It's holiday time--or helliday time, depending on your situation. For the millions of stepfamilies and remarriages with children and adult children in the US, the holidays may mean lots of extra pressure and stress.

At this time of year especially, when college students are likely returning to the nest for a week or two, those whose parents are divorced may be feeling conflicted about how much time to spend with mom, and how much time to spend with dad. If only dad is repartnered, kids of any age may feel they have to spend more time with mom, less with dad and stepmom--"because mom's alone and dad's not." Many are the stories of kids who boycott one parent holiday after holiday, out of a misplaced sense of "loyalty" to mom.

Meanwhile, the therapists who work with them know that the holidays tend to bring out the guilt and sadness in divorced dads, who may feel more acutely the imperfection of relations with their kids at holiday time owing to all the tinsel-time hype. Stepmoms, for their part--even those whose stepkids are young adults or adults--may feel especially compelled to engineer a "real family" type feeling over the holidays. And often they're dealing with stepkids who resent them and their efforts, blame them for their parents' divorce, or have otherwise yet to come to terms with the order of things (step "family" adjustment, researchers tell us, can take as long as 12 years).

As of 2011, stepfamilies will outnumber first families in the U.S. Research on stepfamily dynamics tell us that children, young adults, and even adults have a harder time getting a stepmother than they do a stepfather. The research also reveals that stepmothers have the roughest adjustment process of any stepfamily member; numerous studies have found that they report higher levels of anxiety, depletion, burnout and exhaustion than do mothers.

Holidays bring out some of our most primitive longings, and a sense of "nostalgia" for things we probably never had in the first place--a "perfect" family, an "ideal," Ozzy-and-Harriet-type marriage. The flipside of these longings is often resentment and acting out that things are not what they "should be." Helliday eggnog, anyone?

By bucking expectations that your stepfamily is "supposed" to look, act, and feel "just like a first family"--many of which are not so perfect either, as their members will quickly point out--you can give yourself a happier holiday. Here are two pieces of simple advice, one for stepkids and the other for stepmothers, to take the pressure down a notch:

• If you're tempted to call your father's wife a "stepmonster" or to badmouth her as the holidays approach, take a step back and ask yourself, Why? Even as an adult, you may be in a loyalty bind, sensing on some level that if you are kind or even civil to your stepmother, you are betraying your mother in some way. Your misplaced sense of "loyalty" can impede your relationship with your father and his wife or partner, making you feel like a perpetual outsider. This loyalty bind also prevents your relationship with your mother from developing healthily.You deserve better!

• If you're a stepmother feeling apprehensive about time with your husband's children or adult children, make a resolution to seek a qualified couple's therapist in the new year to get these issues on the table and dealt with in a constructive way. Meanwhile, relax your expectation that you "should" be able to win his kids over and make them love you, or "should" love them just like they're your own. In stepfamily situations, polite and respectful is often hard enough and good enough! Realistic expectations can help you have a holiday rather than a hellliday.

further reading:

All studies cited in Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.

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