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Holidays For 'Blended' Families

Blended families usually deal with more loss and emotion than other families, and this is never more true than during the holidays.

Some 51 percent of "nuclear marriages" end in divorce (that usually means first-timers with kids). Roughly 85 percent of these divorced people will remarry. However, second marriages with kids are twice as likely to end in divorce as those without children.

What these statistics represent are the challenges faced by people in "blended-extended" families, units in which at least one parent isn't the biological parent of at least one child.

Barbara LeBey, author of "Remarried with Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family," tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm this brings difficult emotions to bear.

Though the holidays are meant to be joyous, blended families are usually dealing with losses and emotions due to issues involving location, cultural traditions, family rituals, new family members and favoritism, LeBey points out.

She notes that these days, a family can consist of former spouses, stepparents, stepchildren, girlfriends/boyfriends and then their extended families. Trying to please everyone can put a damper on holiday festivities, says LeBey, herself a lawyer, former judge, and wife, mother, and grandmother in a blended, extended family.

LeBey says she believes that, when two people remarry, the marriage comes first, except on the holidays. On the holidays, the kids come first.

Often, there are children visiting and some are leaving a parent behind. Parents have to make the children comfortable; it makes things run more smoothly. The one thing the host couple should remember is to treat the children fairly.

Couples may also have large group of people to feed, house and entertain. If this is the first time you're orchestrating this, it's important to relax. Everyone should be understanding and flexible about each person's ideal holiday expectations. A lot of the work falls on the stepmother.

Fathers don't usually have as hard a time sharing and negotiating the holidays with the stepfather. But mothers and stepmothers often have conflicts. They are also responsible for planning the holiday festivities for the whole family, including their children and their stepchildren.

It can be a very emotional time. There is a lot of guilt, because some are leaving family behind. They are worried about the other parents or loved ones who may be left alone.

It's important, LeBey says, to focus on the festivities versus the baggage.

Logistics is a big issue. If families don't live in the same town or state, you are dealing with challenges of getting to airports and coordinating travel. Expect to be a little tired and frazzled.

LeBey looked at various likely scenarios, and offers guidelines for dealing with them in blended families.

Visiting Children

If you have children who don't normally live with you visiting during the holidays, what is the most important thing to remember?

Make children feel welcome: Have a drawer or special place that is just for them. Be sensitive to the fact that other kids who live with you have rooms with all their own beds and toys, and the outside children don't have more than a suitcase. Level the playing field by using sleeping bags like a sleepover. Don't make the visiting kids feel like second-class citizens.

Competing holiday traditions

Some examples: on Christmas, some families open gifts on Christmas Eve and some open presents on Christmas morning. Usually, competing traditions are about gift giving, food or rituals like caroling.

So what can couples do who have raised their children with different holiday traditions?

One option is to take everybody's chosen tradition or ritual and put them into a grab bag -- pick three. That year, you celebrate those three traditions. The next year, you may decide to continue those same three traditions or pick other traditions. At best, you may end up developing a new family tradition on the holidays; at worst, someone has to wait one year to celebrate the holiday the way he or she prefers.

First Christmas With Blended Family

What are some of the problems that arise when a spouse's grandparents or aunts and uncles are introduced to their new stepchildren during this time of year?

Unintended favoritism, for one. Many grandparents are not as welcoming as they should be. Many simply buy their biological nieces/nephews/grandkids more or better presents or simply leave the their step-kids out altogether. It sets up competition and resentment among the children.

How should parents handle this situation?

Parents have to prepare the grandparents, aunts and uncles about how to treat all the children equally (step and biological). Parents can offer to take on the responsibility of buying the gifts and making sure each child gets the same amount from each grandparent or aunt/uncle, regardless of blood relations.

GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR BLENDED FAMILIES

  • Plan early. That's always a good idea, but it's especially important for blended families. You need time to make sure everyone has agreed to the plan and knows where they are going to be. Make sure all the adults have a copy of the travel itinerary; there are a lot of children traveling alone this time of year.

    How do you choose a location that best honors the children's wishes, keeping in mind they come first this time of year? This is more likely to occur with older children, especially during college. They want to go home, see their room, see friends. If a parent who has visitation insists that the kids come to their new home rather than the custodial parents' home, they are making a dreadful mistake. The out-of-state parent should visit the child at the custodial parent's home. You don't want the kids to feel isolated from their family and friends, especially during the holidays.

  • Simplify. If you are having a large crowd, you want to make everything as easy as possible. Don't try to display your greatest culinary arts on this occasion. Buy ready-made food. Cooking and activity planning is the part that usually overburdens the mother or stepmother.

    However, the most important thing is to reduce the amount of stress in the household. This is the time to make life easy on yourself, because there are a lot of emotions that are likely to be present. Make things calm for everyone, especially the children.

  • Exhibit the couple's strength. This refers to the new relationship. The remarried couple should try not to undermine each other. They have to show a united front. For example, if the biological father's children are misbehaving, father has to back up his spouse and vice versa. Ideally, discipline problems should be handled by the biological parent of that child.
  • Be flexible about the day of celebration. This is probably the hardest part for parents to concede. What should a parent do if he or she can't share the actual day with his or her children? Focus on being together whenever you can, and make other occasions celebratory. Be flexible and unconventional. For example, if you are newlyweds, let the biological parents have the kids, and be alone with your new spouse. Start new traditions, like making another holidays, such as Halloween, very festive.

    Read an excerpt from "Remarried with Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family."

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