Everyone wants their marriage to last. They want it to be healthy and strong. But many couples in blended families know that the odds are against them. Apparently, “happily ever after” is a little more difficult to achieve in a blended family.
The good news is that blended families can build a successful family unit if they know how to overcome the unique barriers that a blended family presents and if they understand stepfamily dynamics.
Many blended marriages get blindsided by the pressures of stepfamily living. Identities get tangled together, discipline becomes a problem, and parents discover they don’t have the necessary tools manage their home. Your blended family will not look like The Brady Bunch since it is not easy to combine two families into a new unit. Welcoming a new spouse brings with it added stress, new rules, new identities, new demands, new religious practices, and more. Though there are many extra challenges as a blended family, creating a lovely, peaceful home is attainable.
Acknowledge the challenge.
Though you want everyone in your new household to get along, it is no small feat to combine two families into one as you co-parent with a new partner. Memories of the past influence attitudes and emotions of those in your household (1). Acknowledge that it will take time to figure out how your new family unit will handle money, bonding, discipline, childcare, and any other issues that may arise. It can be an uphill climb at first, but it’s doable once you have a plan.
Come up with a plan.
Making parenting changes before you marry save a tremendous amount of heartache. Sit down with your future spouse and discuss how to parent together, and then make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. It’ll make for a smoother transition and your kids won’t become angry at your new spouse for initiating changes. Some of the topics that need to be discussed will be the role each parent will play in parenting and facilitating the development of any children, the division of labor concerning the kids, expectations, and long-term goals.
Try stepping in your children’s shoes.
Your children or step-children didn’t get the opportunity to choose whether they wanted a new family, so great care and patience should be taken to help them adapt to the situation. Whether you’re the step-parent or it’s your spouse who’s in that role, talk frequently with the kids about how it’s going and what the experience is from the other’s point of view. Study your children so you can read between the lines and truly empathize. Keep the lines of communication open. Beware of defensiveness in children when they are communicating with you.
Bond with your kids and step-kids.
You will increase your chances of successfully bonding with your biological children and new stepchildren by thinking about what they need. Age, gender, and personality all play a part in what the child’s needs are and how to best bond with that child to establish a rewarding relationship.
One good way to bond is to find ways to experience “real life” together. Taking both sets of kids somewhere exciting like a theme park every time you get together is a lot of fun, but it isn’t reflective of everyday life. Try to get the kids used to your partner and their children in daily life situations.
Also, don’t expect to fall in love with your partner’s children overnight. Get to know them. Love and affection take time to develop. Make a commitment to developing a relationship with your stepchild that has nothing to do with your spouse. Set aside some special time in which you and the child can interact alone (2). However, let your stepchild set the pace.
Re-examine your needs.
Tell your partner exactly what your needs are and what you need from him. Let your partner know if you need your kids to feel more accepted in their new home or need a different division of labor. Explain your needs and describe precisely how they can be met. Nobody can read your mind. In turn, you need to ask your partner what is needed from you.
Make your marriage your priority.
Every family, including step families, is founded on the marital relationship. Unfortunately, the complexity of the blended family makes it a challenge to keep your marriage as your top priority. Usually the children precede the marriage. Biological parents feel guilty putting their partner first since they fear their children will think they love them less. They are caught between their spouse and their children. However, the marriage relationship needs to be the foundation of the home (1). Yes, your children are precious and important. Of course, they deserve your love and attention. But make sure you are balancing your care of them with care for your marriage. Some ways to help solidify your marriage are to avoid divisive speech, set boundaries, go on dates, but don’t hog your spouse, and seek professional help when needed.
Agree on discipline strategies for kids.
Kids need parental consistency, or they become confused and insecure. One of the greatest sources of tension in stepfamilies is dealing with discipline. Children learn trust when they experience fair, effective discipline. Disagreements between parents about discipline often invite manipulation from the kids, who quickly learn to pit adults against one another to get what they want.
Also, don’t assume that your style of disciplining will be appropriate for your stepchildren. It’s important that you talk to your partner about the rules and punishment that existed before you joined the family. It’s unfair to change the rules on a child overnight. Therapists suggest that you and your partner develop a list of values you both want to teach, such as responsibility and honesty. Then tackle your beliefs on parenting. For example, you may think that time-out is an effective discipline tool, while your partner may feel it’s unsuccessful. Next, draft a list of household rules, such as how much screen time each child gets or when bedtimes are. Once you both understand each other’s parenting styles, you can discuss discipline problems and what strategies you will use that will be effective for your family and that honor everyone’s beliefs.
Of course, developing a strategy may seem easier said than done. It can be particularly difficult for a new stepparent to start laying down the law. Early on, the children’s biological parents should take responsibility for enforcing rules whenever possible, with the stepparent acting as deputy.
Form an alliance with your ex-spouse.
You and your former spouse have not ended your relationship; instead, you have changed it from an intimate, emotional relationship to an affiliation that’s held together by common goals for your children. At the very minimum, ex-spouses should use self-control in order to cooperate and compromise on issues of the children’s well-being. The bottom line is children need their parents to work together whether married, divorced, or married to other people. Set the intention to have a compassionate and supportive co-parenting relationship. A few things that help co-parenting is to make transitions as smooth and positive as you can between houses, communicate with the co-parent regularly, and do not use the children as messengers. Keep in mind that even if you are able to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship, your child may still experience emotional distress.
Use routines and rituals to bond.
Creating family routines and rituals can help you bond with your new stepchildren and unite the family as a whole. Plan to incorporate at least one new family ritual such as Sunday dinners, 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.
Learn to listen.
Surprisingly few parents talk with their children about what to expect when two families come together into a stepfamily. Children will be curious about the changes in their daily lives. They may be concerned about their physical and emotional safety. They may be uncertain about their financial, residential, or emotional security. Parents can tackle challenges as they listen to their children in a meaningful way.
Understand each person has an identity.
One of the primary issues that makes life in a stepfamily so challenging is that each person belongs to more than one family identity: both biological and those created through remarriage. Biological and step children can have complex feelings about their own sense of belonging, especially when figuring out their identities. It is easy for any member of step families to feel lost, left out, displaced, hurt, and angry (2). Some things you can do to help is to make sure everybody has a space of their own, regardless of how much time each spends in a home.
Children may suffer a loss of identity in terms of membership in the family they have known. They may have difficulty accepting the new family simply because it is not what they have known. Older children tend to react more strongly to this loss. Some children may feel required instantly to love and care for all new family members. This can lead children to feel guilty, angry, or depressed. Explain to your child that this is not a realistic belief and that it is okay to have mixed emotions about new family members. Give your child permission to reveal their real feelings to you. They may even need help identifying what their true feelings are. Reassure your child that relationships can be built over time.
In the end, the most comforting piece of advice about blending families is this: A blended family is a family, first and foremost. The more parenting experiences you gain, the more mistakes you learn from, the better you become at being a parent, stepparent, and spouse. The result is a happier, well-adjusted, well-blended family.
- Deal, R. L. (2014). The Smart Stepfamily: 7 Steps to a Healthy Family(Revised ed.). Bloomington, MN: Bethany House.
- Gross, G. (2017). How to Manage Siblings in Blended Families. In HuffPost. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gail-gross/how-to-manage-siblings-in-blended-families_b_9091264.html