Blended families can also have a merry holiday!

My parents split up when I was thirteen; my father remarried, my mother didn’t. Suddenly, the holidays—once a special time when everyone was together, a time to look forward to, to cherish—seemed hopelessly fragmented. I worked at the local video store, and I started taking the holiday shifts, so intense was my anxiety about which part of the family to spend the time with. My boss was thrilled, but Thanksgiving and Christmas would never be the same.

Now I’m not only a mom—my partner Joseph and I have a fifteen month-old son, CC—but I’m a stepmom to Joe’s three older children, Delia and Donal (boy-girl twins, age 9), and Ruari (age 6). In making sure that The Trio, as we call my stepkids, feel loved, appreciated, and comfortable during what can be a difficult time, I’ve come up with a list—let’s call it the Ten Commandments—for having a very merry holiday with your blended family.

1. Thou Shall Plan Ahead
There’s no question that kids are comforted by routines, but perhaps that’s never more so than when they are out of their everyday element. On the Trio’s first weeklong visit with us over the summer, I decided to sit down with Joseph and create a calendar of activities for each day of the week. The plans were simple and economical, but we wrote it all down. I’ve found that preparing activities, ideas, and even meals in advance of a holiday visit is not just comforting for kids during what can be an especially anxious time, but a great way to show them that you’re excited about their visit.

2. Thou Shall Treat…
If I had a dollar for every time I intoned, “If you’re not hungry for dinner, then you’re not hungry for dessert,” I’d be a very rich woman. I can be quite the stickler, but I tend to let up a bit over the holidays. On the Trio’s very first Thanksgiving with us last month, I decided not to monitor what they ate. As long as their manners were on target, they were given a free pass to eat as much or as little as they liked and still get dessert. I remember at family dinners post-divorce when I was with my dad’s new family, missing my mom; my stomach would be in knots. I wanted the kids to feel more relaxed at the dinner table. While it’s important to stick to some rules and routines, you might want to keep your stepkids’ anxiety levels in mind and cut them some slack during the holidays.

3. … But Thou Shall Not Spoil
Bearing Commandment #2 in mind, it’s a fine line between treating and overindulging. Just like kids find comfort in routine, they’ll sense that things are out of control if they get lollipops for breakfast, cupcakes for lunch, or an overabundance of gifts come Christmas morning. Nothing says overcompensating like one giant plastic toy after another. And, given the economic climate, that might not even be a practical option for you. Give a lot of thought and love to a few special gifts, and the kids will be overjoyed, not overwhelmed.

4. Thou Shall Provide Equality For All
I’m a stepmom, but I also have a child of my own. It’s good for me to keep in mind that while our son, CC, gets to be with his mom and dad every day, the Trio only sees us on scheduled visits. It’s very, very important to us to make sure everyone feels equally loved and appreciated all the time, not just holidays. But there is something about Christmas—namely, the presents—that throws a harsh light on any potential feelings of inequality. Getting your stepkids mittens while your biological child receives everything short of the moon is a no-no for obvious reasons. If money is an issue, set a budget for yourself—and then set about finding loving, thoughtful gifts for each child in the family, step- or otherwise.

5. Thou Shall Create New Traditions…
This past Thanksgiving, I think the Trio had no idea what to expect from us. They were used to spending Turkey Day with their mom and her side of the family. While they were excited, I’ve no doubt they were a little nervous too. I had an idea for a new tradition that we could all collaborate on—a silly concept that I dubbed “The Golden Turkey Awards.” We made certificates for one another, like “Best Big Brother” and “Best Thanksgiving Dinner Companion” and had a little awards ceremony before dessert, complete with singing (Joe and I composed a song together) and acceptance speeches. It was such a hit that we’ve all vowed to do it every year. And now it’s a tradition that the Trio shares with CC. Maybe there’s a tradition you can start with your blended family. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the Golden Turkey Awards; it can be as simple as everyone baking a pie together, or making ornaments for the Christmas tree.

6. … But Thou Shall Respect Old Ones, Too.
While creating a new tradition together as a family was a smashing success, I wanted the Trio to have some old standards, too. What could be more comforting than making sure they have some of the things they love? Ahead of time, I took a poll to see what their favorite Thanksgiving foods were. My mom was doing the brunt of the cooking, so I checked with her—she was more than happy to make sure the kids had the mashed potatoes that are such an important part of their holiday, while I contributed their beloved pumpkin pie. For Christmas, we’ll all have a talk ahead of time about what makes the day special for them (besides the presents!). Is it tree-trimming? Egg nog? Whatever it is, Joe and I will try to provide it.

7. Thou Shall Not Compete
While Joe and I are thrilled to have the Trio on a special day, like Christmas or one of their birthdays, we’re well aware that it’s all about creating a wonderful time for the family, and not about making ourselves look good at their mom’s expense. If you have more money than your ex, or vice-versa, then it might be a good idea to sit down and discuss holiday plans ahead of time. What are the kids’ expectations? Would it be a good idea to chip in for a big-ticket item, or set a common budget for presents so that one parent doesn’t feel inadequate? This is a great time to open the lines of communication between adults.

8. Thou Shall Turn the Other Cheek
If you and your ex have a great post-divorce relationship, then more power to you. Some ex-couples do, and even spend the holidays together as a family long after the divorce papers are signed. But for so many parents who are no longer parenting together, the idea of a friendly fellowship with an ex-spouse is out of the question. While a difficult divorce is a complex issue and bad feelings can’t always be avoided, the holidays are not the time for your kids to bear the ill-will between their divorced parents. Of course, it is never okay to bad-mouth your former spouse in front of your children, but emotions may be especially fraught during the holidays, so be extra vigilant when it comes to keeping the mood amiable—or at least neutral.

9. Thou Shall Provide a Comfort Zone
Don’t ever underestimate the level of anxiety felt by children of divorce. I know I often seemed quite stoic to the adults around me during my parents’ breakup, but inside, I was having a very tough time. I remember a dinner with my father, my new stepmother, and my abuela, who was cooking up her famous arroz con pollo. The smell of her cooking brought up memories of the family as I had once known it, and I had a total panic attack. It was very hard for me to articulate, even as a teenager. So I can only imagine the unspoken anxieties of my young stepchildren. We do whatever we can to make them feel comforted and soothed, whether it’s leaving a nightlight on, providing stuffed animals for them to sleep with, or getting cozy on the couch in front of a silly movie. And that goes for all visits, not just during the holidays.

10. Thou Shall Not Kill (the Holiday Spirit, Once the Holidays Are Over)
As you may have guessed, my “ten commandments” aren’t just tips for the holidays; they’re for every day. Making your stepkids feel welcome, special, accommodated, and—most of all—loved, are key ingredients to being a very merry blended family 365 days a year. Sometimes we tend to reserve magnanimous feelings of love and giving, acts of compassion and generosity, for the holidays, as though they are exclusive to the “holiday spirit.” They shouldn’t be, and although a blended family can take a little bit of extra work, it’s worth it. Your blended family should get the very best of you every day of the year.