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How Blended Families Make the Holidays Work

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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When we think of blended families in the U.S. we often forget we have an iconic example of a blended family that was mainstream, popular, and widely accepted by the public as a new norm in our society – and that was 50 years ago.

Can you name the family?

If you guessed instantly that I’m talking about the Brady Bunch, we know at least one thing about you.

You’re a child of the 70s.

But seriously: the fact the Brady Bunch existed in the 70s means that by now, blended families should not be a new idea to anyone. However, we have one, very, very important question about the Brady Bunch we want answered:

How on Earth did they have access to Zoom for the title sequence?

We kid!

Now, seriously, we want to talk about blended families and how they manage the holiday season. With regards to the Brady Bunch – and respect for paving the way in pop culture – we need to point out to everyone that there is not one type of blended family.

Blended Family Dynamics

Blended family types are diverse and complex. The most straightforward situation is where two divorced adults with kids decide to get married, live under one roof, and create a new family – the iconic Brady Bunch deal.

Most of us stop there when we think about blended families.

In that situation, though, there are things we don’t consider – and things the TV show barely, if ever, addresses. For instance, what happened to the former spouses? And what about their former spouse’s relatives? They all qualify as part of the blended family – right?

When you think about it that way, you realize blended families aren’t simple at all. Let’s take an example that’s not farfetched:

Say a couple with two kids divorces on good terms. They co-parent and work together. Before the divorce, holidays involved the two parents and their two parents – we’ll exclude aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews for now. Pre-divorce, we’re taking six adults involved in holiday plans. Now, let’s say each parent remarries, and each new spouse has two kids. You now have two blended families with four kids each. Add the new spouses, which brings us to four kids and eight adults (don’t forget the original grandparents) to think about over the holidays.

Because the original couple wants to include everyone – it’s a family, after all – they want to find a way to make it happen. Then they realize that their new spouses also have new spouses, both with two kids. The count jumps to ten adults and eight kids. But don’t forget the ex-spouses’ new spouse’s parents, which brings us to fourteen adults and eight kids.

Now consider this: we’re not including aunts and uncles. Or the fact that the grandparents may have divorced and remarried.

It Gets Complicated

At this point, a flow chart would help – but we’ll stop there, because we think you get the point. A 21st century blended family probably looks a lot different than the Brady Bunch. You may think, “Well sure, in that example above, all those people are family, but they’re not going to live under one roof, so what’s the issue?”

The issue at hand is not figuring out how they can all live under one roof. It’s how everyone that loves those kids – let’s back all the way up to the original two kids – can share the holidays with them. Rather than a flow chart, what we need to create is a Venn diagram where all the categories of relative overlap with those two kids. Probably impossible, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when family members live everywhere from Tampa to Tarrytown to Temecula to Terra-Haute to Tacoma. Therefore, we won’t try.

Instead, we’ll give you the latest statistics on blended families in the U.S., as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Then we’ll get to our top tips to help blended families make the holidays work. Here’s what the census data says:

Marriage, Remarriage, and Blended Families in the US

  • There are around 62 million married couples in the U.S.
  • There are around 32 million remarried couples in the U.S.
  • Of those remarriages, 22 million involve children under the age of 18.
  • 16% of children in the U.S. live in a blended family

Let’s break those numbers down. 22 million remarriages mean 44 million adults, and 16 percent of children under the age of 18 means around 12 million children. When we apply the simple divorce-remarriage-blend scenario above to these numbers, the numbers get out of hand fast. Add the grandparents and suddenly you have over 200 million adults involved in a blended family scenario – and almost all of them want to see at least one of those 12 million blended family children during the winter holidays this year.

That’s why we write articles like this. Blended families are everywhere, they come in all shapes and sizes, and virtually all of them will navigate and negotiate an equitable solution to sharing the family time during the holidays.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: our top tips for blended families.

Five Holiday Tips for Blended Families

These tips are suggestions we hope will help the millions (!) of people out there have as stress-free a holiday season as possible. Because this year, stress across the board is off the charts. The pandemic, the election, the winter wave of the pandemic, the post-election drama – all more than enough to make steam come out of anyone’s ears. With all that going on, we want to help you create the conditions where family time is a refuge from the default stress in our country and does not add to your stress at all. It’s possible – but you have to commit to it and do some work to make it happen.

Ready? Here’s our list:

1. Kids First

Call a family meeting and talk through what everyone wants and expects from the holidays, especially the kids. Sometimes adults make things unnecessarily complicated, and a simple word from the kids can cut through the fluff. When parents include kids in planning, they feel ownership and a sense of importance. It reinforces their identity, their place, and often, they have great ideas that parents would never consider.

2. Respect Traditions

Some families have Christmas dinner at 4:00 pm, and some have it at 2:00 pm, and some don’t do Christmas dinner. Some families exchange presents on Christmas morning, while others dive in on Christmas Eve. Most families like to do it the way they did it when the parents were kids, so each new family ends up creating a tradition that’s a blend (there’s that word) of the two parents’ ideas. Be mindful that everyone has their own idea of how to do the holidays, and every idea is as valid as any other.

3. Communicate Clearly, Early, and Often

It may seem like overkill to plan the days out in detail ahead of time, it’s smart to talk with your new spouse and your ex-spouse and plan it out. A good plan that everyone agrees on means no surprises and everyone knows what to expect. You don’t have to be rigid about your plan, but having one in place can make things easier for everyone involved. It also helps to double-check, as the holidays days approach, to make sure everyone is still on the same page.

4. Try New Things

If this is your first year doing the blended family holiday, it will help to recognize that you’re creating a brand new family unit, not just patching two families together like they’re panels on a quilt. Creativity is key. Think of fun and ridiculous things to do on the holidays. This year, with the restrictions in place related to the coronavirus pandemic, offbeat outings to public events might not be able to happen – but that means that you get to create your own rituals – and the kids will probably remember this year more than other, because it is, indeed, a novel and unprecedented year.

5. Be Flexible

As the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” To that we add, “You may have to work on letting go.” Sometimes making things work means compromise. It might mean giving up something that feels important in order to keep everyone happy. If you get anxious or angry about a detail, take a step back and ask yourself the question that applies so often to parenting and divorce: “Is this battle worth fighting?”

You’ll find that most of the time, fighting is not worth it. Therefore, this year, we urge everyone to time travel back in time to 2013 and take a cue from Elsa in Frozen: let it go.

Teach Your Kids Cooperation and Compromise

Remember what matters here is that everyone in your family has a meaningful holiday experience filled with love and gratitude. Resist the urge to compare this year to last year. Or any year, for that matter. We strongly encourage anyone reading this article to follow the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about holiday travel and holiday gatherings. If you do follow this guidance, that means the pandemic will determine how a lot of your holiday will happen. That’s not ideal for any of us, but we want to point out that you set the tone for your kids, and your commitment to creating the spirit of the holidays is the most important factor of all.

The pandemic does not stop the holidays – but it does change them.

When kids see you create holiday rituals under these less than ideal circumstances and watch you work proactively with the entire blended family to create a positive, loving, and caring atmosphere that exemplifies the spirit of the holidays, they’ll take that lesson forward. They’ll remember the positive example set by the adults in their lives, whether those adults are their biological parents, stepparents, or in another category. They’ll learn about the importance of maintaining family holiday traditions. Best of all, they’ll carry these lessons forward into their lives, and when they look back at December 2020, they’ll remember how you made it happen: with resilience, cooperation, compromise, and of course, generous helpings of love.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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