Blended families occur when divorced or widowed adults with children form new relationships with other adults with children. Today’s high divorce rate has vastly increased the number of blended families. While parenting is always challenging, blended-family parenting presents additional issues that require extra skill and sensitivity.
Typical Challenges of Blending Families
The challenges of the blended family often have their roots in children’s relationship with their own parents. A parent’s re-marriage can take its toll on children, especially if the separation blindsided them. While parents may know for months or even years that their marriage will be ending, kids are often left out of the loop. They are more likely to be shocked by the time the information is presented to them. Sometimes conversations sound like “Your mom and I haven’t been getting along so I’m moving out and we’re getting divorced.” While this plan may have taken the adults a very long time to formulate, the kids may experience the dissolution of the marriage as an overnight affair. This could be true even if the parents were constantly fighting and threatening divorce within earshot of the kids. Children have no idea of what is happening behind the scenes – the marriage counseling, the lawyers, the long talks. In most cases, they just hear the final sentence. This shock aspect of the family breakdown can make the adjustment period harder. Even if the children long suspected that their home would dissolve, they are more likely to have suffered wishful thinking and serious denial. It can take them quite awhile just to come to terms with the fact that their home, as they once knew it, will exist no more.
Kids have to adjust to not only to the loss of their family, but sometimes to many other losses as well. Sometimes one parent becomes very scarce. Sometimes new caregivers enter the scene. Sometimes, they have to move to another home, school and community. Sometimes, they have to incorporate new people into their lives right away – such as the parents’ new partners and others. All of this change leaves its mark on children – many become emotionally overwhelmed, angry and/or sad. Many develop academic or behavioral problems. Moreover, while their parents want to move on quickly and establish new relationships, children can be resentful or fearful. It is common for them to be totally opposed to the idea of living with a new parental figure, as well as stepbrothers and stepsisters. It doesn’t matter how lovely these new family members might be; children are thrown together with people they don’t choose. They just want their old home and life back. If they actually have reason not to like the new parent-figure or new siblings, their pain is intensified.
But even if all is well, combining two different families in one household can be stressful. Conflicts between step-siblings are bound to arise, just because they were brought up differently. They may have different values and ways of doing things. Furthermore, there is the pressure of having to create a “new” family structure. New customs, new routines, new responsibilities, new roles and new relationships all have to be navigated within the blended family unit. In addition, the new husband and wife have to begin their relationship with a house full of children! And while people have high tolerance for their own kids, it is much harder to tolerate other people’s children. Marital conflict over parenting issues is common even when husband and wife are raising their own children; parenting conflicts in re-organized families can be even more intense.
Strategies for Your Blended Family
Although these challenges are real and unavoidable, caring parents can adopt “success strategies” that will enable them to move through the initial adjustment period to create stable, loving blended families.
Below are some techniques that may help:
Accept Your Children’s Feelings
Don’t insist that your children like or love your new partner or their new siblings. In fact, if they tell you they hate these people, just accept their feelings. Say things such as, “I hear you” or “I see.” Don’t argue with them or try to talk them out of their feelings. If you just accept the feelings, the feelings will become a little lighter, and move on a little quicker. Accepting a feeling is like opening a door – the feeling can exit through the opening. On the other hand, if you shut the door on the feeling by saying things like, “You have no right to feel that way; these are lovely people who are here for you, etc.” then the feeling STAYS stuck inside. To help feelings leave, remember to open the door to them by letting your child express them.
Don’t Accept Poor Behavior
On the other hand, you must make it perfectly clear that everyone has to behave respectfully toward each other. While there is no need to like the new parent or siblings, rudeness will not be tolerated. If your child cannot control his hostility, consider accessing the help of a mental health professional. It is possible that the child’s pain is too much for him to handle and he needs therapeutic intervention.
Communicate with Your Spouse
The parenting partnership is important in all families, but especially so among blended families. It is vital that you come to an understanding regarding parenting style and discipline strategies. While some differences are expected to arise, what is important is that all children will be treated fairly and loved equally. Reaching a consensus with your partner on key parenting issues can help in anticipating the problems common in a blended family structure. This can be accomplished by reading a parenting book together, taking a parenting class together or going together to a mental health professional who deals with parenting issues and blended families.
Show the Children Love and Respect
You may have your own set of rules in your previous marriage, but you have to provide allowance for step-children to understand and adjust to your beliefs and values. Similarly, you also have to be open to their way of doing things, and allot time to adjust to their idiosyncrasies. And never speak ill of their biological parent! Doing so is the fastest way to harbor anger and hatred in the hearts of your stepchildren. Let your partner do the heavy discipline of his or her own children, while you do the same for yours. The first few years are relationship-building time; just be nice to your partner’s children. Of course, you’ll have to be pretty nice to your own as well, or they will quickly become jealous and resentful. However, everyone in the family knows whose children are whose. If a step-child misbehaves, you can let your child know that the child’s parent will be dealing with that behavior. The exception is when your step-children are very young (5 or under) in which case you can step in right away as a (benevolent) authority figure. Another exception occurs when your step child is rude to you directly. Since you must establish healthy boundaries in every relationship in your life, you can also do so with members of your new family. Do not give or accept any form of disrespect. Discuss with your partner what appropriate steps can be taken to effectively set boundaries against disrespect with his or her children (and the same for yours in relationship to your partner, of course).
Accept the Feelings of Your Step-Children
It’s not your fault that your new children don’t automatically love you (unless, of course, you mistreat them or treat them harshly). It can take years for your new children to open their hearts to you. Your patience and understanding will help speed up the process. Don’t take their rejection personally, but rather understand it as a form of their own pain that they cannot help. They have lost a home and they are hurting. Sometimes they have lost a parent. They cannot just open their heart to new love relationships – it is too dangerous. They have loved and lost. Therefore, don’t push them and don’t push yourself upon them. Instead, strive to make your stepchildren comfortable in your presence by being calm, gentle and caring. Unless the child is very young, refrain from disciplining (see above). Be positive. Offer acknowledgement and praise but skip the criticism and complaints. Let the other parent raise his or her children while you concentrate on making them feel safe and comfortable in your presence.
Do not take sides, even if you want to stand up for your own children. Don’t make step-kids feel like they have to vie for your attention, or that they have to fight you too when they disagree with your own children. As the parent in the family, always stand on neutral ground when the siblings fight. If you can go out of your way to empathize with your stepchildren, even better (without being unfair towards your own kids, of course!). Even if you know that the step-children are being mean to your own kids, take it as an expression of their hurt rather than as an expression of their inherent “evilness” – try to guide them gently. Ask the child’s parent for help. Consider that your own children are also in pain and may not exactly be angels either!
Be Gentle and Patient
Expect a lot of bumps and challenges along the way; these are normal. If possible, get a mental health professional on-board to help provide support and guidance for you and your new partner. Why re-invent the wheel? Professionals can show you the quick road to successful life in a blended family. Short term support in the early months of your re-negotiated family may save you and your loved ones years and even decades of pain and suffering later.
Lastly, Embrace Your New Role
Show your stepchildren that you are striving to be a good parent, without the intention of taking their biological parent’s place. This may mean defining your new role in their life. It can mean establishing a partnership with your spouse’s ex. It can be striking a friendship with kids, and leaving all discipline issues to your spouse. Unless your “new” children are babies, toddlers or pre-schoolers, accept that you will never be a true parent to them. What you can hope to be is a wonderful step-parent, an excellent role model, an awesome source of support and love and eventually (when the kids are grown up), and a marvelous grandparent.