Whilst we all look forward to some downtime over the holidays, in a blended family, often what is supposed to be a time to recharge can feel like quite the opposite.
Whether you have stepchildren staying with you longer than usual, you don’t have your biological children with you as much as you would like, or you simply have more dynamics to juggle than usual, you’ll certainly feel a whole lot calmer after hearing from Sydney-based psychotherapist and stepfamily specialist, Susan Lancaster.
In this episode we cover ways to alleviate anxiety in the lead-up to the holidays together with the importance of managing expectations and honing your communication skills – and importantly, some strategies to ensure you make way for some much needed downtime.
Susan Lancaster (00:01): And carve out time for yourself, take a quiet moment during the day before the stress really kicks in. This will help you keep centered once you’re in the thick of things.
Laura Jenkins (00:12): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics, and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:40): Hello and welcome to In The Blend. Well, we’re only a few weeks away from a holiday now, and that means that for most of us it’s time for a little break. Whilst I know I personally I’m looking forward to a bit of time out after what’s been a huge year, being in a blended family can often add some extra complexity to the holidays and potentially make it more of a stressful rather than relaxing time depending on the circumstance. It may be that you have stepchildren staying with you more than you usually do. Your partner may not be with his or her children and battling with that, or you might find yourself spending time with ex-partners for the sake of the children.
(01:19): So what is supposed to be a time to recharge can feel like quite the opposite. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Susan Lancaster, who is one of the few trained psychotherapists in Sydney who focuses on step family issues, as well as being a stepmother and a mother herself. Realising the genuine need for so many trying to cope in combining families, she started a practice, a private practice, Sydney’s Stepfamily Counselling a few years back. Susan wrote a great article for Stepmom Magazine on this very topic and is here today to offer some suggestions for how to cope no matter what your situation might throw at you this year, and offer up some ways to ensure you can still find the enjoyment and importantly, some time to recharge in the upcoming holiday season. Welcome Susan, and thank you so much for joining us today on In The Blend.
Susan Lancaster (02:09): Well, it’s a pleasure to be here Laura, really. Thank you.
Laura Jenkins (02:14): Fabulous. Well, Susan, I am very much looking forward to our chat today. And as we were just saying prior to recording, it is a very busy time of year and there is certainly a lot going on in my household at the moment as we get nearer to having a little bit of time off. And I’ve got stepchildren who are on school holidays and we’ve got Christmas concerts for the little ones and a whole raft of things happening as well as plenty of shopping still to be done. But Susan, I’d love to know, amongst all of this stress that can happen at Christmas time in particular for blended families, in your experience, what are some of the reasons that it might be a little bit more challenging for blended families at this time of year?
Susan Lancaster (03:00): Sure, sure. Just the word stress jumps out at me. There can be good stress and bad stress, and I’m a big one on noticing the positive and noticing the negative in things. But step families can be challenging a lot more than biological families often as everyone’s gone through enormous change. And it’s a lot more complex and biological families where everyone lives under one roof and they’re used to each other and there’s consistency and everyone knows what’s expected. So to answer your question Laura, step families during the holidays can be stressful when everyone comes together where that consistency is just not there. And I would say it comes a lot down to expectations and also, in a step family where the children are from your partner’s prior marriage, or perhaps your own children from a previous marriage, and you may have children together, this adds to the challenges of all trying to fit in with each other, especially during the holiday time.
(04:21): And another great point is, depending on the ages of the children and how often they see you and each other will affect the stress level during the holidays. Some children will fit in right away where others feel like visitors. And younger children often look forward to the holiday time as it’s a time for fun and laughter for play and food and of course of gifts. The older children often may wish that they were somewhere else. So it’s all about everyone’s attitude about coming together for the holidays.
Laura Jenkins (05:00): I identify with a lot of that. And I think no two circumstances are going to be the same. Everyone will have different things that they’re coping with or that are thrown at them during this period and different dynamics at play. So what are some of the ways that parents can go about relieving some of that anxiety that they might feel in the lead up? Knowing that they might have step children coming to stay a bit longer than they normally would over the period, or maybe the biological parent won’t have their children over the holidays as much as they would like. What are some of the things that they can do to help relieve those feelings of anxiety or upset in a lead up?
