A blended family … it just sounds so delightful. Two partners who love each other, bringing together their children, and creating a new life. However, these Brady Bunch dreams are very rarely a reality. The truth about blended families is they are usually a big tangle of difficult feelings, undesirable behaviors, and tension. Building a new family just isn’t easy but these tips can you bond with your new partner and step-children and create an environment where everyone actually wants to be!
Build Bonds and Conquer Challenges Together
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What Is A Blended Family?
Blended Families are also known as reconstituted or step-families. The definition of a blended family is hard to pin down in this modern age. The divorce rate hangs between 40-50% for first marriages, higher for second ones. The nuclear family, consisting of one male and one female parent and their children, living in a household, is no longer the only acceptable family in society or by law.
With that being said, basically, a blended family is any family structure where two people with children come together to build a new family. One, or both, partners may have children. They may be biological or adopted children. The couple may decide on remarriage or cohabitation. No matter what the structure looks like, the joining of two separate households is hard on every member of the family.
Difficulties In A Blended Family
All families are hard to navigate at times, but the difficulties that blended families face are multiplied exponentially. Not only are the two partners embarking on a new marriage or living situation, but they are learning to parent step-children as well. Children must navigate new waters with another adult in their life, while they may still be mourning the loss of their biological parent’s relationship. Two households … twice the amount of problems.
Problems Faced By New Step-Parents
According to Group Therapy, some of the most common problems experienced by parents in a new blended family include both internal issues of self-doubt and grief, along with relational problems between new family members.
Learning To Balance Time Between Step-Children and Children
Between work, building a new marriage, and the stressors of everyday life, it can be hard for step-parents to find adequate time for each child. Not only much they ensure that their biological children are adjusting adequately, but they also feel an intense need to form bonds with step-children. Finding time to nurture a new spouse and two sets of children with one-on-one time, and make sure that everyone has equal access to you, is difficult and can cause stress for new parents.
Relationships With Step-Children
Though you may love them like your own children, at first, they are not. Children often enter a blended family with intense emotional scars and bitterness. They are often resistant to a new authority figure and resist bonding with someone they see as an attempted replacement of their biological parent.
The Joys of Co-Parenting
Not only are step-parents learning to parent new children, but they also must learn to work together with your partner’s ex-spouse. These previous relationships are often messy and full of bitterness. You will likely have different parenting styles and ideas about what is right for the children.
Finding Time For Your Partner
The foundation of any strong family is the relationship between the parents. However, while focusing on helping children adjust, weddings, new homes, and moving, new partners often have a difficult time nourishing this relationship.
Dealing With Sibling Rivalry
Children vie for parent’s affection. Sibling rivalry is a common blended family issue, especially when the children are close in age. Perhaps the new step-siblings are talented athletes. Perhaps they are gifted with natural intelligence. They may be popular or very attractive. All of these can cause jealousy, but generally, the rivalry comes from competition for parental affection.
Respecting Each Other’s Parenting Style
Learning to parent together might be the hardest element of a new relationship. Caregivers generally want the best for their children, but watching a new person discipline them or interject opinions on their behavior is difficult. New partners often disagree on essential aspects of screen time, discipline, and schooling. Stepkids usually exhibit difficult behaviors in the first months of the blending, and parents find their new role as extremely hard.
Overcoming Grief and Self-Doubt
Most partners will, at some point, deal with grief from the loss of their previous marriages. Even if those relationships were unhealthy, most people have some guilt or sadness for the loss, if only for their children’s sake. The emotions can be very complicated, as you may be very much in love with your new partner, but still deal with grief from a former spouse. This is especially true in the case of the death of a former partner or a child that is having a hard time adjusting to the loss of their parent’s relationship. Parents often feel guilty that their child is having to experience pain due to their decisions.
In some blended families, the new step-parent does not have children of their own. In this case, they are often completely unprepared and have doubts about their ability to parent stepkids. Former single parents may also have immense difficulty letting their new partners get involved in raising their children.
