A time for families to bond

December has arrived and with it the fullness and camaraderie of the holiday season. A peculiar feature of the festive season is family reunions, which are as much an unbreakable tradition as the feast of turkey and special gifts on Christmas Day.

It is that time when patriarchs and matriarchs of families take centre-stage in the midst of the growing kin in the spirit of togetherness and cordiality. Among the cross-country trekkers travelling to far-flung areas for a holiday with their stepfamilies, are stepchildren.

But some reunions can be a tricky affair, especially when there are unresolved issues among family members - things such as sibling rivalry.

Or, worse still, family dynamics could present stressful circumstances when, for example, the visiting children come from divorced families and are joining either their stepmothers or stepfathers for the Christmas reunion.

Sibahle Gobodo, a private family therapist, says if a step family holiday is not handled well, it can have long-lasting devastating effects on all parties concerned.

"Stepfamily holidays cause dramatic changes in the family structure. The main problem is that kids tend to demand constant attention of the natural parent, and this may even arouse feelings of jealousy and a sense of entitlement on the part of the stepparent or stepsiblings," says Gobodo.

She adds that many stepchildren - more especially those who have been through the trauma of divorce - test the stepparents' limits to the maximum, trying to see how far they can push until the adult is upset or breaks. Gobodo says this is caused by insecurities.

Prince Mathe, 27, was the only child when his parents divorced, when he was 13. He said his father got married a year after the divorce, to a woman with two older children.

"The divorce left me devastated. My mother and I moved out of our house and we started a new life in another province. Because I was the only child in the family, both my parents were competing for my attention. Visi- ting my father during school breaks was fine, until he remarried."

Mathe says his stepmother did not only bring two children in the family, she brought problems.

"Because I went to a private school, they thought I was a snob. Everyone was insecure. The stepfamily felt like I came to take away the comforts they were enjoying. I did not want to get too attached to the new family because I did not want to be hurt. I felt like my dad was taking their side," said Mathe.

Gobodo says it is natural for children who have lost their original family through death or divorce, to be uncertain whether the stepfamily will stick. So they become distant and paranoid.

"The stepfamily might think the child is being silly or something. It is important for parents to support the stepparent, so that the children do not play one off the other," said Gobodo.

Itumeleng Sonto (not her real name), a stepmother of four teenagers from previous relationships, says when her five-year marriage was new, holi- days were a nightmare for her and her child because of her stepchildren.

"Being in a stepfamily set-up is not easy. It is even harder when you are a stepmother because all eyes are on you. My stepkids and their parents used to compete with me and my child for the attention of my husband. She says they were petty and vindictive, it was even difficult to discipline them," Sonto said.

Gobodo says because step relationships are usually complicated and fraught with conflict, realistically, it can be almost impossible for a stepmother or father to refrain from disciplining the stepchild. Marriage counsellor, Felicity Ntintili, advises stepparents to be consistent in their discipline.

"Consistency among adults in enforcing discipline and house rules, will be good for the stepchild and for the rest of the household.

Here are a few tips for hosting stepparents:

1. Don't make the child live out of a suitcase. Designate a bedroom or sleeping area for the visiting child.

2. Ntintili says parents must make sure that the family activities include everyone.

3. Parents should not fight in front of the kids.

4. Think about your stepchild's feelings. Being in an unfamiliar environment is not comfortable for most people.