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The Blended Family: Sharing the Love

Christmas may be hard on kids wondering whether there is enough for everyone.

The holidays are expected to be a joyous time full of love and caring. Often, however, they don’t live up to expectations and in fact can highlight what is missing in people’s lives.

If you have been through a divorce and have now found love again, you might be dealing with the ups and downs of combining your family with your new partner’s. Add sibling rivalry, inherent in every family, often gets added to the mix, layering on complications and challenges to that love and caring.

The rivalry may even carry over into adulthood, as I describe in my book Adult Sibling Rivalry: Understanding The Legacy of Childhood. Each child is already trying to get their fair share of love, attention, presents, food—and now they have to compete with stepsiblings for it all. If they didn’t think they were getting enough before, the sense of having to share what there is can lead to an underlying sense of resentment, stress, and being on guard.

Celebrity couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have talked openly about the experience, including getting details right with their old and new families, and said they are both hopeful they will have a wonderful holiday season. “They have to sort things out with both sets of kids and exes,” a source told Entertainment Tonight. “But they would love to have all the kids
together with them as one big happy family and are working on that now.”

The goal is to create a new feeling and sense of family, a reconceived “us.” You don’t want it to feel like two separate families living under one roof, but, instead, one big family unit. What are some strategies for achieving that?

Holidays are infused with traditions; everyone has them. When two families come together, that can mean different takes on how to celebrate, which can sometimes clash. Maybe you and your ex opened presents on Christmas Eve, but your new partner prefers doing that on Christmas morning. Perhaps one of you always had a turkey dinner that you looked forward to all year, but the other had roast beef, and that’s what they want.

It can be extremely helpful to openly review each partner's tradition to decide which are most important. Then it's time to talk about creating new ones—perhaps a new time to open gifts or a different meal. There are some traditions, of course, that each partner will want to continue—requiring a spirit of compromise in talk through possibilities. It may be possible to
accommodate either or both sets of traditions, or to alternate preferences each year. Maybe both turkey and roast beef can fit on the table this year.

Addressing the sibling rivalry is another way to maintain the warmth of the
holidays. One approach is to make each child feel like they have their own special time—giving each child at the table a chance to talk while everyone listens. They can give an example of what they are grateful for or what they are looking forward to. Such an approach frames things in a positive light, let’s everyone have attention, and know that they are
being listened to. It will make each of them feel like a part of the whole.

One of the biggest issues blended families face is who is going to discipline, and it it applies at the Christmas table as at any other day of the year. Talking a plan through with your new partner averts misunderstandings and tension if you aren’t on the same page about how you talk to each other’s kids when bad behavior arises. You don't want to be tiptoeing around your new partner’s children if, because you haven’t discussed it, you don’t know how much you can or should discipline them. Even more concerning is having kids living under the same roof but being treated in different ways, a source of sibling rivalry if ever there was one, as well as resistance, and anger.

Putting a well-thought-out and agreed-upon system in place with which to approach disciplining and caring for the children is an important step toward really making it work. If you can set limits, rules, and boundaries that pertain to every child in the house, then they will all feel like they are on the same playing field, and it will eliminate the possibility that some kids might imagine the others are being favored.

Whether it is Christmas time or not, the most important thing you can do is work toward bringing the groups together as one family unit. That means handling all the kids consistently and the same way, with one system and one explanation for the choices you make as a couple so that everyone feels they are being given an equal amount of love, care, and respect. It also means
acknowledging and respecting each other’s traditions and making new ones together. Without such tools, this time of year can become a boiling point for a million things going wrong and spoiling the season.

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