A family holiday 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.
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 she’s an expert not because of her advanced education, but because she has created a blended family of her own.
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“I have two biological kids and three stepchildren,” says Cress-Dudley, who lives in North Carolina. “We are a fully blended family now, but it was a bumpy road.” Less bumpy for her kids then 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.”
It 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,” said Shirley. “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 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.”
Another challenge for blended families during the holiday season is the need for travel.
“It can really get crazy this time of year,” said 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.”
Shirley 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.”
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,” she 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,” said Shirley. “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.
- 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
Blended Family Travel
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.”