A step parent can make or break a successful family holiday.

Impudent step daughter, unreachable video gaming step son, and your spouse’s ex who doesn’t help the situation at all. No one told you how hard step parenting would be, but they should have. I always tell my clients considering marriage to a person who already has kids, it’s going to take a huge heart and nerves of steel to be successful at it.

With a blended family and you will have problems that intact families do not have. Step kids – or steps – can vary widely in age – some involve babies and toddlers and others, teens or even grown children. Therapists know that relationships between the non-bio moms and non-bio dads and their step kids are likely to involve land mines of sensitive feelings and resentments, no matter the age. Combine that with immaturity, and, well, I’m about to help you with that.

First, understand that being a step parent is a choice, and if you decided to take this difficult challenge on, you must bring your best self to the table, no matter how old the kids are. Whether you are older or younger than they are, you must be the one, the adult, who sets the standard of respectful behavior toward the ones who gained you as a family member through marriage. Steps can and will stoop to low levels of behavior, though you must not.

Now, think about what it is like for a child to have his or her parent bring a new person into their family. Most children would like to have their parent to themselves, without that intrusion, but they tolerate the step parent because they want their mom or dad to be happy. It may take years for a child to feel comfortable and warm to this new person being around, or it may never happen. The only thing a step parent can do is be graceful, let it be what it is, and don’t try to force things.

Now, with that in mind, here is a list of step-dos and don’ts that will help you now and throughout the years.

General step do’s and don’ts that will ultimately help you through the holidays and other times:

Don’t make them call you mom or dad, don’t have expectations. If they are blatantly ugly to you, simply tell them that these words are hurtful to you and you are always open to a warmer relationship.

Don’t talk about their mom or dad or the divorce. Whether it is your spouse or the ex, don’t infer, insinuate, or say directly anything at all about their parents. Most steps are fiercely loyal, so nothing good will come from it. Allow them to display photos of their parent in your home. If they talk about their parents to you, validate them and stay neutral. If the parent is deceased, allow them to honor that parent however they see fit.

Don’t bribe. If you think you can buy a step child’s love, you’re wrong. They will be happy to take what you offer, but then they will only think of you in terms of what you can give them. Let them get to know you, the person, so they can bond with that instead.

Do adopt the stance of a kindly friend and inspirational coach. If the children are older than 9, a stepparent should let the natural parent do the parenting, and the two of you can discuss what that is going to look like when the children aren’t around. Stepparents must be respectful, gentle and kind with the children that are not theirs. Even if the children are not responsive in the beginning, keep maintaining an adult, respectful stance. If they are unkind and land an arrow through your heart, tell them so: “Wow, you refusing to talk to me really hurts my heart. I so want to be your friend. I am ready and willing when you are.”

Treat stepchildren equally even though it is impossible. Just do your best to treat every child the same, be attentive and interested in who they are. Try to learn what scratches each child’s itch when it comes to love languages … usually it’s quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service or gifts. Little ones may love hugs. Make a point to pay attention to them when they speak, to comment on what they say, to point out positive things you hear, and to be a fan of who they are becoming. Within the home, create a space for each child that is theirs and is made special for them.

Now, for a holiday idea that will help blended families get off to a great start.

When everyone is together for any length of time, begin with a family meeting. The tone of this will be fun and friendly. Bio and step parents should be in the best of moods and express their excitement and appreciation of the opportunity to be together. Each spouse could present a small token gift to each stepchild with a short comment about how and why they chose the gift, and what it means to have that child there today. (Keep it under $20). Once the parents are done, have each child do the same – if the children are young the bio parent can help. The children could present something they made or even a drawing. This will be a wonderful icebreaker and family ritual you could do each year. After the ritual, have a friendly discussion of rules and expectations – stress respect, and tell them what that looks and sounds like. Tell them things such as, bring your best self to the party or remove yourself to a place within the area where you can work out your bad feelings if you have them. Reassure everyone that your goal is for everyone to enjoy themselves.

The step parent role is one of the hardest any person could have. Patience and grace will serve you well in the long term. I have seen the most stubborn rejecting step children melt over the years and finally embrace their step parent as someone they love and cherish, simply because that person was persistently patient, interested and caring.

Doctor Becky Whetstone is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and former journalist, writing for the San Antonio Express-News. She specializes in marriage and mid life crisis, individual struggles, and helping people learn how to have healthy relationships. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Avoiding in law holiday disaster: Your spouse visiting your family’s house.

If you take your partner to your family’s house for the holidays, you better have their back.

