Somehow, all of the normal stresses of raising other people’s kids seem to combine and hit us all at once during the holidays. Whatever disagreements we have with biological parents pop up worse than ever, and our foster and bonus kids have a hard time navigating all of the family tensions. Whether it’s school festivals and concerts, holiday meals, or annoying family members, the busy schedules this time of year offers more than enough opportunities for conflict. For this week's posts, I’ve gathered some suggestions that might help your family avoid holiday stress. Some tips will work better than others for your particular situation, but any of them may spark ideas for you to navigate the minefields of the next few months. The first seven tips are in today’s post; check back Thursday for the next seven.
• Plan ahead — Start planning now for all the demands on your schedule. Start discussing which family the kids will be staying with when. Note all of the school concerts, plays, holiday parties, family gatherings, and other events that your kids want to attend. Start deciding now which events are the highest priority and which you can negotiate. The sooner you start the discussion, the faster the adults will be able to agree on a schedule.
Also start planning your budget. Decide now, before you start shopping, how much money you can spend on presents, events, and special meals. Then stick to the budget. Don’t splurge, and especially don’t let anyone send you on a guilt trip for not spending more. The last thing you need to do is set yourself up for financial stress in January and the rest of the year.
• Be flexible — At the same time that you are trying to pin down a schedule, know that there is no such thing as a perfect holiday. Disruptions are inevitable. To quote the old Yiddish adage, man plans and God laughs. Something, or many things, will happen to your schedule and/or your budget. Be prepared to adapt and shift events or budget items. Above all, work on staying calm. Even if you think a manipulative adult is messing with plans just for the fun of it, don’t vent to your kids or even other adults in the family. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on keeping your sense of humor intact, finding a solution and showing your kids how to adapt to unexpected situations.
• Keep the focus on the kids — Winter holidays are not the time to focus on your priorities. Your kids will have enough stress without you adding your needs to the mix. Stay laser-focused on what your kids need. Avoid competitions with their biological parents. Not only are those stressful situations for your kids, but you will lose the competition. If your children prefer to spend time with biological parents instead of you, give them as much extra time as custody orders and case plans allow. Don’t become upset at their family loyalty, and encourage those relationships as much as you can.
Other kids may not be able to see their biological family at all, and that disruption can cause serious feelings of loneliness. Don't make the mistake of overcompensating or trying to divert them. Set aside time to talk to them (if they are willing) about how they miss their family and that it's a stressful situation for them. Help them work through their emotional response to the holiday activities and don't pressure them beyond their willingness to be part of holiday events. You can't fix the fact that their world is off-center; all you can do is give them plenty of space and a lot of care.
• Expect your kids to have divided loyalties — One of the things that can cause extra pressure for your kids is their confusion about where their loyalties lie. One really great quote from the movie Stepmom (otherwise not my favorite movie) is when the son says to his mother about his father’s new wife, “Mom, if you want me to hate her, I will.” That line rings true for both stepparents and foster parents. Recognize that your kids may not know how to think about you. If they like you, they may feel that they are being disloyal to their biological parents. If they don’t like you, it probably has little to do with you and much more with their world being out of whack. Don’t take it personally, and care about them anyway.
• Keep strong routines — Family schedules are going to be somewhat haywire during the holidays, and long school breaks mean that your kids don't have their usual daily routine. That disruption makes routine more important than ever. Strong routines help keep kids grounded and lower their stress levels. Limit complicated family events as much as you can, and keep to your kids’ routine schedules when possible. Be sure they get enough sleep. Enforce your rules against junk food as best you can, or at least steer them toward healthy snacks. Of course you can’t let the need for routine override time with biological family or building family relationships, but you can try to keep it in mind as a priority for your kids.
Try to find time for physical activity for your kids. An exercise routine of some sort can increase endorphin levels and reduce stress hormones. Fresh air and natural light are not only good for their overall health, but a good stress reliever as well.
• Prioritize memories — When you have to cut something from the schedule or your budget, keep the items that build family relationships, such as spending time together. Even simple activities, such as having the entire family bake cookies, can strengthen relationships.
Many years ago, we realized that the stress of keeping up with gifts for all of our extended family — 7 kids, 10 grandkids, 3 siblings & 3 in-laws, 7 nieces & nephews, and a great-nephew — was sucking all of the joy out of our holidays. So we stopped buying presents for adults, and substituted a yearly family event. For several years, we bought tickets to seasonal plays or concerts. When Covid shut down live performances, we started renting a movie theater to show Christmas movies. Not only were we spending the same amount of money, but we were able to expand the event to cousins and close friends. The event has become so popular that it promises to become a long-standing family tradition.
Of course, kids expect presents at Christmas, especially younger kids, so you can’t completely ignore their gift lists. But you can concentrate your time and money on memories. I suspect that my grandkids will remember the movie afternoons far longer than they will the presents that we get them each Christmas.
• Celebrate the holiday, not the date — One of the hardest parts of blended or foster parenting during the holidays is fitting in all of the families who want part of your kids’ time. If you can move your holiday celebration, then you will remove a key source of stress. When I married, I learned that my husband, even though he had custody of his kids, they spent every Thanksgiving and every Christmas day with their mother. My husband celebrated with them on a different day, a schedule that relieved some of the stress and divided loyalties for the kids.
My sister’s husband is in the medical field and he often had to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas Days. So her family got used to celebrating those holidays on whatever day fit with his schedule. My nephew commented recently that some of his favorite family Christmas celebrations happened several days after December 25. If you are willing to move your celebration, you may be surprised at how much more your kids enjoy it.
In my next post, I'll discuss seven more practical tips for lowering the stress of the holidays. In the meanwhile, spend a little time thinking about different ways you can adapt your family routines to avoid, or at least lower, the conflict in your families over the next few months.