Living in a blended family can be tricky. After all, stepparents are not just juggling their own children’s affairs (which in itself is challenging), they’re also juggling their spouse’s children’s affairs, and those of the family unit as a whole. Throw in the ex’s and you’ve got a mountain of complex responsibilities and issues to be dealt with. Without clear order and structure in the new household, a blended family can feel chaotic.
Fortunately there are two things that can help: rules and rituals.
Rules refer to standards of behavior – guidelines that outline that which is allowed and that which is prohibited in a household. A family with rules is a more stable family, because there are clear boundaries and expectations. A curfew is an example of a rule. “No sweets before dinner,” is another example. The trick with rules is to limit them so that the household can maintain appropriate levels of flexibility and comfort. However, a few good rules can reduce conflict and enhance the harmonious functioning of a home.
Rituals are repetitive routines or ceremonies. Rituals need not be grand; eating together as a family every Sunday evening is an example of a ritual, as is having a small birthday party for each family member’s birthday. Rituals can provide stability to a blended family because they usually communicate a deeper value, such as togetherness, respect and acceptance. Rituals have been shown to have a positive effect on a person’s life, whether that person is a child or an adult. The soothing, uplifting and stabilizing effects of rituals are especially important in blended families. The new rituals of the family can actually help make the family a reality.
The following are some rules and rituals that are helpful when raising a blended family:
Do A “Welcome Everyone” Ritual
This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many parents neglect to have some form of welcoming ceremony when kids from different households first come together as one family. If you’re a part of a couple about to begin a blended family, you can make up a “Welcome All” ritual for your family. This can be something as simple as going out to lunch and dinner together before you transfer to a new home. A round of formal introductions — even if you all know each other by then — can be helpful, especially when each person is encouraged to tell the group something about themselves. For instance, “I’m Daryl. My favorite hobby is building train sets. I have a huge collection in my basement – and no one better ever touch it!” “Hi, I’m Carol. I was married to Doug for 12 years before he died last year. I love homemade cookies and you can often find me up late at night baking up a batch. Don’t worry – I share!” Perhaps each set of children can create a welcome gift or present for their new siblings and step-parents.
Create An “Express Differences Respectfully” Rule
Sooner or later, one of the children is going to notice something different in his or her step family and will say “hey, that’s not how we do things in our home.” This situation can’t be helped; after all, a blended family is the merging of two different families with their own history, way of doing things, values and traditions. What parents can do is to encourage discussion of these differences, instead of pushing them aside. One rule that can help is the agreement that all feedback must be stated respectfully, with no attempt to belittle the other family’s opinions, or force them to comply with what you believe is correct.
New parents can create a structure where kids can air the differences that concern them. A weekly meeting can be a venue to raise issues and address them. Sometimes, the result will be “let’s agree to differ”, sometimes one family will agree to adopt the other family’s way, and sometimes the the two families can create a new way of doing things.
Treat Everyone the Same — But Don’t Force People to Respond to You in the Way You Prefer
Jealousy and coalitions can easily thrive in a blended family. A dad who buys his biological kids an expensive toy, but fails to get his step-children the same, can lead kids to adapt an “us vs. them” mentality in the household. Similarly, hugging blood siblings, but not being affectionate with a step-brother or a step-sister can cause resentment to build up.
Keeping your eye on “equality” can help reduce the pain and jealousy of inequality. Parents are never exactly the same with each of their kids, so they’re certainly not going to be the same with each of their kids and each of their step-kids. Still, just be aware of how many treats, privileges, reprimands and punishments you are handing out to whom. It should not be obvious that a particular youngster or side of the family is favored or rejected.
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. Dinnertime should be at a set time – not 4p.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.
In order for a child 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 each parent.
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 try to arrange their schedules to be present and as many of the kids as possible should be present. In our culture where everyone is busy with 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 derived from the ritual of family dinners.