Gifting Dilemmas in the Step-Family Dynamic

Gifting and balancing wants, needs, money spent, etc can be a challenge when all of the kids have the same parents and live 100% of the time in the same house. Add in extra stepparents, extended families, different lifestyles, and economic capacity, is it any wonder this time of year can be incredibly stressful?

My kids were incredibly overindulged as kids at Christmas time. It was my time of year that I went all out and spoiled them rotten. Looking back, it was ridiculous and over the top. They’re adults now and agree, it was all a bit much. My stepchildren are just entering their teens and haven’t had the same level of overindulgence. My kids had their dad and his family as the big present givers. My stepkids have their dad and his family as the big present givers. So how do we manage the differences? How do we give the younger children the generous Christmases the older ones got without sending ourselves into pauperdom? Christmas for 7 kids is not cheap!

For years we tried to make it all equal. One year we did an upcycled Christmas, so every gift was second hand or homemade. I’m too busy for that now, so that’s off the table. It is a great option for families who are struggling financially though. It took off a lot of pressure financially for us and adjusted the expectations of the children.

This year I’ve been upfront with the older children. I’ve told them they will not be getting the same gifts as the younger ones because it’s time to make the separation. They are secure adults and are all ok and supportive of that idea. They’ve even pointed out they see that we play a different role in the younger children’s lives in terms of providing materially than we did in theirs.

But how does it work when there are ‘ours kids’ and kids who have two homes? This can be an area that causes a lot of stress and upset for families. There is no one size fits all, but here are some suggestions that might help cut through the competing wants and needs.

We can’t compensate for the other house.

In short, this means that gift-giving should be similar for all the kids in your home. It’s irrelevant what they will or won’t be getting in the other house. In your home kids need to be treated equally. See how this is almost the opposite of what I just said above! Our situation is different because each set of kids has two houses. They are at different ages and stages and so we need to look at the big picture. Ours kids and their half-siblings is a different scenario. Some parents feel they need to give more to the ours kids because they are not getting two sets of presents. It might work for your family. In my experience, it can feel pretty crappy when there is an obvious difference between what children in the same house get given. They don’t understand the idea that they are being given less to make up for what they get elsewhere, they just see their siblings who already get their parent all of the time being showered with more gifts than them. If you do feel the need to give more, please try and do it separately to when the other children are there.

To wait or not to wait?

So many times I hear families agonising over whether the kids who live in the home full time should only get treats when the part-time kids are there. My answer is there needs to be a balance. It’s not fair to ask kids who live there full-time to have their lives put into slow motion when their siblings aren’t there. Kids should be able to participate in activities that come up when their siblings aren’t there. Bigger events like choosing the tree or decorating ideally would wait for the whole family to be there.

A biggie is Christmas Day when siblings are at the other house. Do the kids who live there have to miss out on Christmas till their siblings return? Again, it’s a matter of balance. Santa gives special dispensation to come early or late in our house. However, due to our current schedule, every second year it will be several days after Christmas when the younger kids arrive back in our home, we don’t celebrate Christmas with them much at all those years. We encourage them to fully embrace the time with their mum and we go big on the years we have them. They are all older now, and we still did Christmas for them when they were younger. Each family has to figure out what works for their dynamic. Letting go of attachment to celebrating on the actual day is an important sanity saver too.

There is no fair in step-family dynamics.

It can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those of us who value fairness and try really hard to make life fair. It’s mission impossible. I think the best we can aim for is equitable. We treat each child as an individual and look at the family as a whole and do our best to meet the needs each person in the family has.

We will not always get it right. Sometimes we will get it wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. As with all missteps and mistakes, the real issue is not the mistake but instead how we repair from it. Being open with our kids ‘Hey, I’m so sorry that did not turn out how I planned, we need to fix that’ can repair the damage to feelings, egos, and family relationships.

Have fun.

In all of the drama and angst and worry, we can lose sight of what celebrations are about. We get fixated on how many hours, or someone being inflexible, or missing time, or unequal present giving…

Take a deep breath.

Remember the kids will remember the feelings that went with the day far more than the presents, decorations, or who got what time with them.


Anita InglisAnita specialises in helping individuals and couples dealing with childhood trauma develop healthy couple and family relationships. She also works with families dealing with Parental Alienation/Pathogenic Parenting. You can contact her at for more information.

She is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine, a Master Coach in the Stepmomz App, and a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology.

Gifting Dilemmas in the Step-Family Dynamic