together, whenever it is.”

Plan Ahead:

Avoid unnecessary stress by communicating wants and needs and having an exit strategy. If things get particularly challenging or a child is overwhelmed by their emotions know where you can go and how you might respond. Talk with a trusted friend or family member ahead of time about your concerns and do what is right for you. Talking with someone may help you clarify what is most important to you during the holidays.

The reality is, the idyllic picture-perfect holiday does not exist, no matter how “intact” your family is. What children want and need during the holidays, regardless of circumstances, is a relaxed, fun, and loving time with loved ones.