The Holiday Survival Kit

. December 10, 2013.

Five Tips for a Peaceful Stepfamily Holiday

By Gayla Grace

The holidays descended upon us quickly after my husband and I married mid-October and began our new life together. My expectations of a joyous holiday season faded as the reality of combining two households with different traditions and outside family members settled on us. I wasn't prepared for the chaos and heartache that accompanied our first Christmas together.
Blending four young children, managing a harried schedule with two ex-spouses, and competing with the "other households" for time together and adequate gift exchange ignited a simmering blaze that burned throughout the season, leaving behind a trail of hurt feelings and unmet expectations.
I learned some valuable lessons that season on negotiating with others and compromising on details that don't have to go my way. I also resolved to take proactive steps in the future to help relieve some of the turmoil and division that occurred among family members. Here are a few suggestions for more peaceful stepfamily holidays that will enable your family to enjoy one another and create lasting memories instead of simply surviving another holiday season. 

Set aside unrealistic expectations

Accept that there will be unhappy moments during the holiday period. Children experience fluctuating emotions as they cope with the loss of their nuclear family and accept their new stepfamily. They may act out or withdraw during periods of grief. When my stepchildren lost their mother, holidays became especially difficult for them. Memories of past holidays sometimes prevent them from enjoying our family celebrations today. However, a difficult day or period of unhappiness doesn't have to ruin the entire holiday season. 

Be proactive.

Start planning your schedule early. Have a family meeting and talk about the logistics of the season – when to decorate, what to eat for holiday meals, how to do gift exchange (draw names, include grandparents, etc.) and what special programs need to be put on the calendar. Ask each family member to take part in the planning and decision-making. Begin negotiating the visitation schedule early to allow time for discussion among parties.

Be flexible and agreeable with other family members, when possible.

Be willing to make sacrifices to fit everyone's schedule. Offer alternatives when negotiating schedules and recognize that Thanksgiving and Christmas can be celebrated on a day other than the official holiday and still be a special day. We have altered our Christmas gift exchange many years to allow everyone to be together. Try to be fair to all parties involved and commit to do your part toward peaceful interaction with your ex-spouse. Separate old marital issues from parenting issues and examine your heart for resentment or bitterness that might be preventing you from friendly communication.

Consider your children's needs.

Children don't choose to join a stepfamily and they don't deserve to be pulled between family members. Allow them the freedom to love their other parent and go to the other home without a guilt trip. Help your children buy gifts for other family members. And don't set a lot of rules about where gifts are kept or played with. If your child receives a gift he's asked for all year and leaves for Dad's house that afternoon, it's likely he'll want to take it with him.

Start new traditions together and continue to celebrate old ones that fit

Traditions offer a sense of belonging to family members and cement relationships as they're carried out together. Talk to your children about what traditions are important to them and brainstorm ideas of new traditions to start together. Soon after we married, we started a tradition of reading the Christmas story to our children on Christmas Eve to remind them of the reason we celebrate Christmas. Our family also takes time to attend special church services and enjoy a light show together. We also like to decorate the house and bake special goodies for those we love. Traditions are a great way for stepfamilies to create bonds with one another that are strengthened every year as you come together for an established purpose.   
With the right attitude and proactive steps, holidays can be enjoyable and memorable as a stepfamily. There may be bumps along the way, but don't give up on a joyous holiday season.  
Gayla Grace is a freelance writer, and a wife and mom to five children in her blended family. She works hard to create a peaceful stepfamily holiday season.

Gifts Money Can’t Buy

By: Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD
In the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, it’s easy to feel pressured by your kids’ latest material wants. Store displays and commercials have even the youngest kids clambering for bright and shiny new toys. If your child’s wish list adds up to more than you can afford and you’re tempted to spend money you don’t have, give yourself a time out.

“Our kids do want more than material things,” says Betsy Taylor, Founder and President of the Center for a New American Dream in her book What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy. Taylor encourages parents to focus on meeting kids’ deeper wants and needs, instead of getting caught up in the “more is more” consumer culture. Give your kids these gifts money can’t buy – they’ll grow with your kids for a lifetime.


Kids have a lot to share with the world, but our busy work-school routines make meaningful conversations difficult. Talk with your kids about their lives (school, friends, interests, dreams). Invite kids to share their ideas by asking good questions. “What do you think we should do about…?” or “If you could change one thing…?” are helpful conversation starters. Then, listen deeply. Make eye contact with your child. Take it all in without interrupting. Ask follow up questions and share your ideas, too. Kids love to feel important and respected in conversation.


Kids want friends and have a deep need for acceptance. Help your child make new friends or strengthen existing friendships. Welcome your child’s friends into your home by hosting informal play dates or sleepovers. Kids build relationships by sharing experiences, so include kids’ friends in fun family activities, like baking cookies, playing games, or staging a talent show. There’s no need to entertain your kids and their friends every minute, they’ll treasure time to themselves and appreciate your respect for their privacy.

