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A Holiday Help Guide for Stepfamilies

Around the holidays, stepfamily life can become particularly stressful, especially for children who'll spend time at more than one household. Circumstances vary depending on each situation. In general, households separated by a short distance in which both sides of the family see the child/children frequently have different issues than those separated by long distances where the non-custodial parent may only see the child once or twice a year. 

Children deal with the guilt of having to leave one parent behind. They are often thrust into a new environment with unfamiliar family members and a new routine, only to have to go home again soon.

"None of us like change that much, and big changes during the holidays can be particularly difficult to cope with for everyone involved," says Margorie Engel, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Stepfamily Association of America in Lincoln, Neb.

Still, there are ways to make stepfamily holidays happier and easier for children, custodial parents and noncustodial parents alike.

Here are tips for custodial parents:

Avoid guilt trips

When sending children to spend the holidays with their other parent, encourage them to have a good time and let them know what you'll be doing while they're away. To avoid putting a damper on their fun, send the message they shouldn't feel guilty about leaving you alone.

Plan ahead

Although children often look forward to visiting their noncustodial parent, it can be stressful.

To alleviate their anxiety, "coordinate with your former spouse on the logistics of the trip, such as transportation issues and what his or her holiday plans are, so children can anticipate," advises Dr. Engel.

Also, to help children be prepared, find out if they'll need any special gear or clothing.

Avoid one-upmanship

Share information with the other parent about the children's changes or new idiosyncrasies, such as the fact they grew three inches or they no longer like the crust on their peanut-butter sandwiches.

"Don't withhold information to prove you know more about that child," says Dr. Engel. "All you'll hurt is the child."

Coordinate gift-giving

Exchange the children's wish list with the other parent so you both can decide who'll give what. To make children feel special, share color preferences, size and brand names, if relevant. Also, coordinate gift-giving with grandparents, aunts and uncles, if possible. "You want to avoid one or two children in the household being deluged with stuff, while other children get very little or disparate gifts, such as socks versus a radio," says Dr. Engel.

Check it off

Create a checklist of the items being packed to ensure nothing gets lost in the shuffle. Besides clothing, the checklist should include medical information and your doctor's phone number in case prescriptions need to be refilled and/or medication gets lost or left behind.

Here are tips for noncustodial parents:

Send your kids an information packet

This can include a road atlas of your area and brochures about places of interest and things to do. By doing so, you'll enhance their sense of security and help the custodial parent know the kids will have a good time.

If you'll be traveling with your children, be aware many airlines now require a notarized consent-to-travel letter signed by both parents.

Allow kids to stay connected

If the visit is going to last more than a few days, establish a schedule for the kids to communicate with the absent parent.

Allow for quiet time

When your children arrive, let the departure household know they've arrived safely. Then, help your children unpack. "You need to have already identified a room, a drawer, a closet, and their towels, so the children can start feeling a sense of belonging," says Dr. Engel.

After unpacking, have an arrival-day ritual that communicates belonging, such as popcorn and a video rental. "To help children get their bearings, you want an activity where everybody's together but not actually having to interact," says Dr. Engel. Save that and a review of household rules and expectations for day two.

"Many of these issues aren't unique to stepfamilies. But since you've got more people involved, the logistics are more complicated," says Dr. Engel. "Advance planning solves a lot of problems."