Susan Lancaster (05:44): I think if we can remain as authentic as possible, just be who we are, let the other people know who we are and accept the other people for who they are and manage all those personalities rather than trying to be something you’re not.
Laura Jenkins (06:05): I think that’s great. It’s about being able to feel relaxed, isn’t it? If there’s a way that you can do that with so much happening. But yeah, really taking the pressure off yourself.
Susan Lancaster (06:20): Taking the pressure off yourself and not putting pressure on other people as well.
Laura Jenkins (06:24): And Susan, you touched on managing expectations earlier and I’d love to come back to that and drill into why managing expectations is particularly important for parents in blended families to be mindful of during this time of the year as well.
Susan Lancaster (06:44): Well, it’s up to the parents for sure, but obviously the parents aren’t living together anymore. So it’s up to the parent, the biological parent and their partner to really work together as a team. And it’s a test of your couple’s strength and a test of your relationship and how will you communicate with each other. So growing up in a biological family, we know pretty much what’s expected during the holiday time, what we should be doing, how to behave, when to help, and when to relax and just have fun. That’s evolved over time. But in a stepfamily, there are two families that come together. It’s a bit like picking up a book halfway through. You don’t know the beginning of the book, you don’t understand the histories that come together.
(07:36): So I actually, I love the word mindful and it’s really about remaining present as much as possible and you need to consider and manage the personalities and the emotions because some members may be feeling great loss thinking about traditions they had with their previous families, and you may be feeling a sense of loss yourself. So really this is a time for learning as well as to develop new traditions and rituals for your new family. And I always say it’s best not to try to duplicate exactly what you shared with your previous family, but to acknowledge and listen to those memories and bring some of them into your new family, but add onto existing traditions and make them your own.
Laura Jenkins (08:34): I love that. That reminds me of a guest we had on the show recently, Phoebe Wallish, who is the director of Stepfamilies Australia. And we were talking about when a new partner comes along and she made the same point around where possible keeping some of those original traditions where it makes sense, but absolutely forging new ones as well with the new family unit.
Susan Lancaster (08:57): And another expectation that’s really fuelled by the media is that we should all be cheery and joyful and jolly. And sometimes we’re just not feeling that, but we need to notice that that’s not always so, so we need to allow ourselves to simply feel and let the children feel. Feeling uncomfortable is okay, and to acknowledge that rather than suppressing our feelings and I think that opens the window to feeling the joy as well when it does come. So establishing realistic expectations remind you that nothing is perfect. Let go of how things should be and instead just celebrate what is, so come together with your partner and discuss each other’s expectations and how you’re going to manage, do that prior to the holiday season. A lot of preparations needed in any family, but particularly in a stepfamily, how do you think everyone’s going to feel? How are we going to relate? What is our plan? We need to do a lot of planning.
Laura Jenkins (10:11): I love that. That leads nicely into the next question I had for you, which is around the GAP model, which is something, Susan, you mentioned to me recently as an approach that can be helpful for parents to think about during this time, and it really stuck with me. So can you explain that, what it is and how it might help listeners?
Susan Lancaster (10:34): I love that you’ve actually called it the GAP model because this is a new thing that I’ve actually come up with. Look, stepfamilies are very complicated. They can be very complicated. So I always try with my clients to simplify things as much as possible because otherwise it just gets too confusing. So this is something I came up with to take what can sometimes be extremely complex topics and how to manage the holidays to something that’s easy to remember and to apply during the holidays. So GAP, which stands for gratitude, acceptance, and planning.
So gratitude is something that needs to be fostered. It means fully appreciating the people in your life, the good, the bad, and the not so good. It’s about bringing joy and happiness to yourself and to others. However, gratitude just doesn’t appear. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged. So often I hear stepmothers particularly tell me that they feel underappreciated, that their tasks are thankless and that there is a lack of gratefulness in their homes. One solution is to lessen our expectations of gratitude from others. We need to have a very good sense of ourself because so often in step families, we can lose ourselves and we have to come back. Who am I? What am I doing here?