Issues For New Step-Children
Co-parenting expert Kate Chapman, from the Huffington Post, states “The truth is no one wants to be in a blended family. Born of grief and tinged with failure, blended families are messy and complicated, and exhausting.” This is certainly true for the children involved. You might love your new partner immensely, but that doesn’t mean your children will adjust easily to them as a major part of their lives.
Adjusting To New Things
Changes to routines and traditions may be extremely difficult for some children. Kids often have to change homes, schools, and churches. They may lose friendships and have to build new ones. For some children, this causes a sense of upheaval and stress. They worry about their ability to make new friends. They grieve the loss of their old lives. Children crave stability, and a new family unit can really mess with their sense of security.
Feelings of Resentment and Failure
Errantly, children often feel that the failure of their parent’s relationship is somehow their fault. Their hopes of reconciliation have been dashed, and a new step-parent is viewed with what borders on hatred. This obviously isn’t the case for all children. In a large family, you may only have one child that feels this way, but it is a legitimate problem that may need consulting from a mental health professional
Boundaries Of A New Parent
Step-children must adjust to taking instruction from a new adult. As they often feel this “imposter” is trying to take the place of their biological parent, this process can be accompanied by rebellion. They may have trouble respecting the new authority figure.
Feelings of Inadequacy
Sibling rivalry is common in a new blended family. Introverted or gentle children may have trouble adjusting, especially if they inherit very confident or extraverted step-siblings. They may feel overlooked and neglected easily.
Communicating Their Feelings
Children do not have the coping skills or communication skills of a well-adjusted adult. They may not be able to express their concerns or emotions appropriately. Behavioral changes in children occur because they are unable or unallowed to express these concerns.
Teenagers have a whole different set of issues to deal with. Hormones are on high alert. They are on the brink of adulthood and generally overestimate their ability to deal with difficult situations. If step-siblings are their age, they may share friends and community, which can limit their ability to explore normal teenage boundaries, knowing that their sibling will know everything they do. If they are of the opposite sex, even more complicated feelings can emerge, and they may have difficulty working through them alone but will want to.
How To Plan For Your Blended Family
According to Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., “after having survived a painful divorce or separation and then managed to find a new loving relationship, the temptation can often be to rush into remarriage and a blended family without first laying solid foundations.” For the new family to be successful, it is imperative that you take your time and have a plan! Here are a few things you need to consider in planning for your new family.
Make A Schedule For Big Changes
Dr. Segal says that blended families who wait at least two years after divorce or separation before remarrying are more successful. Once you have found your new love, you will be eager to move forward, but remember too many changes at once can endanger the safety and security your child feels. Sit down with children and make a timeline that everyone feels comfortable with. For instance, we are going to go on vacation together next month. We will schedule the wedding for November 1st. We will start looking at a new school in July. Having a date in the future allows the whole family to be on the same page about what will happen and gives them time to adjust to the situation.
Make Only The Necessary Changes
Give children and each other time to adjust by only changing what is absolutely necessary. For instance, if you are moving into a new house, allow the children to stay in their school for as long as possible. It might be inconvenient for a few months, but let them finish out the school year where they are. This is only one example and may not be possible in your situation. The point is, change what is absolutely necessary at first, and let the rest take place over a period of time to allow your child to adjust.
Experience Real-Life Situations
Going on vacation and fun family outings is great for bonding, but you also need to experience real-life together. Gather the kids and your partner and go to the grocery store. Have a movie night at home. Plan for what real life will look like.
Don’t Expect To Naturally Love Your Partner’s Children
Get to know the children and don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an immediate, natural affection for them. Spend time together working on your relationship, just you and them. Love will develop over time.
Anticipate and Communicate
Far too many couples begin their blended family just assuming everything will fall into place eventually. This is often not the case. The most successful partners anticipate future issues and have a plan for dealing with them. New partners will need to discuss areas of parenting, religion, previous partners, and aspects of relationships with the children. Having a plan and being on the same page before a problem arises will save your relationship and the whole family from chaos. While every situation cannot be foreseen, many of the common problems can be, and you can handle them in the manner that you both have already agreed will be best.
