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.

Another question from www.allexperts.com from a woman named Wendy. Poor Wendy … read on … and DO tell me what YOU think …

Subject: The children’s relationship with a soon-to-be ex

Question: Dear Doctor Becky,

My ex and I have two daughters they are now 7 and 9. Our divorce has been final for over two years, my ex was married again in November of 2008, he is now going through another divorce and planning on marrying again as soon as his divorce is final. His new fiance lives on the other side of the country and an old high school friend.  The girls have met her a few times in the past and have had a full day play date with his new fiance recently.  That aside he is demanding an absolute cut off of contact with his soon to be ex.  She loves the girls and they love her.  She was their mother for over a year.  At the advice of a child psychologist I agreed to assist in slowly "weaning" them off step-mom time, and that the visits would be supervised by me for a while and then the only contact would be e-mail or phone and then eventually no contact. After one supervised visit I felt like the odd man out, there was not negative talk about the girls dad…there was so many other things talk about, and the girls soon to be ex step mom (STBESM) is a child psychologist, doctor level.  So a month later, after the girls cried themselves to sleep and called their STBESM saying they wanted a play date; I scheduled a play date I stayed for about 10-15 minutes and then they all went off to CPK for lunch. Two hours later I met them and we sat for 20 more minutes then off we went. The girls were happy and everything was fine.  Once they got to their dad’s and told him he went ballistic and has now forbid them from ever talking to their STBESM when they are with him again.  I understand he wishes to get on with his life and start his next marriage but I worry terribly about what this will do to the girls. I think they need time to end their ties to their STBESM. I feel like we are dealing with two separate issues here and he just can’t see that.  What do I do now? How do I proceed to allow the girls closure, respect their dad, not build abandonment issues, anxiety and just to do the right thing?


The Mom!

Answer: Hi Wendy,

My how divorce can weave a tangled mess … what could be a neatly wound up ball of yarn ends up hopelessly snarled, snagged and stuck. And who does it hurt? The kids, of course.

I feel badly that you have to co-parent with this moron of a dad. If I was working with your husband I would instruct him to stop being so selfish and fearful, and to step up and do what it is loving — which is to allow his children the space to love their (former) step mom. What do we teach our kids when we "wean" them off of people who are important to them and who cause them no harm? (It’s so awful to ponder that I think I won’t do it.) Because of geography, I would imagine that in time the kids will wean naturally from the step mom … if so, fine, if not, let them stay in touch for goodness’ sake.

But, from reading your letter, I imagine selfishness is part of who this man is. Why else would he march so many women through his girl’s lives? This, and not allowing them to stay in contact with his ex, will teach them not to attach to important people who come along. By the time they start hanging with the newest one they’ll have the attitude, "Why bother?" It’s all so sad.

If I were you, I would throw out what the psychologist said about weaning them — that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard — as if they are animals or objects and not humans. When the kids are with you, allow them "normal" contact with STBESM … unsupervised visits, phone calls, etc. When they are with their dad, he unfortunately may screw them up any way he likes, so long as it is not considered child abuse. Thankfully he has no say over what the kids do when they are with you, so long as it is not harmful to them.

In an ideal world you and your ex could negotiate and work this out, but he doesn’t sound like someone who compromises. All this acrimony will certainly damage the kids, and for that, shame on him. Your children need as much love, support, and caring as they can get, and should not have to feel guilty about who they love.

I hope this helps — good luck!

Doctor Becky