Gina Kemp, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson finish their article with some descriptions of the common difficulties blended families experience. The difficulties you may be experiencing are not unique! The article finishes with many tips for how to strengthen your ‘new’ family. It’s not an easy process, or one for the faint of heart, but if you are dedicated it is well worth it.
Dealing with differences in blended families
As you merge two families, differences in parenting, discipline, lifestyle, etc. may become more pronounced and can become a source of frustration for the children. Make it a priority to have some unity when it comes to household living, including things like rules, chores, discipline, and allowance. Agreeing on some consistent guidelines and strategies will show the kids that you and your spouse intend to deal with issues in a similar way. This should diminish some feelings of unfairness.
Recognizing the ways that stepfamilies are different can help you understand and accept some of the problems you’re likely to face in your new family structure, and can be an important first step in achieving a healthy blended family.
Some common differences in blended families
- Age differences. In blended families, there may be children with birthdays closer to one another than possible with natural siblings, or the new step-parent may be only a few years older than the eldest child.
- Parental inexperience. One step-parent may have never been a parent before, and therefore may have no experience of the different stages children go through.
- Changes in family relationships. If both parents remarry partners with existing families, it can mean children suddenly find themselves with different roles in two blended families. For example, one child may be the eldest in one stepfamily but the youngest in the other. Blending families may also mean one child loses his or her uniqueness as the only boy or girl in the family.
- Difficulty in accepting a new parent. If children have spent a long time in a one-parent family, or if children still nurture hopes of reconciling their parents, it may be difficult for them to accept a new person.
- Coping with demands of others. In blended families planning family events can get complicated, especially when there are custody considerations to take into account. Children may grow frustrated that vacations, parties, or weekend trips now require complicated arrangements to include their new stepsiblings.
- Changes in family traditions. Most families have very different ideas about how annual events such as holidays, birthdays, and family vacations should be spent. Kids may feel resentful if they’re forced to go along with someone else’s routine. Try to find some common ground or create new traditions for your blended family.
- Parental insecurities. A step-parent may be anxious about how he or she compares to a child’s natural parent, or may grow resentful if the stepchildren compare them unfavorably to the natural parent.
One challenge to creating a cohesive blended family is establishing trust. The children may feel uncertain about their new family and resist your efforts to get to know them. Learn not to take their lack of enthusiasm (and other negative attitudes) personally. It isn’t that they don’t want you to be happy; they just don’t know what it will be like to share their parent with a new spouse, let alone his or her kids. These feelings are normal.
Create clear, safe boundaries in blended families
An important part of building trust in a family has to do with discipline. Couples should discuss the role each step-parent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules.
The following tips can help make this difficult transition a bit smoother:
- Establish the step-parent as more of a friend or counselor rather than a disciplinarian.
- Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for discipline until the step-parent has developed solid bonds with the kids.
- Create a list of family rules. Discuss the rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. Try to understand what the rules and boundaries are for the kids in their other residence, and, if possible, be consistent.
Keep ALL parents involved
Children will adjust better to the blended family if they have access to both biological parents. It is important if all parents are involved and work toward a parenting partnership.
- Let the kids know that you and your ex-spouse will continue to love them and be there for them throughout their lives.
- Tell the kids that your new spouse will not be a ‘replacement’ mom or dad, but another person to love and support them.
Communicate often and openly in blended families
The way a blended family communicates says a lot about the level of trust between family members. When communication is clear, open, and frequent, there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and more possibilities for connection, whether it is between parent and child, step-parent and stepchild, or between stepsiblings.
Uncertainty and worry about family issues often comes from poor communication. It might be helpful to set up some ‘house rules’ for communication within a blended family, such as:
- Listen respectfully to one another.
- Address conflict positively.
- Establish an open and nonjudgmental atmosphere.
- Do things together – games, sports, activities.
- Show affection to one another comfortably.
Use routines and rituals to bond blended families
Creating family routines and rituals helps unite family members. Decide on meaningful family rituals and plan to incorporate at least one into your blended family. They might include Sunday visits to the beach, a weekly game night, or special ways to celebrate a family birthday. Establishing regular family meals, for example, offers a great chance for you to talk and bond with your children and stepchildren as well as encourage healthy eating habits.
Tips for a healthy blended family
- All brothers and sisters “fall out”, so don’t assume all family arguments are the result of living in a blended family.
- Beware of favoritism. Be fair. Don’t overcompensate by favoring your stepchildren. This is a common mistake, made with best intentions, in an attempt to avoid indulging your biological children.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be sure to discuss everything. Never keep emotions bottled up or hold grudges.
- Make special arrangements. If some of the kids “just visit,” make sure they have a locked cupboard for their personal things. Bringing toothbrushes and other “standard fare” each time they come to your home makes them feel like a visitor, not a member of the blended family.
- Find support. Locate a step-parenting support organization in your community. You can learn how other blended families address some of the challenges of blended families.
- Spend time every day with your child. Try to spend at least one “quiet time” period with your child (or children) daily. Even in the best of blended families, children still need to enjoy some “alone time” with each parent.
Source: I do! Take Two
Newly remarried couples without children usually use their first months together to build on their relationship. Couples with children, on the other hand, are often more consumed with their own kids than with each other.
You will no doubt focus a lot of energy on your children and their adjustment, but you also need to focus on building a strong marital bond. This will ultimately benefit everyone, including the children. If the children see love, respect, and open communication between you and your spouse, they will feel more secure and may even learn to model those qualities.
- Set aside time as a couple by making regular dates or meeting for lunch or coffee during school time.
- Present a unified parenting approach to the children – arguing or disagreeing in front of them may encourage them to try to come between you.
When to seek help for your blended family
If, despite all of your best efforts, your new spouse and/or children are not getting along, find a way to protect and nurture the children despite the difficult environment. Hopefully, if the kids see and feel your emotional support, they will do their best with the situation.
It might be time to seek outside help from a therapist if:
- a child directs anger upon a particular family member or openly resents a step-parent or parent.
- a step-parent or parent openly favors one child over another.
- members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as school, working, playing, or being with friends and family.
Finding a good therapist in your area
It may take some time, but choose a therapist that everyone in your blended family is comfortable with. A good connection with a therapist should result in some positive changes right away.
You can obtain referrals from:
- Your family doctor.
- Family or friends.