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Have yourselves a Merry blended Christmas!

By Alison Folwell

Families often have their own ingrained traditions when it comes to Christmas. From where the stockings go and who the presents come from to whether or not you watch the Queen’s speech and what time to have dinner, we often take for granted the way things work within our own families. If you’re spending Christmas as part of a new, blended family following a parental separation, it can be an absolute minefield.

Communication is key

Sometimes it isn’t until the last minute that you realise the differences in your approaches. Hopefully if you’re in a serious relationship, by the time you’re considering spending Christmas together, you’re at least broadly aware of the other’s position. But sometimes it’s the details that cause the issues. Every parent wants their child to have the best Christmas possible, and expectations and emotions often run high at this time of year. So when the actions, attitudes or behaviour of other people appear to get in the way of that, it can lead to clashes.

Discussing expectations with each other as a couple first is really important. Talk about the traditions you grew up with and compare notes. Sometimes you’ll find there are great similarities which you can work with or only adapt a little bit to suit everyone. But sometimes there are bigger differences at stake and it really pays to talk about those up front. Spend some time talking about how you’ve done Christmas in the past, which bits you’ve enjoyed and which bits you could do without. This is your chance to create something new, so make sure you’re not holding onto things out of habit – make sure everything is an active choice.

It might sound obvious, but (depending on their ages), discuss it with your children too. They might not know exactly what to say, but asking them about what their favourites parts of Christmas are, what they’re most looking forward to, what they wish for and if there’s anything they haven’t enjoyed in the past, for example, can reveal some interesting insights – and you may well find that what you thought was most important to them really isn’t (and vice versa). Of course it may not be possible for every one of their wishes to come true, but at least if you’re aware of them you can manage their expectations up front rather than leaving it as a nasty surprise on the day.

You’re (both) in charge

While it’s important to invite discussion with children and get their opinions and preferences, it’s also important to remember who’s in charge. Ultimately, what happens is your responsibility. That means you make the rules and children need to understand that – and they shouldn’t be expected to make big decisions. Of course that may involve some managing of expectation along the way, but it’s important that it’s the adults who make the decisions – children should not have to choose which parent they spend Christmas with, nor be accountable for other decisions that parents should be making on their behalf.

Be prepared to compromise

It’s a difficult thing, bringing together the expectations, traditions and budgets of two different families and it just isn’t fair if one side gets everything their own way while the other side has to fit in. Give yourselves time to get used to new ideas – what may seem like a deal-breaker when it’s first brought up may actually not be such a big deal once you’ve had some time to get used to the idea.

Again, depending on the ages and situations of your children, it is often a good idea to discuss this with them too. Reiterate that while things may be different, change can lead to better things and that compromise is an important, and very grown-up, thing to learn. It may not be perfect, but perfection is rarely a long-term state anyway, and helping other people be happy can be even more fulfilling than simply getting everything our own way.

Start a new tradition together

Change can be good! Your new partner may have traditions you find hilarious, or ridiculous, or daft – but they may also have ideas that you’d never considered. Coming up with new traditions together is a great way to bond as a family and who knows – it could be something better than you’d ever imagined before.

Involve the children

This will obviously depend on the ages of the children involved, but making them a part of the conversation can be really beneficial, and shows respect for them and their feelings. Going through Christmas without a parent, with a new parental figure or with other children can be really challenging for some children. Talking to them up front about it and encouraging them to be honest and share their thoughts is really healthy. Be prepared that they might not feel all that positively about the experience, especially where there are frictions with your partner’s children. If they feel they can be open with you, without you flying off the handle and panicking that “Christmas will be ruined”, it’s much more likely to be a success. And remember – Christmas is just one day, and your children’s feelings are far more important. If they’re really not ready for a shared Christmas, you might have to rethink.

Find ways to talk about what’s bothering you

Children are often heart-breakingly considerate, and they don’t want to muck things up for you. Sometimes they’re ashamed of their negative emotions and don’t want to burden you, or are worried you’ll be cross. So finding ways to reassure them that you want to listen are really important. If they aren’t getting on well with your partner’s children, it’s always better to know so you can start working it through.

In some cases there will be difficult issues to address and it will be up to you to be the grown-up and support your children without making them feel guilty. Equally, children sometimes will need to appreciate that things are different now, and that while you will listen to and respect their opinions, they also need to accept that changes are happening. It’s a tricky balance, and finding ways to communicate is essential.

Set expectations up front

Tell children the plan, how things are going to happen, and what to expect. Children are incredibly adaptable but most prefer to know what’s coming – don’t make change a surprise, or you’re setting yourself up for some fallout.

Expectations could also involve the level of expense involved. If one partner is significantly better off than the other, it could be that there is a big difference in the level of gift expectation from children. It’s important to be honest, especially with older children whose tastes and interests tend to be more pricey, but also with each other. Don’t bankrupt yourself to match what your wealthier partner is planning to buy, but equally, have consideration if you are the wealthier partner – if one side’s children are used to iPhones, tablets or games consoles and the other side isn’t, perhaps some middle ground is important. Managing expectation is really key here to avoid disappointment on the day.

Make some time for each other

Being a blended family can be an amazing thing, but it is also difficult. Make sure you still spend some time just with your own children so they don’t feel they’ve got to share you 100% of the time – but also, make time for your partner, and for their children. Everyone has feelings at stake, so be compassionate and remember that for children, memories rarely include things, but almost always involve feelings.

Have a space you can retreat to

It can be a very emotional time for everyone. Knowing you have a space to retreat to and gather your thoughts can be a valuable safety net when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Often children appreciate this too – but don’t leave them alone for too long. Respecting one another’s emotions is important, but so is reminding them that you’re still there for them.

Accept that it’s going to be different

There comes a point where, however uncomfortable it may feel, you have to embrace change. People are curious creatures – we get bored easily and therefore we crave, and need, change, and yet we fear and resist it at every step. Your children will more often than not form their opinions based on your lead, so if you can adopt an open-minded, positive attitude of adventurous new beginnings, perhaps they will feel more open to it as well. Don’t forget, they don’t have as many Christmases behind them as you do, so to them, there’s less to unlearn.

Keep things in perspective

Disappointment isn’t everything – and neither is Christmas Day. It’s easy to get wrapped up (sorry) in the whole thing, but remember, it’s the traditions and memories you build together that are the most important thing. Change can be difficult for all of us, but try to keep a level head and remember that while it may feel like an incredibly big deal, it really is just another day,

Christmas checklist

- What happens on Christmas Eve? Do you do a Christmas gift box or not? Do you go to church? Do you leave treats for Santa and his reindeer? If so, where? Where do you leave the stockings? Have the children written and sent letters?

- On Christmas morning, where are stockings opened? Is everyone going to be together for that? Do all the children still believe in Father Christmas? When are tree presents opened? How does that happen – in a mad frenzy all at once, or taking turns?

- Is Christmas lunch at lunchtime, or later on? Are there dietary requirements to take into account, or particular elements that are particularly important to someone at the table?

- Are there other traditions that are more individual to take into account? Some families have magic trees, others have particular games or songs; some go for walks, or to church – whatever your traditions, make sure you’re discussed them BEFORE the big day!

- If children are going to a different parent’s house on Boxing Day, make sure they’re fully aware of the plans so there are no last-minute surprises

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