One thing young American couples have in common is that in the first years of their marriage, they usually continue past Christmas traditions with each other’s families, often going back and forth from year-to-year or in one day if they live nearby, as the young bride and groom have not yet stepped into the stage of life where they become the matriarch and patriarch of their own family. Since our families come in all shapes and sizes, we will be dealing within a range from the most un-regimented, accepting, free and easy families to the rigid, nasty, boundary-less, rule-filled and judgmental kind. So, each new spouse needs to have an awareness of what they are dealing with, and that is why a pre-visit conversation should take place between the young pair that includes:

1. Understanding home family customs, traditions, expectations, and foibles. What are the family’s quirks and eccentricities? What do they love, what do they hate? Are they generally accepting of others? Should certain subjects be avoided? A discussion on how the visiting spouse can have the best time and have the most successful visit should be discussed.

2. Will we stay in the home with the family? If there is any question of how the new spouse will be treated, hotel, Air BNB reservations, or a request to stay at someone else’s house should be made. Protecting your new spouse from your family is a huge bond builder and is what any spouse hoping to have a thriving marriage must do. Think this way: I value my spouse’s comfort over my family’s, because when your married, your spouse comes first.

3. Home spouse must lay the groundwork prior to the visit with their family. The home spouse should speak with his/her family prior to the visit and get the lay of the land, set expectations and boundaries, and if necessary, let their family know that no family funny business will be tolerated when it comes to the visiting spouse. Treat the spouse respectfully, period. Once there, if the family blames, judges or negatively interacts with the new spouse, to their face or behind their back, the home spouse will always protect, defend, and side with the new spouse. If anyone talks to the home spouse about the visiting spouse negatively, the conversation is immediately shut down.

4. Do not succumb to home family pressure and control. During the visit, the couple should make decisions together about what they want and are willing to do, and then the home spouse is the spokesperson who sets the boundary. I strongly believe that if you are not able to set boundaries based on your partnership’s best interest, you aren’t ready to be successfully married.

5. Remember the Golden Rule. The wise old biblical rule of, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is a wonderful guide to use when in doubt of what to do.

6. If it doesn’t go well. If, despite all your efforts, you and/or your spouse have a miserable time, don’t return a second time. Seriously. Part of growing up is to be able to stand in opposition to your family when they do not treat you and your family right. When you can do this, it means you are growing up.

By now it should be obvious that in a new marriage, a new spousal unit must be protected at all cost. A visiting spouse must have certainty that no matter what goes on in the home spouse’s family, he or she will have their back. At the same time, a home spouse also needs to know that the visiting spouse will also be kind, open, friendly, pleasant, respectful and helpful to his or her family while there. If you married someone where this is a concern, then good luck, because personal self-control and diplomacy are two qualities that help make marriages work, and lacking those qualities is a predictor of bad things to come. Also, I have seen spouses in my practice who insisted on the holidays being spent at their family’s house always, and they were not flexible on the subject. This presents all sorts of problems that are deeper than just the holidays alone and speaks to the person’s emotional immaturity, so sometimes the holidays show us who are spouse really is, or isn’t. Luckily, immaturity is a fixable thing.

Huffington Post blogger Brittany Wong recently quoted Dr. Becky in an article focusing on the discussions couples need to have before getting married:


It may not be the sexiest way to spend a Saturday night, but discussing big-ticket relationship issues like family planning, money and monogamy could be the best way for couples to stave off a future split.

In fact, the ability to broach big, difficult conversations early on is one of the most important qualities in a new relationship, said Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.,

“You can’t know how you work through disagreements until you have them,” she told HuffPost. “Disagreeing, arguing and fighting about these things will reveal what’s really important to you both. And knowing how your partner will handle conflict is almost just as important.”

What thorny conversations are crucial? Below, marriage therapists and psychologists share their top 10 picks.

The talk about what you want to change about each other. (Be honest, you know you want to.)

“A lot of partners enter marriage with a secret hope that something will change about their partner: He’ll spend less time with his friends when we’re building a family, she’ll spend less money shopping when we’re in this together, I’ll get him to cut back on his drinking. Holding on to these silent hopes can be very destructive to the long-term health and happiness of your marriage. Disclosing them before marriage can actually foster the change you want in a more effective way.”― Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling men

The money talk.

“You need to have a long, potentially difficult discussion about money. Go over a few things: Will one or both of you work? What will your general approach to money management be? Will you save every penny, adopt a spend-it-while-we-have-it attitude or have a more middling approach? Many people operate with a ‘we’ll figure it out together as we go’ approach and while that may work if the couple has similar thoughts on finances, if they don’t, it can lead to a relationship war. One party may feel like like their style is forever being cramped, while the other may feel that their partner is leading the family towards financial ruin.” ― Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based relationship therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University

The sex talk.

