Feeling at Home in Blended Families

Blended families come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes there are two sets of children who are living in the new family home at the same time, but more often children will be entering the new family home and leaving again at various intervals. For instance, Mom may have her 2 boys living with her during the week and staying with their biological dad every weekend. Mom’s new husband may have his daughter and son coming to the new home every Wednesday evening and alternate weekends. With kids coming and going like this, the new home can have a chaotic flavor to it. However, firmly established family routines can counter this feeling, adding predictability and stability to the family.

To help increase feelings of stability and cohesiveness in your blended family, consider the following tips:

Try to Establish a Family Dinner Hour
If there is any day or days in which all the children from both previous marriages are in the house at the same time, try to establish a family dinner hour. For instance, let’s say that all the kids are together in your home every Monday night and Tuesday night. In that case, try to limit after-school activities for at least one of those nights (or both nights, if possible) and make a standard routine of having dinner together as a family. Mother and Father will arrange their schedules to be present and all the kids are available – it’s only a matter of committing to the importance of being all together that one (or two) night(s). In our culture where everyone is busy with so many work-related, school-related and personal development activities, it is not easy to arrange a weekly family dinner. However, if you can find a way to do it, your family will definitely feel more like a family. Moreover, family dinners have been found to be valuable to the development of kids (even from non-blended families!) for many reasons. Emotional stability, family cohesion, a chance to get to know each other and strengthen bonds – these are only some of the benefits of family dinners.

Arrange Routines Appropriate for Each Child’s Stage of Development
In some blended families, there are two different age-sets of kids. For instance, the children from one previous marriage might be 2 and 4, while from the other partner’s previous marriage, the kids are 10 and 13. This age-gap situation is more common in blended families than in non-blended families. It is important that each child is treated in a way that is appropriate for his or her age. The little kids may need to go to bed by 7p.m. while the big ones stay up till 9 or 10. Blending families does not mean ignoring real differences. The “family bedtime routine” becomes a matter of working through two different bedtimes in the household each night.

Not Blending Well
Sometimes kids from divorced homes end up “falling between the cracks.” For instance, 14-year old Jake stays with his Dad’s new family every other weekend. Dad has two children from his new marriage, aged 3 and 5. Jake’s step-mom Carol is very busy with the kids and she doesn’t seem to know much about teenagers. She’s always on Jake’s case to clean up his room when he comes or to be quiet so the little ones can sleep and so on. Jake feels like an intruder in what should really be his home. He reacts by being sullen with Carol, and he doesn’t care much to please her. He resents his Dad for breaking up his family. All-in-all, Jake’s sense of stability and security have been deeply challenged. If Dad added a couple of simple routines during Jake’s visits, Jake might have a much better adjustment. For instance, it would be great if there was always at least one family dinner during Jake’s stay (see above). Perhaps, Jake could choose a task that he would like to do with the younger kids during his visit – give them a bath, or read them a story, or play ball, or cards or something. If there was one activity that Jake did with those kids every time he came, this routine could help make him an important part of Dad’s new family instead of just an outsider who enters the house. Step-Mom could make a routine of sitting down for 5 minutes with Jake each visit just for a one-on-one chat – catch up, chat, bond. Perhaps that routine would center around a favorite treat that she has ready for him at each visit, whether that is a can of soda or a home-made brownie or whatever he likes. Doing the same thing over and over again is what turns an activity into a routine. In order for Jake to feel that he is in a home – his home – and he is not just a visitor to a hotel, he needs to have some regular responsibilities and accountability. A curfew, a task (take out garbage, clean the yard or whatever) and other normal family routines will help him feel that he is actually IN a family when he is staying with his Dad.

Reducing Chaos
Routines are important to every child. However, they are even more important in helping to stabilize blended families. Parents need to be organized, responsible and consistent. Children get picked up and dropped off at regular times. They go to bed at the same time during the week and the pre-arranged time on weekends. In other words, there is no “free for all” just because a child is not always home. If the child has homework to be done, he is assigned a time in which he needs to do it. Dinner time should be regular – not 4 p.m. one night, 8p.m. the next night and 6p.m. the night after that. Eating at home is important and home-cooked food should be a big part of the menu. In other words, parents are doing everything to maintain the flavor of a stable, normal home environment as opposed to a vacation spot where everything goes. If you are finding it hard to establish consistent routines within your blended family, meet once or twice with a mental health professional or family counsellor who can help you put things in place. The enduring benefits of establishing healthy routines will be worth whatever investment you make.

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