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A family vacation used to involve mom, dad, 2.3 kids and maybe a dog. But the nearly 20 million blended families in the United States are causing that image to shift and presenting new challenges for traveling with kids. Here, an expert in blended families — who has one of her own — shares her tips for creating new traditions for your new family and perfecting the stepfamily vacation.
Shirley Cress-Dudley, who holds a master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling, has made a career out of coaching blended families and has written a book, Blended Family Advice. But her expertise isn’t limited to her education. She’s learned on the job — as the mom in a blended family
“I have two biological kids and three stepchildren,” says Cress-Dudley. “We are a fully blended family now, but it was a bumpy road.”
Less bumpy for her kids than for her stepchildren.
“My kids had spent most of their lives with a single mom,” she says. “They were used to separate households. My stepchildren were coming from a home where their parents had been married for 20 years. Naturally, their reaction was very different.”
Building a Blended Family Takes Patience
Shirley’s stepchildren brought a significant amount of fear and resentment to the table, thus it took time and patience to blend the family.
“I understood why they were so unhappy,” Cress-Dudley says. “They were worried that their father’s affection would somehow be transferred from them to me.”
She offered her stepchildren one piece of advice: “My husband and I kept reiterating to them that there was nothing they could do to change the situation. What they could do, though, and what they were in control of, was their reaction to it.”
As a mother, stepmother and professional counselor, Shirley dispenses a wealth of practical advice with regard to children in blended families.
“You can’t expect a blended family to gel just like that,” she says. “It takes time, and even then it’s not a guarantee. Maybe they’ll be friends and maybe they won’t. The important thing is to keep preaching kindness and overall respect.”
Creating New Blended Family Holiday Traditions
To help encourage the process, Shirley recommends creating blended family traditions, particularly around the holidays.
“Kids will naturally resist being a part of something that was created before they arrived,” Cress-Dudley says. “So it’s important to create holiday traditions – things that are just theirs.”
Christmas dinner, for example.
“A few years ago, my husband and I decided to introduce a unique Christmas menu. The kids had all been shuttling between households and eating lots of the typical holiday stuff – turkey, stuffing, etc. So for Christmas that year, we went with North Carolina seafood. They loved it. Couldn’t wait to do it again the next year.”
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Stepfamily Holiday Challenges
Another challenge for blended families during the holiday season is the need for travel.
“It can really get crazy this time of year,” says Shirley. “My family alone involves my kids, my ex-husband’s kids, my current husband’s kids, and my current husband’s ex-wife’s kids. Now try to figure out where they all need to be and when – it’s a real challenge.”
She recommends that parents work together to make holiday plans well in advance while reminding the kids that the actual date is not that important.
“Everybody wants the kids on the holiday. But as blended families, we need to let go of that. And help our kids let go of it, too. Emphasize to them that the day is not what matters. And point out that unlike traditional families, they get to celebrate each holiday multiple times.”
Talk about the Pain
Children sometimes have trouble expressing their emotions. Little ones may act out because they are not able to express their feelings. For younger children, it’s helpful for parents to talk to them and explain that: “I know things are different this year, and everything’s a bit unfamiliar. Your mom and I still love you very much. The holidays will be different, and we aren’t married anymore, but you are still loved.”
Older kids and teenagers may be able to discuss their feelings. They may ask if mom and dad can celebrate the holidays together. This is particularly true if the parents have not remarried. It can be very confusing for the kids, who are left with the impression that mom and dad could reunite one day.
Don’t celebrate together unless both parents have remarried and you are able to have a happy, civil holiday together.
Ex-Spouses Get Emotional Too
Your ex-spouse may also be sensitive around the holidays. Small events, such as changing the visitation schedule by a couple of hours may set your ex-spouse into a tizzy.
Take a deep breath, and don’t get defensive. Remember that everyone has heightened emotions around the holidays. Try to communicate by text or email, instead of picking up the phone to hear an ex-spouse yelling on the line.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Everything will not work out perfectly. The kids may transition to your home late, the turkey may not cook completely, or your ex-spouse may even sabotage your holiday meal by stuffing the kids with sweets right before dropping them off at your house.
It’s OK. Really. Just try to relax. Life isn’t normally perfect, so don’t expect your holidays to be completely perfect either.
