If we were in an ideal world, every child would have one set of parents, and everyone would be living happily ever after. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and many children have two sets of parents (and two sets of grandparents) that they celebrate the holidays with. This is stressful for any child, much less a child who has bipolar disorder.

'Holidays are stressful for everyone because we have this image that things should be perfect,' said Margorie Engel, Ph.D., president of the Stepfamily Association of America. 'Stepfamilies are not unique in this regard.'

Some of the holiday stresses on these children at holiday time include: ex-spouses (who may or may not even be speaking to each other), joint custody arrangements, multiple sets of grandparents, and children with divided loyalties. These stresses are especially difficult for children with bipolar disorder around the holidays.

Children with bipolar disorder depend on schedules and routines to keep them stable. The holidays themselves, with all the normal hustle and bustle, excitement and stimulation, can cause them to get over-excited, so they need to be watched carefully to avoid going into an episode. Add family/step-family stress into the picture, and you really need to watch their stress levels for the same reason.

The best way to keep children from getting too excited at holiday time is to stick to as close a normal routine as possible.

Children can pick up on the slightest bit of stress between parents, and divided loyalties can be a big problem for them. If you, as a parent, normally have animosity with their other parent, try to put those feelings aside for the holiday as much as possible for your child’s sake.

If there are other children in one of the families, there may be stress on the child with bipolar disorder because they may be battling feelings of not fitting in. Be aware of these 'stepfamily feelings,' and try to be fair to all the children, not picking favorites.

Here is an example:

For Trey Dixon, Christmas typically meant dividing time between his mother and stepfather; his former stepfather, who has remarried; his father’s parents; and four other sets of grandparents formed through various divorces and remarriages.

All of these family members lived within a two-hour radius of Trey in southeast Texas, and everyone wanted to see him for Christmas. By the time Trey had a son of his own in 1997, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s was one big road trip.

That was when Trey and his wife, Nancy, learned the importance of saying 'No.' 'We realized that if we didn’t draw boundaries, we wouldn’t be able to establish any of our own traditions for our son,' Nancy said. 'And, we’d be traveling all the time.' The Dixons began alternating holidays among various relatives and announced that from then on, they would spend Christmas Eve at home — alone.

According to Margorie Engel, Ph.D., the establishment of new traditions is a key part of success in a stepfamily. 'You have to recognize that holidays will be different now no matter what,' she said. 'If you try to approach them in the same way you used to, you’re doomed to failure.' She adds that in new stepfamilies especially, there will be a jockeying for position, with each person trying to determine how the holidays will be spent.

Elizabeth Einstein, a former board member of the Stepfamily Association of America, writes in her book, The Stepfamily: Living, Loving, and Learning, that part of the solution to this dilemma may be to play up other occasions throughout the year, like birthdays or Halloween, so that the stepfamily isn’t trying to center all of its traditions and rituals around a single holiday. This leaves more room for compromise.

Competitive gift-giving can interfere with the family’s focusing on the true meaning behind the holiday, because when one parent gives a fantastic gift which the other parent can’t afford — or would never approve of – it makes the other parent look 'lesser' in the child’s eyes; or, at the least, makes the child uncomfortable in light of the competition.

With flexibility, planning ahead of time, a good sense of humor, and an abundance of love, always keeping the children’s needs in the forefront, any stepfamily can learn to enjoy the holidays.

St. Romain says, 'The kids know that they may not get to have Christmas with Mom and Dad in the same room, but they do get to have three separate Christmases.'

And Engel points out that stepfamilies — and all families — have two powerful tools at their disposal. 'Basic courtesy and thoughtfulness — if they exist, then most problems disappear.'

The most important thing is that you keep your child’s interests in mind – the holidays are for them and their special needs, after all, as well as the rest of the family.

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