Stepfamily Sanity During The Holidays

Stepfamily Sanity this Holiday Season
By Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.,
Author of 
Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

When you think of holidays, you probably think of family.

And that’s what makes holidays so tough for stepfamilies. At this time of year, couples in a remarriage with children might be feeling . . . imperfect. For example, they might be polarized — he misses his kids, while she hopes they won’t treat her like the maid when they show up. She wants to buy her 25-year old’s plane ticket to come for a holiday visit — he thinks she spoils her kids and young adults should pay their own way.

Even if they’re on the same page about their step/kids, both members of the couple likely find themselves facing plenty of misunderstanding from friends and family as visions of sugarplums dance in our collective heads. “His kids won’t be here for the holidays? How come?!” “I can’t believe they’re going to spend only Christmas Eve with you.” “You’re not doing holidays with his ex? How come? Isn’t that the best thing for the kids?”

In the face of all the pressure and misunderstanding, take heart. Here are ten simple tips for stepfamily sanity this holiday season.

1. Give up on “blending.” Stepfamilies come together in their own ways, and in their own time — experts say four to 12 years! Particularly at holiday time, stepkids of any age may feel their loyalty binds more acutely (“Dad’s remarried but mom’s not so I should spend the whole holiday with her”). And sometimes in spite of a stepparent’s best efforts, a stepchild may keep his or her distance, taking a “stand” at holiday time. Don’t expect your stepfamily to resemble an eggnog smoothie during the holidays and you’ll spare yourself and your marriage a lot of aggravation.

2. Let your stepfamily be what it is. One family I interviewed put up two trees every year, because it mattered that much to them all to honor their own traditions. Respecting those differences can help everyone come together in their own way.

3. Know that you and your spouse will probably argue. From deciding how much to spend on gifts for her kids, to reopening old wounds about how the stepkids behaved during holidays past, couples in a remarriage with children are under extraordinary pressure this season. Arguments aren’t signs of failure — they’re opportunities to communicate. Find communication formulas and tips that work for you in Stepmonster and other books for couples with stepchildren.

4. Keep it normal. Whether they’re five or 50, what kids want post divorce and remarriage is a sense of belonging. So skip the red carpet welcome and think “inclusive” and “normal.” Give mom or dad some time alone with his or her kids, and then do the things you do every day and every holiday, inviting the kids to join. Let older and adult stepkids help with holiday meal planning and prep, serving and clean-up. Little ones can make place cards or holiday art for guests. This helps them feel like family, not guests. And when they’re pitching in and happy, stepmom/stepdad won’t feel as depleted or de-centered by their visit.

5. Choose side by side activities. Puzzles, stringing popcorn, baking, and watching a holiday movie all let you spend time together without interacting “head on,” which experts like Patricia Papernow tell us can be more stressful for “steps.”

6. Know your limits. Don’t do or give in a way that will increase your resentment. If your stepkids habitually forget to bring anything for you, or have a history of not writing thank you notes, don’t go overboard with extravagant gifts and efforts. Let them be your guide to avoid martyr syndrome (“I do and I do for them!”) during (and after) the holidays.

7. Strategize ahead of time. Stepfamilies aren’t first families. There may be tensions, and that’s normal. Spouses might have to plan out activities and time alone ahead of time. “I think I’m going to need a break tomorrow. How about a long walk together first thing in the morning?” This is not a failure — just a constructive way of adapting.

8. Remember stepfamily members bond best one-on-one. All-together-now activities can activate stepkids’ anxieties about who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. Give parent and stepparent plenty of one-on-one time with kids and stepkids — and with each other. And don’t forget about yourselves as a couple. You need one-on-one time, too.

9. Get out of the house. For stepmothers especially, there can be extraordinary pressure to create that Norman Rockwell aura over the holidays. Before the pressure gets to be too much, get out to see friends and your own family. Take time to pamper, whether it’s a spa visit or a coffee with pals who understand and don’t judge. Getting out of your own home, away from your stepkids and even your spouse, isn’t a sign of failure. It’s a necessity, rejuvenating you and helping prevent stepparental burnout.

10. Let go of the guilt. Remember that even first families struggle with unrealistic expectations during the holidays. If things don’t go perfectly — if there are squabbles or hurt feelings — have faith that this is normal and won’t damage the kids or your marriage irreparably. Stepfamily members are bound to have differences and even blow-ups. By showing your stepkids that people can argue and then move on, you are modeling the kind of resilience that will serve them well for a lifetime. That might be the ultimate holiday gift.

