The fall & winter holidays always are difficult times for foster and blended families.  Very few of us can manage peaceful meals with our kids’ extended biological families, and trying to plan all of the expected celebrations can be incredibly stressful.  We have to balance competing needs of biological relatives, court orders, and busy schedules.  For our children, the contrast between their lives and what they want their lives to be, or what they think their friends’ lives are like, can be emotionally overwhelming.  Although nothing can completely fix things for them, there are ways that we can lower the stress for our kids, our families, and ourselves.

Decide on Your Priorities

We simply cannot do everything and meet everyone’s expectations at the holidays.  We face too many competing requests/demands and activities.  Work parties, end-of-year school concerts and plays, meals with all of the various sets of extended family, visits with biological parents, and gift shopping . . . it all can be exhausting.  The only solution I have ever found is to simply stop trying to do it all.

Set your priorities of the top 3 to 5 things your family needs to do this season.  Some of your priorities will be set for you.  Custody orders and visitation plans automatically will be a top priority.  After that, decide what works for your kids and your family.  Use those priorities as a guide for what fits into the schedule.  If your kids need more time with their biological parents, then adjust everything else downstream from that priority.  If your complex family needs some no-distractions time together, then make that time a priority in your schedule.

Above all, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about the priorities you set for your family.   No one knows your family as well as you and your spouse.  Don’t let anyone make you second-guess your expertise.

Set Your Boundaries

Once you know your priorities, set your boundaries for the holiday season.  The best time to do that is as soon as possible.  Be very clear about what activities you can fit into your schedule and which you can’t.

You also need to set emotional boundaries.  If someone in your or your child’s extended family is toxic, figure out ways to avoid them.  If you can’t avoid them because of court order or biological ties to your children, then work on ways to minimize the conflict.  If you can, set limits on time or place or duration to avoid negative repercussions.

We can’t always protect our children from toxic relatives.  Court orders or our child’s desires to be with biological relatives will override even our most objective and informed beliefs about what is best for our children.  In those cases, set boundaries on what you say to your child, and then plan for some transition time.  When children come back into our homes from visiting with biological families, they usually will feel unsettled.  No matter how much we try to make them comfortable, the situation will feel strange.  Build some time into your schedule for them to ease back into your home and family.

Control What You Can

We often cannot control the situations we find ourselves in, and sometimes we can’t avoid them.  In those situations, all we can do is control what we can – our responses.  Plan ahead as best you can and decide how you will respond to insensitive remarks, nosy questions, and outright insults.  Go ahead and think of those cutting remarks that never work in real life, and then plan another, more positive response.  Sometimes a long look and a mild “hmmm” will lower the tension.  Other times you simply have to leave (and do it without drama).  Contrary to what you may see on social media, holiday meals are never a good time to try to enlighten someone about politics, religion, or even basic courtesy.  Find some common ground, or at least neutral territory, and park yourself there for the entire event.

I have some relatives whose political beliefs are very different from mine. Fortunately, we are all former debaters who are used to discussing facts without any emotional involvement.  We truly enjoy each other’s company and we like to entertain ourselves by discussing our disagreements.  But we have an unspoken agreement that, if anyone else starts taking our good-natured bantering seriously, we immediately change the subject.  We also know that our ability to discuss hot-button topics stems from longstanding relationships and mutual respect.  We simply cannot have those same discussions without those relationships.  In other words, we know how to control what we can control and adjust to what we can’t.

Plan Some Down Time

Finally, give your family some unscheduled time during the holidays.  More important, give yourself the same thing.  Short periods of stress can be productive.  Long periods of stress like the holiday season, however, will sap our resources.  Like a car battery, we will simply run down before we have checked off our to-do lists.  

Yet, the three things that are most helpful for stress – exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy diet – are the hardest to fit into holiday schedules.  Not only do we run short on time, but there are always a lot of decadent snacks lying around.  I always have to affirmatively build time into my schedule for exercise and sleep.  If I leave the decisions to the moment, I inevitably shortchange my long-term needs.  Taking care of yourself will not only lower your stress level, but it will help everyone in your family.  If nothing else, you can show your kids how you can build time for exercise and sleep and healthy diet into your schedule, even during the high-stress holidays.  

There is no way to avoid all of the stresses of the holidays (although I would love sometime to try fleeing to a remote tropical resort).   If we start planning now, though, we may be able at least to reduce the stress to manageable levels.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.