(12:14): So acceptance, the next part is to shift your focus. This is a step family. What would come naturally in a biological family where everyone’s actions are expected and thought of as normal isn’t true in our step family experiences. Our actions and other people’s reactions to what we do benefit from purposeful acknowledgement and respectful responses are different. This so often doesn’t come resulting in frustration, anger, and a lot of the time resentment. What’s more important? Being right or making the family work. The goal is about becoming an our family, from yours and mine, to our family. So our focus needs to shift more towards the good things in our life. As a result, we can notice the positive traits and less on what is negative about the step family which is so easy to do really because it’s a protective mechanism. But when the negative is thrown at you, and believe me, it will be, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for this during the holidays, you can remind yourself that positive actually do exist. It’s not always easy, but focus on the bigger picture. The vision you’re trying to create for the future and build on each holiday. This is one holiday what happens now will build on the next holiday.
(13:55): So the next will be become more meaningful and easier. What can we learn from this holiday that we can take into the next holiday? So shift your focus from the external a lot of the time to the internal, what am I feeling? What am I instincts telling me? So we can appreciate the others but we must first appreciate ourselves.
Laura Jenkins (14:18): Just on that Susan, I’m curious to know, practically speaking, how would one go about the act of being more grateful for their current situation or being more accepting? Is it a matter of just taking yourself, removing yourself from a situation and having a bit of self talk? Or is it writing something down on paper? Or is there anything that you would recommend or that you have seen has been helpful for some of your clients doing this practically?
Susan Lancaster (14:50): Yeah, I often tell my clients, it’s okay to step back, take some time for yourself. I think it’s really important. Check in with yourself in the morning and say, what is my intention for the day? And when something comes up that makes you angry or frustrated, just turn it around and say, “What am I actually grateful for? What are the others bringing to me and what am I bringing to them?” It’s just a mindset really. And so often the negative shifts in because we want to protect ourselves, but just say, what sort of person do I want to be? Do I want to be the best person I possibly can? And again, just be authentic. Be kind, be considerate.
Laura Jenkins (15:42): Love it. Good advice. So moving on to P.
Susan Lancaster (15:49): Yes, P planning, super important in step families. Don’t just wing it thinking everything will magically fall into place. Take time prior to the holidays with your partner to plan how you envisage the time ahead. Construct a list, lists are important. What are your ideas? What are my ideas? How can we come together to make an hour list? Who’s going to oversee what? Who’s going to be responsible for what and what role each of you are going to take in each thing. So when you’re planning with your partner, delegate jobs that are right for each personality of the member so that they will actually feel that they can accomplish it. And if they don’t get it right perfectly, that’s okay. At least they’re trying, and don’t forget to thank them. So sit down with your family in advance and come up with a meal plan and a shopping list. Remind everyone with help that you can all contribute. Make them feel that they’re contributing, that gives them a sense of, this is our home. I’m not just a visitor here. And that we going to have fun together. So the planning is super important.
Laura Jenkins (17:16): I do love a list myself, Susan. We tend to use the notes app in our phone, which you can have a shared list, so it makes it really easy then to share ideas back and forth with one another so that’s something that we need to get working on.
Susan Lancaster (17:38): Or have a little WhatsApp group.
Laura Jenkins (17:40): Yes.
Susan Lancaster (17:41): So everyone knows where they stand because that gives you a sense of security. You know what to expect, and you’re not coming in and feeling confused and anxious.
Laura Jenkins (17:51): And again, practically speaking, Susan, thinking about some of the things that you might have on these lists outside of what you’re going to be eating and who is perhaps who’s responsible for setting the table or doing various things on different days, are there any other things specifically that blended or step family should be thinking about planning for?
Susan Lancaster (18:23): Commitment comes to mind. If there are some of the children that really want to be with some of their friends, make a bit of a time schedule, so and so needs to take time out, it’s okay. We don’t all have to do everything together. People can take time with some of the family and go and do things outside of the family home, that’s okay. And especially for the step mum, and I suppose for the step dad, it’s okay if you want to go and have a pedicure, have a massage, get to have a coffee with your girlfriends or something like that. It’s okay. So make a time schedule. Who’s committed to what, so you know how to fit in everybody’s needs.