Family Connections

Kids need to feel a part of an extended family network. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings are important figures in kids’ lives. Help your kids connect with far away family members through phone calls or email. Allow kids to make cards or gifts for special relatives. Encourage grandparents, aunts and uncles to spend time with your kids (and without you). Kids’ confidence and self-esteem grow in proportion to the number of caring adults in their lives. Arrange activities to share with cousins and siblings. Family members are friends, too. 

Kid Time

Kids want free time not cluttered by school, homework, have-to-do activities and programs. Help your kids unwind, learn and grow by protecting precious kid time. If their schedules are crowded by extracurricular activities, consider cutting back. Review the amount of homework expected of your child, and be his advocate if necessary. Too much work makes kids tired, cranky and unmotivated. Give kids ample time to play or putter without specific tasks to accomplish.


Kids love the natural world and connect deeply with fields, forests, and animals. As we spend more and more time indoors at school, daycare, and home, kids lose touch with the special magic of the earth. Help your kids reconnect through outdoor play. Visit wild places close to home – lakes and streams, parks and meadows. Build snow forts or collect pine cones together. Watch squirrels scamper. The gift of nature isn’t fancy or expensive, but your children will treasure it just the same.


Like adults, kids want inner peace. They long to understand why things happen and to feel a sense of purpose. Whether or not you belong to a formal religious community, you’ve likely sought calm and connection somehow, sometime. Respect kids’ inner lives and help them think through moral issues. Show gratitude when kids do good things and encourage them to thank others. Create traditions and hold special celebrations to help kids internalize spiritual values. Ritual keeps kids centered.

Opportunities to Change the World

Kids dream of a world where people get along in harmony, everyone has enough to eat, and each unique individual is valued. Help your kids practice service and compassion. Work together to sort used toys or clothing and donate them to charity. Collect canned goods in your neighborhood and deliver them to a food bank. Rake leaves or mow lawns for elderly neighbors and give the proceeds to a local environmental conservancy. Keep track of kids’ contributions so they see the big impact they have on others’ lives.  

Love and affection

More than anything else, kids want to feel loved. They thrive on parents’ undivided attention. Hugs and kisses, tickles and tousles, and pats on the back are especially valued. Don’t wait for a special occasion to show your child how much she’s loved and how proud you are. Slip a special note in your child’s lunchbox or backpack. Ask for one of his very special hugs when you are feeling down. Small and big kids alike want to see and feel love in tangible ways.

As you take time to meet kids’ psychological needs, you’ll build stronger, more resilient family relationships. But kids’ material wants won’t disappear over night Letters to Santa and other gift-giving traditions focus kids’ attention on material things.  

“In the end, we need to help our kids regularly consider if they really want or need any given item – and why,” Taylor concludes. “Perhaps the most fundamental question to instill in your kids is this one: How much is enough?” Be a good role model – don’t buy what you don’t need. Slow down and rediscover life’s simple pleasures with your kids. After all, in the ways that matter, you’re already wealthy beyond measure.    

“It’s Not Fair!” How to Handle Holiday Rivalry

By: Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D.

You shop ‘til you drop for holiday gifts. Then, as the flurry of wrapping and ribbons settles on the living room floor, you hear a shrill, small voice whine, “Mom, she got seven presents and I only got five. It’s not fair!”

Material gifts are no substitute for parental affection. Still, kids make the connection between what parents give and how parents feel. If we teach kids that gift-giving is an expression of caring, it makes sense they’d take note of just how much loot (or love) they receive.

How Much Did I Get?

Kids’ understanding of equity-related concepts like count, cost and kind develop throughout childhood. Young kids think in concrete, egocentric terms. A toddler understands a big piece of cake is better than a small piece. A kindergartener knows seven gifts is more than five. “Young children will be happiest with the same number of gifts, because they’re usually unaware of price,” says Tamara Shulman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who practices in New York City and Clifton, New Jersey. Older kids are more cost-aware and may choose one expensive item they really want over many less-costly ones.

Gift-related gripes are seldom about the material objects themselves, experts say, they’re a reflection of the meaning kids attach to those objects. Fairness concerns express kids’ fears that parents favor one sibling more than another. “Sibling rivalry is developmentally appropriate throughout childhood and into middle adolescence,” says Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with children and families in Los Angeles, Calif. Kids complain when mom takes one child out for ice cream while the other takes her piano lesson. They’re always aware of how much attention they receive.

Rivalry isn’t just a developmental issue. Our society creates and reinforces the expectation that everything needs to be fair, says marriage and family therapist David Simonsen, LMFT, a father of six in Olympia, Washington. Because our culture equates fairness with sameness, kids today learn that everyone gets a trophy, regardless of their performance. When everyone isn’t treated the same, kids may feel they’ve been slighted. 

How Much Did She Get?

“Kids are hypersensitive at holiday time because they’re comparing gift lists with peers at school and with siblings at home,” says Mihalas. Some family situations may exacerbate fairness concerns. For instance, “children of divorced parents may pit parents against one another at holiday time,” says Mihalas. A child may tell mom, “Did you know dad is going to get me a big train?” and tell dad “Did you know mom is getting me a bike?” Blended family dynamics are also tricky. If the non-biological child feels they received less or they received different kinds of gifts – for instance, socks and books instead of an iPod and Uggs – they may resent their more-fortunate step-siblings. Feeling left out may cause kids to act out for attention or to retaliate.