©2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. Used by permission. Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own web site. She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News, and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York  Post‘s parenting page. Stepmonster is a finalist in the parenting category of this year’s “Books for a Better Life” award. A stepmother for nearly a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Her stepdaughters are young adults.

Disrespectful teens, disrespectful parents

How to get your teen to clean up their room
by Anthony Wolfe, The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Nov. 03, 2009

If you force your kid to clean up, your victory will be short-lived. Trust that they’ll tidy up with time

The courtroom of the Honourable Justice Maureen Rascomb in the case of Matthew Thibodeau v. his mother.

Matthew: “It’s really very simple: It’s my room. Yes, it’s a giant mess, but I’m the only one who lives there. No one else even needs to go into it. I keep the door closed so nobody has to see it except me. I live here. I am part of this family. This is the one and only part of this house that I have any say over. My mother rules the entire rest of this house. I like my room the way it is. I choose not to pick it up. To me, the room is comfortable. End of story. My case rests.”

His mother: “It is my house. I own it. When I die, Matthew gets half ownership of the house along with his sister. But I’m not dead yet. The house still belongs to me. Matthew’s room is in my house. I own his room. I will not tolerate that the room that he lives in in my house – my room – be an abomination. When he gets older and moves out, he will have the right to have his room any way he wants. But not now. Not here.”

It’s an eternal household debate. Yet the bottom line is this: Who is right is really not the main point. 

My take: YOU own his room? It is YOUR house? The house belongs to YOU?

What about your son? Your daughter? Do they not also live there? It may be “your house” since it’s your name on the mortgage, but is it not also THEIR home?

When I hear statements like this, my reaction is that I fully understand why the parent is also complaining that s/he doesn’t feel respected by the teen – the teen almost certainly doesn’t feel respected by the parent either, so what else would you expect?

Bottom line: If you wouldn’t treat your spouse or a good friend that way, don’t treat your teen that way either. You are presumably trying to help your teen learn how to grow up to be a responsible and respectful adult. Start modeling what a responsible and respectful adult should look like.

Petition for children’s mental health

Petition for Children’s Mental Health: Send a message to the Ontario provincial government
by Jennifer Forbes
Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The opportunity to demonstrate your support for 1 in 5 children and youth who are troubled by mental health issues, is still open. Life long mental health difficulties so often start in our young. With your help, our efforts to bring this issue the attention it needs can be achieved.

By May 13th, the end of Children’s Mental Health Week, we aim to have 5000 names on our petition.

So far we are almost 20% along and look for your help in moving this number up.

This petition will not only be sent to the heads of our provincial parties, we can use the strength of its numbers to bolster our messaging in upcoming meetings and other advocacy efforts.

If you have not already signed the petition, you still have time.

Thank you
Consumers and Advocates Committee of the Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Heath
Parents for Children’s Mental Health
Youth Net

children, parenting, mental health, Ontario, Canada

When do our children become FIRST priority?

This kind of reaction from so-called “civil liberties” factions both amazes and enrages me:

Child porn rings hard to track
Wed Feb 7, 2007
By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer The numbers behind an international child pornography bust Wednesday were themselves disturbing: Nearly 2,400 suspects from 77 countries allegedly paid to view videos depicting sexual abuse online. But the nature of Internet traffic makes it sadly unsurprising that people would figure they could hide so much hideous material.

Finding and stamping out such content “is needle-in-a-haystack work,” said Carole Theriault, a security consultant with Sophos PLC in London.

Austrian authorities said an employee of a Vienna-based Internet file-hosting service approached his national Interior Ministry last July with word that he had noticed the pornographic material during a routine scan.

The videos showed “the worst kind of child sexual abuse,” said Austrian Interior Minister Guenther Platter, citing the rape and sexual abuse of girls and boys younger than 14. At times the children could be heard screaming.

Lead investigator Harald Gremel said the videos were online for at most a day before they were discovered. The Austrian Internet service employee blocked access to the videos while recording the computer addresses of people who tried to download the material, and gave the details to authorities.