Laura Jenkins (19:13): Yes, yeah, and I love that you’ve mentioned self care as an example there. That was something else I was curious to ask you about Susan, especially from a parent’s perspective, with so much to think about at this time of year, it’s really important to ensure that parents ensure they get some downtime as well, so that it’s not just it’s not work all holiday long. And so would your advice Susan be to plan for it? And identify that you’re going to need it and negotiate with your partner where that’s going to happen.
Susan Lancaster (19:51): I remember. I’ve been doing this for 43 years, so I’ve had a few holidays and in the beginning I would just be attending to everyone else’s needs and I would get exhausted. So it’s okay to take time for yourself and also to notice your personal progress within the step family system. And to truly be your best self, decide who you want to be during the holidays. Do you want to be a sulky, self-seeking angry person, or do you want to become someone who doesn’t ask for things? That sets an example with your attitude and what you display. So take time to yourself before the season is in swing to consider this and carve out time for yourself. Take a quiet moment during the day before the stress really kicks in. This will help you keep centered once you’re in the thick of things. So often we get caught up in giving to others so it’s important to remember to pamper yourself with extra self care for the guys as well. If you’re a stepdad, if you want to go and see a mate, that’s fine. If you want to go and watch a sport program, fine, let everyone know. Read a great book, watch your favorite movie alone. Remember to eat well, exercise and get lots of sleep and don’t forget to breathe.
Laura Jenkins (21:25): Oh, good advice.
Susan Lancaster (21:26): So often we’re stressed and we hold our breath so breathe, breathe. Be mindful. It’s okay to have fun by yourself or with a few select friends and family members. And also make time for you and your partner. That’s super important. And sometimes it’s, well, that can be neglected and also take time one on one with the children. They’re getting to know you. This is a different time to when it’s not holiday time. So holiday time’s a really good time, let them know who you are, how were you growing up? Let them really get to know who you are.
Laura Jenkins (22:06):I love how you talked about being mindful before the season starts if you like, and really taking time to think about how do I want this to go and how am I going to behave? And what person do I want to be? Because I think reflecting on my own experience as well over the last decade, it’s so easy just to go with the flow and roll into the next day, after the next day, after the next day. And I think being intentional, as you suggested, is really fantastic advice and making the time to do that.
Susan Lancaster (22:47): I’ll give you an example. I’ll give you an example. When my stepdaughter comes to stay, and she’s a bit older and she’s got two kids and she brings them as well, I always used to think, oh, I’ve got to have them to stay and where am I going to put them? And they wanted to sleep in my study. And we did that for a couple of years and it was just too exhausting. And I became angry. I wasn’t my authentic self. So prior to one holiday, I said to my husband, let’s just get an Airbnb. Let’s find a friend that they can use their house. And I tell you, it works so much better. I didn’t have to be doing the three meals a day. They took care of themselves for breakfast. So it’s okay for a stepmom in particular to say no because I never used to.
Laura Jenkins (23:40): But part of that’s linked to boundaries as well, isn’t it?
Susan Lancaster (23:43): Absolutely.
Laura Jenkins (23:45): But that’s a great example.
Susan Lancaster (23:46): Set some boundaries.
Laura Jenkins (23:48): And look after yourself in the process.
Susan, something else I’d love to touch on is communication. And communication I think is important for step parents, people in blended families at any time. But why especially at this time of the year would communication be so important for step parents to be aware of?
Susan Lancaster (24:15):
Okay, now I work a lot with communication with my clients and that’s where often the relationship can fall down. We’ve got to be able to learn to communicate with your partner because that is the couple strength that will manage the whole system. So it’s really important to feel that you are communicating and working as a team. So when we are feeling stressed and pressured to rise to unrealistic standards, the more challenging it can be to communicate our wants and needs. So how do we overcome this? We’ve got to practice listening to give the other person your full attention is really important. Listen to understand, not to respond. Most of us, when we listen to somebody, we want to respond back with our experience of what they’re saying. But if you give someone your full attention, you are understanding and they love it. They feel heard, they feel understood, and we mustn’t be too hasty in attempting to respond too quickly. So we need to learn to pay attention, especially at times when you’re likely to be suffering from sensory overload.
