The Reason for the Season

All the traveling and complying with both custody matters and family traditions can make it difficult to focus on the true meaning of the holidays. “We spread ourselves so thin trying to get everyone where they need to be, and we end up diluted,” said Kathy St. Romain, a divorced mother of two who is currently in a long-term relationship. “We don’t get to spend much time together with just us.”

Competitive gift giving also can interfere with focusing on the meaning behind the holiday, as when one parent gives a spectacular gift that the other parent can’t afford — or would never approve.

Engel has seen situations in which there is a disparity between the types of gifts given to biological children or grandchildren and stepchildren or step-grandchildren, and this can be devastating to the children involved. “We recommend that parents or grandparents save this largesse for separate times or birthdays away from the stepfamily environment,” she said.

Grandparents in particular don’t necessarily have to spend the same amount of money on a step-grandchild as a biological grandchild, she says, but they should take into account the feelings of all who will be present when the gifts are open.

If you are blindsided in any way by an unexpected gift, Engel recommends discussing the situation with the child right away. Don’t ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ultimately, with planning, flexibility and a sturdy sense of humor, any family can learn to enjoy the holidays, even with the presence of nagging imperfections, Engel says. For some kids, there may even be a silver lining. “The kids know that they may not get to have Christmas with Mom and Dad in the same room, but they do get to have three separate Christmases,” St. Romain said. “With all the rough times they’ve been through, I wonder if they see this as a bonus.”

And Engel points out that stepfamilies — and all families — have two powerful tools at their disposal. “Basic courtesy and thoughtfulness — if they exist, then most problems disappear.”