It Gets Easier
As the years pass, it will become easier and easier for your blended family to celebrate the holidays together. Children will learn what’s expected of them, memorize the rotation (Am I at mom or dad’s house the week before Christmas?) and become accustomed to celebrating with their stepsiblings and stepparents.
Stepfamily Vacation Challenges
But as children from blended families visit several households, these celebrations can involve significant amounts of travel.
“My kids have been traveling independently since they were very young,” Shirley says. “They used to fly from Texas to North Carolina to see their dad when they were just 6 and 4.”
Cress-Dudley admits those trips always made her nervous. “I didn’t want them to feel my anxiety,” she says. “So instead of telling them a thousand times to be careful, I talked about how much fun they were going to have with their dad and how grown up they were to be flying all by themselves.”
But there are certain precautions that need to be taken, particularly with young children traveling asunaccompanied minors.
- choose nonstop flights
- make sure that the tags on their children’s luggage have the correct destination information
- walk children to the plane’s gate, escorting them onto the plane if possible
5 Tips for a Blended Family Vacation
But what about traveling together? What happens when a blended family decides to take a vacation?
“There have to be boundaries,” she says. “It’s a successful experience when everybody has their space. You can’t expect step-siblings to be together all the time – that doesn’t tend to work with biological siblings let alone blended families.”
Cress-Dudley also advises that children spend some time alone with their biological parent.
“It’s fine to split up for a bit,” she says. “If my husband wants to take his kids on a separate outing while we’re on vacation, there’s nothing wrong with that. One-on-one time between parent and child is important. Just as long as the child understands that being together as a blended family is important as well.”
Above all, she recommends letting things unfold as they will.
“There’s no need to overdo it. Lots of times, non-custodial parents will get overly extravagant with their kids while on vacation. But that doesn’t make a lasting impression. Kids don’t remember how you spent your money. They remember how you spent your time.”
Cress-Dudley says these five tips will help smooth the rough waters of stepfamily vacations.
1. Keep it Short
In your first five years, I wouldn’t recommend jumping in the van or camper and traveling around the U.S. for three weeks. Your kids will either kill each other, or you’ll want to start tossing them out of the car at the gas stops. Spring break is usually a week, but you don’t need to devote the entire week to being out of town with your entire blended family.
Giving your children some down time after the trip is helpful. In addition, if you are in close quarters for an entire week, it’s tough for anyone to maintain a great relationship, especially blended or step families.
2. Keep it Fair
If you have a stepfamily with various scattered spring breaks, then you may not be able to plan a time for everyone to be together. That’s all right, but you do need to make sure that you treat each child fairly and equally.
If you take your school age kids to the beach, for example, then don’t forget to plan a trip (or for older kids, pay for a trip) to the beach.
3. Keep it Balanced
If your stepfamily is lucky enough to have similar schedules so you can take the whole family for a vacation, keep it balanced. There’s no need to spend every waking moment together. Plan a balance of couple time, alone time, family time and parent/child time. You can also mix it up and have all girls do an activity while the boys do an alternate activity.
A cruise is great for some family time, and also allows your family to separate and do what interests them during the day.
Here’s how it went during my stepfamily’s spring break cruise vacation: At breakfast, we would each plan our day, then go our separate ways until lunchtime, when we met again to connect. After lunch, everyone was on his or her own again until dinner. Each child had a copy of my schedule, so if they needed me, they could find me.
During the day, my kids all gravitated to their individual areas of interest. My introverted teenage daughter enjoyed curling up in front of a large window, gazing at the water while reading her favorite novel, getting manicures or meeting me for a cooking class. My teenage boy enjoyed anything that was active — playing ping pong, swimming in the pool, working out and running around the track, while rotating through the buffet line every 30 minutes or so to fill his teenage hunger.
We all had a wonderful spring break, but each of us returned home with family stories and also tales of our individual experiences.
4. Keep to the Budget
Prepare a budget and stick to it. Kids truly don’t judge your love by the amount of money you spend. Saying “no” is OK; it’s more than OK, it’s good parenting.
Life isn’t easy, and our children won’t be able to have everything they want, when they want it when they’re adults. Talk with your children about the budget and your expectations of what activities you will be able to enjoy, and what might need to wait for another trip.
5. Keep a Record
Take many candid, fun photos. You are building memories for your family. When you get home, print them and put them in an album, scrapbook or even a collage frame.
These family trips will help bond your family, and create a group of people with a shared story, a shared experience in their lives.