Step-Parenting Problems at the Holidays

Dear EQ Coach:

My husband and I have been together for 10 years. We have 4 kids, his and mine. I love his youngest one like she were mine, but the oldest one I just can’t stand. He’s favored her in the past, which irks me, and she’ll always doing things that get on my nerves. She excludes me in a sneaky way. She arranged her wedding shower so I couldn’t come, and whenever I offer to take care of her baby, she finds some excuse. It puts an unpleasant atmosphere when we get-together. Usually I have everyone over for Christmas Eve, but I’m really having trouble this year. It breaks my husband’s heart that we don’t get along and he tells me just to get over it, but I don’t know how.

How am I going to get through this dinner, and the next one, and the next one. I’m desperate. This woman is ruining my holidays.

Desperate Step-Mother

Dear Desperate Step-Mother,

Being Step-Parenting Expert for a major website, the letters start flooding in right after Thanksgiving. It’s so predictable, I created an Internet course on how to handle difficult people, focusing on family and step-family issues. You love them, now learn how to get along with them is the theme. Nothing is worse than these family squabbles. If there is one thing that is predictable in the mental health field, it’s that psychologists’ offices will fill up in December.

What a pity.

I’ll grant you that step-parenting and family-blending is hard work, but when you think about it, you don’t get to choose your own kids, or your own parents, or your own siblings, so my advice is pretty general. There may be issues about the “step” but if it isn’t that, it will be something else.

Accidents also escalate this time of the year. We’re stressed with extra work to do. Preoccupied with these thoughts about how to get along with these people and still have a decent Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever. Our emotions cloud our thinking so we become more careless, both physically and emotionally. In fact the people who can’t admit to themselves that they’re stressed or upset are the most likely to have an accident, because that’s the only way their Inner Wisdom can deal with it.

So getting conscious is the first step.


Then I would advise you take a course that teaches you the components of emotional intelligence. It demystifies the whole thing – why the tension, how to say things that keep you safe and don’t escalate, how to let go, how to disarm the aggressive, and how to cope. Do it now and get prepared for the Christmas get-together. Family patterns are deeply entrenched and intensely emotional. They don’t change overnight and if you keep taking the bait, they’ll keep baiting the hook. You also need to see when your actions or reactions make YOU the “difficult person” and learn to do something different. When you change, your life changes.


You live in a body, and your body (brain) generates emotions. Too much sugar and alcohol? You’re set up to spin out. It’s SAD (seasonal affective disorder) season, so depression-like lethargy contributes. You’re either hyper, or would like to hibernate. Keep our routine, eat right, get your sleep and exercise. Take an immune system supplement, because “5 minutes of anger suppresses your immune system for up to 6 hours,” and “mad” isn’t the only emotion that does that, or that you’re going to be feeling – more intensely than usual.

With a healthy body, you’re more able to adjust your attitude, and that’s the next step. It’s an emotional time of year for everyone, and people aren’t at their best. People who are vulnerable to begin with, really take a dive. Any issue that’s been percolating is likely to boil over, unless you are aware. Emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness. Know yourself, and what sets you off. Then avoid it.


Neutral expectations are best. If you are fantasizing about a perfect family get-together, you are setting yourself up for depression. It’s the law of emotions – what goes up, must come down. If you demand perfection or that things go your way or you won’t be happy, you put an energy out that almost guarantees the opposite of what you want.


You don’t need to share this with people involved; vent with a coach or someone objective. I don’t know about other coaches, but I plan my own Christmas way ahead to block off coaching time in December and January. (After-Christmas blues is about as bad.) Admit you don’t like this woman and she gets on your nerves. If you fight it, you give it energy. Admit at the same time though, that how you handle this is a choice. You can let the fact that you have to be with someone you don’t like ruin your get-together, or you can accept that you’d rather it were otherwise, but it isn’t, so you’re going to find a way to enjoy yourself, or just get through it and not add your misery, temper, volatility, etc. to the mix. I’m sure your husband would appreciate if you acted like everything was fine. You may not be able to “get over it” inside, but if you act like you have, you’d be surprised what will happen. A coach can give you specific tips on what to say and not say, how to answer, how to defuse, and how to stay out of trouble. When you see how you are contributing to the situation, and what you can do differently, you’ll be relieved. That’s what most people tell me who learn how to handle themselves in situations like this. “I was relieved. It was like a boulder was lifted off my shoulders.”

The thing is, nobody every taught us this stuff.


Lastly, here’s a novel idea. Flexiblity and creativity are two of the components of emotional intelligence. It’s nice to have traditions; they make us feel secure, and frame our lives with memories. However, they can become a prison. I’m thinking of my friend who is terribly upset right now because she can’t make fruitcake this year. I won’t go in to why, but in her reality, this is a major trauma. As an observer, I just can’t get in to it. I have never made fruitcake, and I have survived many years. It may be that you’re holding on to something like that.

If it’s really awful, just say no. Go on a cruise with your husband over Christmas. Yes, the world would still turn. If that’s too radical, start with something smaller, but understand that you can change a tradition at any time. When they’re changed for us, with the death of a parent, for instance, we manage to create something new. It’s more pleasant when you control the change.

Learning to let go, managing your emotions and those of others, handling difficult people and stressful times, and managing change are part of emotional intelligence, one of the best things you can put under the Christmas tree.

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