Within 24 hours, investigators recorded more than 8,000 hits from 2,361 computer addresses in 77 countries around the world, including the United States, according to Gremel…

Why did finding this take what would seem a lucky break by network administrator? Because everything traversing the borderless Internet looks the same while in transit. Whether it’s a mundane e-mail or videos as insidious as this, all traffic gets splintered into packets of data that don’t identify what they contain. Consequently, unless a nefarious Web site advertises itself with spam e-mails or shuttles an inordinate amount of traffic, several factors can conspire to keep it in the shadows.

For example, Theriault noted that the perpetrators could send footage over peer-to-peer networks or computers that had been surreptitiously co-opted by Internet worms. “You could have this stuff on innocent machines and the owner wouldn’t even know it,” Theriault said. “It can get ugly and complicated, absolutely.”

Search engines and other analytical programs regularly “crawl” the Web to capture what lurks out there, but generally they are in search of text. One cloaking mechanism – often seen in spam – is for a site to put salacious keywords inside images, out of the reach of text-based scans.

Even the fact that viewers had to pay $89 for some material would not necessarily increase the chances of detection. While the major credit card carriers have programs to verify the validity of merchants in their networks, dozens of Internet payment processors use other methods to discreetly ferry money around, said Mike Petitti, senior vice president of marketing at AmbironTrustWave Inc., a data-security company. One way involves automated check-clearing services that route money from checking accounts and avoid the credit card networks, he said. “There are a number of payment processors out there that have a `Don’t look and don’t ask’ policy,” Petitti said.

Because cases like this are not uncommon – in 2003, German investigators said they broke up child-porn rings that involved 26,500 suspect Internet users around the world – industry and governments have proposed prevention methods.

In fact, on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen introduced revised legislation that would require Internet companies to do more to report child pornography discovered on their networks. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has chided the industry for not being more aggressive on the subject, and last year called on Internet companies to lengthen the time they hold onto logs of their customers’ Internet use.

Those comments churned up civil liberties concerns. But five top Internet companies did announce last June that they would be compiling a database of child-porn images and developing other tools making it easier for network managers and law enforcement to detect such material.

What sort of person do you have to be to believe that protecting “free speech” or personal privacy is a higher priority than protecting children from child rape?

Then, on the heels of that news item, I also found this one, from the political leader of Ontario, Canada:

Ontario Premier calls banning smoking in cars with kids a slippery slope
Wed Feb 7, 3:23 PM
By Chinta Puxley TORONTO (CP) – Making it illegal for parents to smoke in a vehicle in which their children are passengers is a slippery slope that could infringe on people’s rights, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday.

While doctors and health organizations are urging the province for such a ban, arguing that no one has the right to “poison” their children, McGuinty said he’s not interested.

“I’m just not prepared to go there,” McGuinty said, adding it would start the province down a path that could lead to smoking bans in houses and apartment buildings. “My preference is to provide as much information as we possibly can to people who may have children around them… they have to take responsibility for that.”

Although some argue protecting children from second-hand smoke saves the province money in health-care funding down the road, McGuinty said he doesn’t buy that argument. “We could start saying we shouldn’t be covering people who parachute or people who engage in risky kinds of activities,” he said.

Still, doctors and anti-tobacco activists say the government has to bear some responsibility for the tremendous health risks posed to children by second-hand smoke. “Nobody has a right to poison a child,” said Dr. Ted Boadway, health consultant with the Ontario Medical Association that represents some 25,000 of the province’s doctors. “We decided that as a society a long time ago.”

Smoking in a car is scientifically proven to be worse than sitting in a smoky bar, said Boadway, who added it affects the growth of a child’s lungs among other negative health effects. The province has recognized the danger second-hand smoke poses to employees and banned smoking in public workplaces, so Boadway said it’s just a matter of time until the government recognizes children are also at risk. “We’re patient, although I don’t think the kids have as much time as we do,” he said.

Other jurisdictions – including Bangor, Maine – have banned smoking in cars so Ontario wouldn’t be breaking new ground, said Michael Perley, of the Ontario Coalition for Action on Tobacco. Ontario already regulates seatbelt use in cars and protecting children from second-hand smoke would be no different, he added.

“There is no personal liberty issue here,” he said. “This is a pure matter of negative health effects being imposed on some of our youngest members of society who can’t do anything about it.”

Health advocates like Perley are vowing to continue pressing the government for a ban, but they won’t get much help from opposition parties.

Sometimes I despair… This should not be rocket science. This is about children who look to adults to protect them. And, as a society, we seem to spend more time and effort worrying about protecting those who harm them.