(25:32): So make a conscious effort to hear what’s being said to you. Pay attention to what you’re responding with. This will help the others to feel understood and heard, and then also ensures that the message is interpreted accurately. So say to someone, no, I don’t quite understand. Can you just give me a bit more about that? So I’m not assuming that you fully understand the person. And a really interesting research is that listening’s a skill that underpins most positive human relationships and to work on and develop how you listen is it to respond or to understand, as I said. But actually research tells us that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. So yes, our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language is so important. So only 7% of nearly all messages is conveyed through words. And I think knowing this can help to focus more fully on the person communicating with us and alleviate any confusion between us.
(26:50): And it often gets to the feeling behind what somebody’s trying to tell us. It just connects with the other’s feelings and let them know that we care about how they feel. So honest communication creates respect. Showing more of your vulnerable side is okay, and avoid complaining, judging or criticising. And another great thing is to use I statements because it’s less threatening. Not, “You didn’t do that very well at all.” It’s about, “I feel when you do that, it makes me feel a little disappointed. I know I’m not a great cook, but I’m doing the best I can.” So become more transparent to others. This helps them know who you are.
Laura Jenkins (27:42): Great advice there. And I think, well, the holiday season can be a time when in many households there can be people coming together who haven’t seen one another for a long time. So outside of the blended family unit, there might be aunts and uncles and grandparents or cousins who are coming to stay, and I think that reminder for listening in particular is so important when there’s all of those different relationships to foster at this time of year, outside of the blended family itself.
Susan Lancaster (28:21): That technique of really listening to understand somebody creates a calm because you’re giving someone your full attention and you’re making them feel special. It actually calms everything down because then they feel, oh, she’s really giving me her full attention. I can say something to her and not feel afraid or feel judged or criticised.
Laura Jenkins (28:49): Yes, yeah, it’s simple, but it’s very effective.
Susan Lancaster (28:56): It can be very effective. And that’s what we want to create, a calm, beautiful feeling throughout the household. We don’t want to create anxiety, we want to keep everybody calm, keep peace, and that listening technique, watch the person, observe the person. Rather than judging them or looking for something that they’ve done wrong, actually observe them, really get to know them. Holidays are a great time to do that.
Laura Jenkins (29:29):
Definitely. Susan, we are almost at time here. Before we wrap up today, are there any final tips that you would like to leave our listeners with?
Susan Lancaster (29:41):
Okay, well, foster gratitude, manage your expectations, plan meal times, and delegate. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. You don’t have to do everything. Take time for yourself, take time for your partner and one-on-one time with each member of the family. As best you can, another tip is to make sure that all challenges and unresolved issues are mended as best as possible prior to the holidays. Everyone needs to feel comfortable, safe, and able to connect with one another. Begin the day by taking time to set your intention for the day and to remember what you’re grateful for. Model respect and consideration during the holidays. This is about progress, not perfection.
Laura Jenkins (30:37): So true. Thank you, Susan. I’m feeling a lot calmer and yes, a lot calmer and a lot more enthusiastic about the upcoming holiday season myself having just chatted with you now. So really appreciate all of those fabulous tips and advice. So thank you so much Susan for being here today.
Susan Lancaster (31:01): You’re so welcome, and I hope everybody really has a wonderful, happy holiday time.
Laura Jenkins (31:08): Fantastic. Susan, just lastly, where can listeners go to connect with you if anyone wants to get in touch?
Susan Lancaster (31:16): I have a website and all you have to do is type in Stepfamily Counselling and I will pop up.
Laura Jenkins (31:23): Beautiful, thanks again Susan, and have a happy holidays.
Susan Lancaster (31:27): Thank you very much. I really appreciate talking with you.
Laura Jenkins (31:31): Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at intheblend.com.au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.