10 Tips to Manage Traditions for Coparents & Stepparents

10 Tips to Manage Traditions for Coparents & Stepparents

Traditions (and rituals) typically give us a sense of belonging and identity, provide us with a connection with families and friends. Ultimately they are a way for us and our loved ones to be a part of each other’s lives.

The importance of traditions lies in the fact that they provide continuity in our lives. Their predictability and familiarity can make us feel safe and connected to people and places who are important to us. This is one thing that doesn’t change after challenging family transitions such as divorce or remarriage. However, they can certainly become a lot trickier to navigate.

So, given the importance of traditions to families and relationships here are my top 10 suggestions about what you can do to cope and/or to find common ground around family traditions following divorce or when a stepfamily comes together.

1. Manage expectations. Despite certain occasions like Christmas being on the same date each year, we all seemed surprised by how quickly the holiday season or celebrations such as Christmas and Easter sneak up on us. Step-couples should try to clarify with one another well in advance of these celebrations what traditions or ritual are expected in each household. Likewise co-parents should also communicate with one another about plans and expectations regarding their children's involvement in any celebrations.  All the adults should check in with the children, In this way the adults can make decisions about how to manage their own, and the children’s expectations about what will or won't be happening on any particular occasion.

2. Be realistic. If the relationship you have with your coparent is tenuous and rocky at the best of times, it pays to temper your expectations and to not expect things to work out just as you hoped (or want them to). The reality is that holiday stress tends not to make people change their personalities, cure incorrigible behaviour or improve a bad attitude! If anything holidays and special occasions like Easter and Christmas, have a way of exposing the underlying, hidden complexities within families.

3. Don't get caught up in things needing to be the same or celebrated in the same way and at the same time and place as they have always been. Presents can be opened with the same excitement in the afternoon as they can be in the morning. Ham tastes just as good on Boxing Day. Easter eggs can be lost and found and eaten multiple times and on multiple days. Perhaps if a compromise around the actual event can't reached, accept it might now be a bi-annual celebration e.g. if a changeover on a Easter Sunday or Christmas day is difficult and/or involves significant travel being undertaken by your children consider alternating holidays and years to maintain balance and predictability.

4. Be flexible with scheduling. In the lead up to special occasions and holidays, if parents and stepparents stubbornly hold their position and refuse to be flexible and consider alternatives, all too often battle lines are drawn, pitting parent against parent, adult against child or those biologically related against those that aren’t. This doesn’t solve anything and just tends to make everyone miserable, tense and resentful.

5. Rather than arguing over which tradition means more or is more important to whom, use it as an opportunity create a new tradition within your household or stepfamily that is unique, purposeful and holds meaning for you and your children. Within stepfamilies this might involve combining elements from each family's past or inventing entirely new rituals that become uniquely yours. From special meals to unique ways of acknowledging achievements, new traditions can weave a sense of togetherness into the fabric of your family, be it single/solo parent family or stepfamily.

6. Make it meaningful. When considering introducing a new tradition, you should first ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of it? What do I hope our children/stepchildren or our family will get out of it?” Do you want to instil a certain family value with the tradition? Perhaps family solidarity, inclusion or unity is what you’re aiming for? The answers to these questions will help ensure you develop meaningful family traditions and not trying to do things for the sake of doing something.

7. Be sensitive to the individual experiences, perspectives and feelings of all members of your family and realize that mixed reactions are common. For a stepchild, being with mum means not being with dad. Just because everyone in your family always goes to Nana’s for Christmas day lunch, that tradition likely holds little meaning for a new partner and their children, not least because they may not yet have established an emotional tie to your extended family.

8. Don’t go overboard and take it slow. There can be a temptation in the early years of stepfamily formation or immediately post-divorce to go crazy with traditions and seek to make things perfectly perfect. Let’s face it, there are loads of great traditions and rituals out there and you may have dreamed of doing them all! Don’t fall into that trap. Start slow and pick a few, try few on for size. Traditions are one of those areas where quality beats quantity every time.

9. For stepfamilies, unity with your partner is crucial. Bringing family and friends together to celebrate special occasions or milestones doesn’t guarantee that everyone is on their best behaviour or that everyone will be happy. But what should be guaranteed is that you and your partner will endeavour to stick together and stick up for one another. If the in-laws or members of extended families, make snide comments, disrespectful remarks or seek to exclude any member of your family, politely speak up and offer your spouse support. Saying nothing implies unity with the person making the offending comment. The best tradition a stepcouple can implement is knowing that you each have one another’s backs!

10. Wherever possible, be inclusive. Especially if its someone’s first special occasion in this situation or without a loved one. Make sure everyone (be they adult, child or teenager) gets something of what they need or that makes this occasion or holiday special for them.

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