When Your Kids Are Popular with the Wrong Crowd

When Your Kids Are Popular with the Wrong Crowd
By Sylvia Rimm, PhD
Author of Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers.

    One boy in my school got his ears pierced. His friends thought he was cool, so they got their ears pierced, too. Other people thought they were weird, so they formed their own group. ~ 5th-grade boy

There seems to be nothing more difficult for achievement-oriented parents to tolerate than seeing their kids bond with a negative peer group. Students who don’t value school are often antiparents and pro-alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex and thrive on irreverent and often obnoxious music. Your kids will probably proclaim that they are good and loyal friends or that they’re much nicer and less shallow than the “preppies” and “jocks.” These negative peers may indeed be kinder to your children than some other kids you’d prefer for them to befriend. Your kids may become secretive, say that you’re controlling, and protest that you have no right to say with whom they can be friends.

Below are preventive strategies that can work well for encouraging your kids to avoid negative peers.

  • Don’t pressure kids to make friends. Many of the antischool kids I’ve worked with are lonely, attention seeking, and sometimes aggressive as elementary-age children. Parents and teachers are anxious about their kids’ lack of friends, even when they do have a few. Parents and teachers often put pressure on them to make friends, and the kids connect having a large group of close friends with healthy adjustment. They feel that adults are disappointed in them when they don’t have friends, and by middle school, they become so anxious about making friends that they’re willing to do almost anything to be included in any group that validates them. They develop a deep resentment toward the bright, achieving, or athletic kids who haven’t accepted them, and they share that resentment in order to build solidarity with another group. In some ways, they believe that “good kids” are bad, because the “bad kids” are loyal to each other, although they may appear tough or mean to outsiders.When your kids are a little lonely, it’s important to label it as independence even though you realize it isn’t easy for them. In that way, you avoid putting too much pressure on them to make friends and become popular. Use this time to help them learn skills and develop interests that will enable them to share activities with others. For example, learning to play chess will encourage them to play with other kids, developing an interest in music or art will give them a passion to share with other positive young people who also enjoy those activities, or playing soccer or taking gymnastics classes will make them feel like part of a team. Once they have friends who share their interests, they will be less likely to feel pressured to unite with negative kids.
  • Avoid conspiratorial relationships. Rebellious adolescents are often overempowered by parents who are divided. A mother who allies with her child against the dad, or a father who allies with a child against the mom, teaches a child that relationships become closer and more intimate when two people share a common enemy. Learning to feel close to a person only when there’s a common enemy can become a very negative but intense habit, which transfers naturally to finding a peer group or even a boy- or girlfriend who is against school or parents.This alliance-against-an-enemy relationship with a parent becomes an even greater risk during or after a divorce. Mothers who have been rejected by their husbands can be especially vulnerable to sharing intimate details about the husband’s behavior. Although at first it seems that kids understand the situation and value the intimate sharing, this too-intimate practice almost always backfires. Divorce is no time to assume that children are mature enough to be your counselors or confidantes. Not only does this place kids in an impossible dilemma, but it also teaches them to disrespect and rebel against their other parent, which will in turn cause the other parent to teach them disrespect for you. You’re giving up your adult responsibility when your kids may require it most.
  • Help kids adjust to a move. Another important prevention scenario takes place after a move to a new community. I recommend having your child paired with other kids initially when moving to a new school. The kids with whom she’s paired could make her feel more comfortable, as well as include her in a positive group. The selection of those new friends should be made carefully. You can probably do that most diplomatically if you share with the teacher or counselor your child’s positive interests. If you do this, it’s more likely that your child and those with whom she’s paired will have activities or interests in common.Sometimes teachers pair negative or needy kids with new students in the hopes of helping them. Caution your child that finding good friends takes time. Be reassuring that there’s no need to hurry it along, and that you’re certain that eventually he’ll find good friends. Seeking popularity encourages the quest for status and quantity of friends, which may or may not turn out to be a good thing, depending on the values of the popular peer group in the school.
  • What if your child has already been influenced by a negative peer group? The solutions below may help when you need positive intervention.

