During a stepfamily event I was leading, one man confided in me about the growing tension in his family. "My mom refuses to treat my stepchildren the same as her grandchildren. Last Christmas, she bought my children very expensive electronic gifts, and my wife's children got T-shirts and a coloring book. My wife is hurt and furious, and I don't blame her. I'm starting to dread the holiday season."
Ken felt torn between loyalty to his biological family and his newly formed stepfamily. Unfortunately, his experience is too common. Here are a few suggestions for coping with extended-family favoritism:
Start with communication. Many extended family members don't fully understand the unique dynamics of a stepfamily. You can help by clearly explaining these complexities. In Ken's case, I advised him to discuss with his mother why favoritism in gift giving cannot be tolerated — how hurtful it is for stepchildren when they feel they're treated as less significant than the biological children. When the family recognizes the pain they're causing, they're often willing to change.
Acknowledge the loss. All stepfamilies are formed out of loss. A death or divorce has occurred, and that means grief for everyone — even extended family members. In their grief, some people may lash out when they believe no one comprehends their pain. By acknowledging their wounds, you can help family members accept the stepfamily situation. Admitting and verbalizing the loss extended family members experienced improves the chances of mending the situation. In some situations, giving grandparents special time alone with their grandkids after the holidays might help.
Expect respect. No one can force another person to love a newly formed family. Sometimes, even when people know they're hurting someone, they're not willing to change their behavior. But respect toward all family members is essential.
I suggested to Ken that if his mother continued to blatantly show favoritism, Ken would have to put boundaries around his family. This might even mean not visiting his mother on Christmas day.
Though your Christmas may not be perfectly free from tension, your family can still experience the joy of the season. And harmony in a stepfamily can be possible with communication, compassion and prayer.
Laura Petherbridge is co-author of The Smart Stepmom: Practical steps to help you thrive .
This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Laura Petherbridge. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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