If your blended family or foster care placement are new, the holidays can be quite challenging.  Not only do you have the awkward getting-to-know-you phase, but you have everyone’s holiday expectations layered on top of that.  Here are some ideas that may help you navigate through the festivities this year.

Discuss Your Family Traditions and What to Expect

Start early talking to your new kids about your family traditions and what they can expect.  Then listen to them, especially if they seem concerned or reluctant. For example, one of the hallmarks of this season is getting together with extended family.  Your kids, however, may be overwhelmed at the idea of meeting a lot of new people.  You may need to give them permission to find a safe space to retreat to.  Also find ways to ease them into the family.  For example, the prospect of presents may help reconcile younger kids to large crowds.  Just be sure to prepare your family to have presents for them, or bring along extra so that your kids don’t feel left out.

Even if your children are well-established in your family, they may not want to be part of your traditions.  Some kids may be introverts who have trouble meeting crowds of strangers.  Other kids may not have the emotional energy at the moment to forge new relationships.  I’ve seen this a lot with children who have suffered trauma.  It’s as though most of their brain is constantly working in the background to process the past trauma, leaving them with limited emotional resources to deal with current situations.  So, even if our children want to be part of our family, the extended family responsibilities may just be too much for them.

At some point, you may know your complex family well enough to nudge your children to expand their horizons.  At the beginning of the relationship, however, give them plenty of space to find their place.

Prepare Your Extended Family

Be sure that your extended family knows what to expect.  Few things will sap a child’s confidence as thoroughly has having some well-meaning relative exclaim, “Well, I haven’t see you before.  Who are you?”  Do all that you can to let your relatives know the basics about your new blended family or foster placement.

While briefing them, remember your obligation to keep things confidential.  You can’t tell everyone everything about your children.  You may need to simply tell your relatives frankly that you can’t tell them all the details and that they need to respect your kids’ privacy about their biological families.  Your kids’ stories are their stories to tell, and they have the right to decide who hears what and when.

Help Your Kids Stay in Touch with Biological Family As Much as Possible

Every blended and complex family is different, so it’s impossible to know what guidelines will cover every situation.  Most stepfamilies have no limits on communication with parents, and we need to encourage those relationships. In fact, helping our kids communicate with their biological families may be more important than worrying about our own relationship.  It’s part of that one-way commitment that we have to make to them.

Abuse and extreme neglect require an entirely different set of guidelines. If your kids are subject to a custody order or protective order, most of your decisions may already be made for you.  Nevertheless, try to find room within those limits to help your children stay in touch with biological family if they want.  Be proactive, as your kids will not always know what’s possible.  If there are no court-ordered limits on communication, help them write cards or letters to send to their family members.  If you have official limits or safety concerns, work with your case worker or another intermediary to see if the kids can safely send messages.  Court orders and adult concerns don’t change our kids’ emotions. We need to do what we can to address their concerns while keeping them physically and emotionally as safe as possible.

Don’t expect your first few holiday seasons with a blended family or new foster child to be easy and don’t try to make them perfect.  Give everyone plenty of time to find their place in the family and plenty of room to find their own way into a relationship.  Like all relationships, your family ties will be stronger if you don’t load them down too early.

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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.