Respect Is A Must
Your partner and your children must understand that even though they may not like a situation, there will be respect in your home. Do not allow children or your spouse to make ultimatums, causing you to choose between them. The children must know that you and your partner are a unit. You are in agreement, and communication is open to everyone, but it will be done respectfully.
Encourage Open Communication
Children need to be allowed to express their fears and concerns in a secure manner. Encourage open communication with your step-children on a personal basis and as a family unit. Once you and your partner are on the same page, sit the whole family down and explain how you will deal with difficult situations. Knowing that you have a plan and that they have a say can increase children’s confidence in their new family unit.
Keep Your Expectations Low
If you go into your new family expecting everyone to instantly love one another instantly and the waters to be calm, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Expect it to take time. Prepare to deal with behavioral issues. Expect hurt and hard conversations. If you go into the situation ready to deal with these issues, then you may even be pleasantly surprised when things go better than expected!
Setting Up A New Household
Once you have decided to move forward with your new partner into marriage or cohabitation, you will need to ensure an environment that feels safe for everyone. There are a few things you can do now that you are all living together to increase bonding and decrease negative tensions.
Spend Time Daily With Your Children
Finding time for each kid is a challenge, but it is vitally important. It may be something as small as bathtime or a bedtime routine, but make sure that each child has access to both of you for some undivided attention. Make it known that this is your time with that child, and that you will be back in ten minutes, or however long. Make sure that time is shared equally and that you have time as a family unit as well.
Set Household Rules
A clear set of rules for the house is important. Children, though resistant to, do need limitations. Once you have agreed with your partner on your parenting approach, present it to the family. Rules and consequences for breaking them should be clearly laid out and fair. Allow children to express opinions on the matter, but stick to your guns. Make sure everyone is on the same page and that the rules are understood. Involve the children by asking them if there is anything you forgot or anything they would like you to consider.
Involve The Kids When You Can
Allowing children to help in the settling process helps them feel at home in their new surroundings. Let them decorate their own room or space. Give them input on where the furniture goes or which cabinet they would like for their personal items. Having a say in even small things increases their love for the new place and their security in the fact that you value them and they are heard.
Follow The Pace Of The Kids
Let your step-child set the pace for how fast you bond. Don’t be too eager to force engagement. The pace will depend on the personality of the child, the degree of their past pain, and their loyalty to their biological parent. Continue to show interest and offer opportunities, but try not to be distressed by their rejection. With time, most kids will come around.
Beware of Physical Affection
According to the American Psychological Association, step-children often prefer verbal praise and affection from a step-parent for a while. Girls, especially, report feeling uncomfortable with physical affection from a new adult. Every child is different, but do not force hugs or kisses until the child is comfortable. Let them initiate this act if they want to.
Go Easy On The Discipline
While respect is expected, most experts agree that discipline from the new step-parent should be eased into. Allow the primary parent to handle discipline, at first, while the step-parent serves as more of a friend or counselor. Once a bond of affection and trust is established, then the child is more likely to willingly accept the rules of the new household and correction from the step-parent.
Holiday or annual traditions are sacred to almost everyone. Family members may resist changing their long-held traditions. They may also be resistant to letting new people in on them. Try to create a balance of honoring old traditions and adding a few new ones to bond as a family unit. Here are “Twenty Memory-Making Christmas Activities For Your Family To Try.” Perhaps you will find the perfect tradition here to help make your first holiday season memorable as a new family.
Nurture Your Romantic Relationship
Do you ever remember hearing your parents fight when you were a kid? Like really fight? If you do, you probably remember the fear it caused inside of you. Children have an innate need for security. Your relationship with your new spouse is the foundation of your family, and you must nurture it in order to create a secure environment for kids. Have date nights. Discuss everything that is going on and agree to handle every situation as a team. You are each other’s greatest ally. Studies show that 66% of second marriages, involving children from previous relationships, fail. Though your instinct as a parent will be to put your child and their well-being above all, taking time for your spouse and maintaining that bond is beneficial to the whole family.