Sometimes parents do discriminate, even unconsciously. “It is important that parents honestly self-evaluate to see if they are showing preferential treatment for one child over the other,” says Leslie Petruk, M.A., LPC, a child and family therapist in Charlotte, NC. Parents may buy ‘better’ gifts for a child whose interests match their own, or buy practical presents for one who needs items like a backpack and bike helmet. Ask each child for a wish list and use it as a shopping guide. Taking kids’ preferences into account makes them feel special.

How to Deal with the Drama

It’s impossible to win the fairness game. Even if you give each child six gifts, spend precisely the same amount, or buy each child a personalized version of the very same item, “children will always be able to find some way in which their sibling was given more, treated differently, or ‘better’ in their view,” says Petruk. If kids raise concerns, don’t get caught up in lengthy discussion of who got more; you’ll only fuel frustrations. Take a detached, inquisitive approach. Ask “how does your gift make you feel?” or “what were you hoping to get?” Kids’ answers can give parents great insight into their feelings about competition and caring.

Hearing kids out doesn’t mean you agree with them. Your goal is to ensure your child feels respected. Reflect her concerns back so she knows you get it, advises Petruk. Say, "It sounds like you feel like your sister got more gifts then you did, and because of that, you feel like mom and dad love her more than we love you." Offer a hug and spend some time one-on-one. Support your child while she wrestles with her feelings.

Resist the urge to smooth over kids’ sorrows or to diminish discontent with make-up gifts. “Kids need to know how to deal with disappointment,” says Simonsen. “Life isn’t fair.” When you’re tempted to give kids more stuff to stop their complaints, ask yourself “what will this look like then they’re teenagers?” A pillow pet may placate a 4-year-old, but teens want computers and cars.  

Don’t let equity issues put a damper on your holiday spirit. “This is a perfect opportunity to have a discussion about your family values regarding material things and your love for your children,” says Shulman. Select thoughtful gifts based on kids’ unique interests and wishes, and tell them you love them more than gifts could ever express.

“Holiday Gifts Any Teacher Will Love (Just Say No to Apple Ornaments!)”

By: Ashley Talmadge

The holiday season is here, and you’d like to give your child’s classroom teacher a special gift. But what do teachers really want? I was a teacher for several years before having my own children, and I’ve spoken to countless other teachers. Yes, most will graciously accept yet another “World’s Greatest Teacher” mug or a mini school bus ornament. But unless the teacher is collecting such items to use in a career-long assemblage project, they are best left on the store shelves. The following are some Can’t-Go-Wrong teacher gift ideas. (And be sure to check school policies, as many districts limit the value and type of gifts received by their employees.)

Personal notes.

A hand-written note, along with a card made by your child is one of the best-loved teacher gifts. Most teachers light up when talking about the “words of wisdom” they’ve collected from students. These are keepsakes, cherished and saved for years to come. If you are writing a letter to your child’s teacher, be specific about what she is doing well. Instead of writing, “You’re a great teacher!” try “I love how you nurture Lucy’s excitement for science with lots of hands-on activities. She always looks forward to writing status notes in the ‘Guinea Pig Log’ when it’s her turn to care for them.” Consider making a copy of your letter for the principal to put in the teacher’s file.

Creative lists.

If your child is young or does not enjoy writing, there are many clever ways to list what he loves about being in his teacher’s class. For instance, cut some construction paper into snowflakes. Attach a word or phrase to each one that describes a favorite classroom experience or teacher trait. Stuff an envelope with several snowflakes and a small (wallet-sized) signed photo of your child.

Gift cards.

Although parents often say this feels like an impersonal gift, teachers love gift cards. They can choose what they want to buy and when. It’s a sad fact that most teachers spend more than $500 of their own money annually in purchasing classroom materials. Thus, gift cards to stores like Target, Staples, and Barnes & Noble are universally appreciated. Unless you know the teacher’s diet and habits well, take care in giving gift cards for food and personal services. Most teachers would welcome a Starbuck’s card, but some might not be as enthused about trying the new hotspot in raw foods cuisine. Similarly, make sure any spa services are flexible—she may look forward to a pedicure with trepidation rather than tranquility.

Food gifts.


While teachers often enjoy edible gifts, food items should be non-perishable and healthy. Energy bars, nuts, and dried fruit are at a premium, because they can be stored and used for quick snacks. A teacher often receives so many homemade cookies and coffee cakes that much is thrown away. And many don’t want to sabotage a diet with an influx of caramel candy.

Class gifts.

Although it takes a bit more planning, there are many benefits to presenting a gift from the whole group. Such a gift can show off the class’s personality, reduce the financial expenditure for individual families, and avoid any pretenses of favoritism. If the group decides to go in on a gift card, the teacher can be presented with much greater buying power. (At only $5 a head, a class of 25 could give a $125 gift card, without violating most district policies.) When coordinating such efforts, it is important that the gift be presented from all students, whether or not they contributed financially, and all students should have a chance to sign the group card.