  • Change schools or teams. There are several possibilities for helping your kids ditch negative peer groups. Sometimes changing schools or teams can be effective. This has proven to be extremely powerful for some kids who have been clients at my Family Achievement Clinic. Most middle schools use a team approach with between two and four teams in a school. Talk to your child’s school counselor about the possibility of changing to a different team to get him away from negative peers. This may help your child make new friends, particularly if he has at least one positive friend in a new team. Changing schools or teams works most effectively when negative relationships are just beginning, before your child is overly engaged with the group. It also works best if the negative group doesn’t live in your neighborhood.
  • Prohibit friendships. Sending a clear message to your child that you wish he not befriend a particular individual or group may make a difference for middle schoolers. You’ll need to justify the prohibition by explaining that the other kids’ behavior is unacceptable, and you’ll permit them to be friends outside of school only if you see a change in the other kids. When both parents agree on that philosophy, your child will likely accept it. When both parents don’t agree, don’t waste your time prohibiting the friendship. This is an important communication that both parents should talk through carefully.

  • Develop new interests. The most positive technique for removing kids from a negative peer group is to get them involved in positive peer experiences, such as fun enrichment programs, special-interest groups, drama, music, sports, Scouts, religious groups, summer programs, camps, or youth travel programs. They may not want to join without their friends, so introducing them to someone who’s already part of a group may encourage them. A teacher or group leader may help to facilitate new friendships.
  • Enter contests. Encourage your child to enter contests or activities in which he has a chance of winning or receiving an important part. Don’t hesitate to talk to a coach or teacher privately about your efforts to reverse your child’s negativism. Winning kids are often excluded from peer groups that are negative about school. Winning a speech, music, art, or sports contest often gives status to students and causes them to appear more interesting to positive students. Sometimes a victory is enough to separate a tween from a negative peer group.
  • Plan an exciting family trip. A family trip is also an option for distracting your wayward child from negativity. Time away from peers in an entirely new environment can channel your child’s independence. One-on-one trips with a parent may be effective in reducing tension and enhancing family closeness. A trip with only one parent and one tween may be more productive than if the whole family is present, because the tween will be freed from sibling rivalry issues.
  • If you introduce any of these courses of action to your children, don’t expect them to like it. These options shouldn’t be suggested as choices, or your kids surely won’t choose them. You can, however, permit or even encourage them to make choices among the options. For example, they can choose between a summer writing or music program, which will hopefully encourage new and positive interests and friendships.

    Copyright © 2005 Sylvia Rimm

    Author: Sylvia Rimm, PhD, is a noted child psychologist who directs Sylvia Rimm’s Family Achievement Clinic and is a clinical professor at Case School of Medicine, both in Cleveland. Her books include See Jane Win, a New York Times bestseller, and Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children, which was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award. A syndicated newspaper columnist and a favorite personality on public radio, Dr. Rimm has also appeared on NBC’s 20/20 and The Today Show and MSNBC’s Weekend Today. She and her husband reside in Cleveland, Ohio.

    For more information, please visit

    parenting, peers, peer pressure, teens, teenagers

    Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers

    [amtap amazon:asin=1579547095]Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers
    By Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D.

    Sex, drugs, peer pressure, and underachievement: don’t these sound like issues that high schoolers might confront? But according to Dr. Sylvia Rimm’s research findings, your middle schoolers may actually be encountering these problems every single day. And because kids today communicate via instant messaging and their cell phones, you may not know what they’re actually going through.

    In an extensive survey of more than 5,400 middle school kids, and through more than 300 focus groups, Dr. Rimm discovered that today’s kids face difficult, grown-up decisions younger than ever. A 5th grade boy explained, “We learn about everything from the movies and try out the sex we see.” A 6th grader told Dr. Rimm, “A girl in our class even got her tongue pierced.”

    With straightforward, real-life advice, Growing Up Too Fast offers sensible trategies for raising this new breed of tweens. Sample conversations show the best ways to talk with kids about issues that really matter, like terrorism, drugs, alcohol, and sex and violence in the media. Growing Up Too Fast is an essential guide to parenting middle school kids to a bright and successful future.

    Author: Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., is a noted child psychologist who directs Sylvia Rimm’s Family Achievement Clinic and is a clinical professor at Case School of Medicine, both in Cleveland. Her books include See Jane Win, a New York Times bestseller, and Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children, which was a finalist for the Books for Better Life Award. A syndicated newspaper columnist and a favorite personality on public radio, Dr. Rimm has also appeared on NBC’s 20/20 and The Today Show and MSNBC’s Weekend Today. She and her husband reside in Cleveland, Ohio.

    For more information, please visit