“If you suspect your partner’s need for sexual intimacy doesn’t match yours, don’t overlook it. You might want to believe it’s an insignificant issue or once you get married it will work itself out, but sex should be easiest in the first couple years of any relationship. If you’re unsure of your sexual compatibility now, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have problems in the bedroom later on when kids and life enter the picture. Sex is the one thing that cannot be outsourced in marriage. Problem with division of labor? Hire out for help. Different needs for social relationships? One partner joins a club and the other stays home. Sexual frustration is unique because it can only be solved within the marriage. Resentment grows and the higher libido partner will eventually feel betrayed by their partner’s lack of interest. The end result? Festering resentment and, often, the belief that infidelity is justified.” ― Caroline Madden, a marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California

The personal space talk.

“Discuss your need for time alone, or apart from one another. People often overlook this topic initially but after the intense bonding of the early stages, one or both of them may want a bit of time to themselves, or time apart as they go out with friends. If this isn’t discussed beforehand, one partner may feel ditched or jealous, or one of them could begin to feel suffocated and start building resentments. A conversation early on about the normal desire to have some time alone could help distinguish individual needs for solitude from rejection, and allow partners to ask for alone time when they need it and enjoy the time they spend together even more.” ― Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California

The talk about kids.

“It’s so important for a couple to have a straightforward, candid conversation, not only about whether they in fact want to have children, but their beliefs and values about navigating the parenting journey. Do either or both have rigid ideas about waiting to start the process or plunging right in? Do either have strong beliefs about infertility treatments or adoption, should there be difficulty conceiving? Has there been a discussion about religious beliefs and expectations about the religious upbringing of the child? Go over it all.” ― Linda Lipshutz, a psychotherapist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

The talk about how you’ll raise those kids.

“I see couples’ getting into power struggles a lot about raising kids ‘their way’ because they believe it’s the ‘right way’ with complete disregard for their partner’s preference and perspective. Having parents on the same team (knowing that it often takes work to get there) is imperative to the mental health and well being of children. Ask: Do you share the same core values? Do you agree on what qualities and behaviors from your own families you want to borrow and which you don’t?” ― Megan Fleming, a New York City-based psychologist and sex therapist

The monogamy talk.

“Most couples do want a monogamous marriage; however, monogamy can mean different things to different people, and without an honest conversation it is easy to imagine that your fiancé shares your views. Dig deeper, though: Are you comfortable with your soon-to-be spouse grabbing dinner with an ex who is in town on business? Are you comfortable with private or public friendships with an ex on social media? What about colleagues of the opposite sex? Will you be comfortable if you both have work that involves travel with attractive colleagues? And how might you want to navigate such situations if they arise? What if one of you develops a crush? It can be helpful to explore hypothetical challenges to monogamy through honest conversations before marriage.” ― Elisabeth J. LaMotte, a psychotherapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center

The talk about family traditions and rituals.

“Rituals are not only traditions around major holidays, but how you spend your weekends or how you should (or shouldn’t) eat together during dinnertime: Have you always sat at the table as a family or is it fine to eat separately or in front of the TV? By having these discussions before they happen, you can also stand as a united front if you get any push back from your parents about changes to family traditions. Having these discussions can help you recognize your similarities, make room for your differences and create your own culture as a married couple.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois

The talk about how you’ll handle future problems.

“You both need to know that your partner will do whatever is necessary to deal with future obstacles in the relationship, be it physical, emotional, mental or financial. For instance, if your partner gets depression or develops an anxiety disorder, many spouses would choose to not have it treated, or to ignore it or to mask it with medications or alcohol. Each person needs to know that the other will work to clear any obstacles that come along to the best of their ability. If the marriage falters, will you go to counseling with me and stick with it to work it out? We all need to know that our partner is action-oriented as opposed to being a person who sweeps things under the rug or just says, ‘This is me, deal with it.’” ― Becky Whetstone, a marriage family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas

The “what’s your ideal marriage?” talk.

“Every premarital couple needs to clearly outline their expectations for themselves, their partner and the marriage they desire early on in the relationship and continue that conversation well into the marriage. Resentment creeps into relationships when you feel you are owed something, have been treated unfairly and is a mixture of disappointment, anger and fear. To that end, be vigilant: Set the bar high for your marriage and for yourself and stay in constant conversation about how you are staying the course. ― Laura Heck, a marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah

Original article posted on July 19, 2017 by Brittany Wong at Huffington Post.