When you need to fight it out, do it when the children are not present. When building a new family, they need to see you as unified. If you disagree on a parenting situation, support each other in front of the children. Work it out after they go to bed.
Relations With The Other Side
Family relationships are hard enough in a nuclear family. When new partners and ex-partners, and their partners are all added to the mix, the combination of personalities and ideas is often very hard to navigate.
Keep Up Communication
Remember the good old days when you could just break up with your partner and never speak to them again. You would never have to see their face if you didn’t want to. Wasn’t that nice? Sadly, with children in the picture, those days are long gone. Whether it is court-ordered visitation or the will and need of your child to see their biological parent, your child will likely spend time with your ex. That means you will have to coordinate and communicate with them. For some families, the first marriage ended amicably, and this is no problem. The original parents remain friends, and life moves on easily. For others, that is not the case! Either way, communication with the father or mother of your child should remain respectful.
This aspect is important not only for your ex-spouse but also for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and old friends. Your child likely has a large circle of influence and people who love them. Remember that separation affects the whole family and everyone close to it. Ensure that your child has access to anyone from their old family that they want to keep in communication with. They may have feelings, that for one reason or another they do not feel comfortable sharing with any of the parents involved. An aunt or grandmother is often a comfort in these situations. An uncle is a great fishing buddy.
As a parent, you must make decisions about what is safe and healthy for your child. You may have people that you no longer want in your child’s life. Perhaps that is for the best, but as long as safety is not a concern, encourage your child to keep healthy communication with family from the other side.
Involve Each Other In Decisions
Your ex-partner is the parent of your child. They have a right to be involved in important decisions about the care of their offspring. Not only do you and your partner need to agree, but on important matters, you should attempt to find agreement with the child’s first parent as well. Be open to suggestions and input from the other side and be willing to talk through disagreements civilly.
Coordinate Your Households
Getting to know a new parent is hard enough on kids. There are new rules and new expectations. It is made even harder if the expectations in their “other home” are wildly different. For the stability of all involved, consider communicating with your ex-spouse before you and your partner set your house rules in stone. If possible, sit down together, with both households, and devise a set of rules that work for everyone. It is unlikely that you will agree on every matter, but the more rules and consequences you can agree on, the easier it will be for your child to shift seamlessly between households.
Mind Your Tongue
Speaking ill of your ex in front of the children benefits no one. Your children love their first parent, and they should respect them as well. Respect goes both ways, if you want it in your house, then encourage it in your child’s other home as well. If your ex is not worthy of respect, allow your child to come to that conclusion on their own.
Encourage A Relationship With Your Partner and Ex-Partner
All kinds of emotions can occur between a current partner and an ex-partner. Some new spouses are jealous of their partner’s contact with their previous love interest. Others are angry at the pain the ex has caused. Some ex-partners will not be happy with the way the new spouse parents their children. While the likelihood of your partners becoming best friends is unlikely, they can have a civil working relationship. Of course, this takes time but should be encouraged.
Consider Getting Help
For whatever reason, much of our society is resistant to getting professional help. Some think it unnecessary. Many believe it is admitting defeat or that they cannot handle their own problems. However, involving a couple or family therapist gives you a non-partial third party to access the situation and give suggestions. These professionals have helped countless families make these kinds of transitions and can help prepare you and your partner for what might lay ahead. They may have input on situations you never even thought to prepare for.
Even when people are open to therapy, they often wait until the problem has escalated to a point where they can no longer handle it. This is unwise. A therapist is most able to help before the hurt and damage are done. Consider consulting a professional as soon as you get serious with a new partner. If you have made the decision to blend your family, consider getting help from the get-go. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the help you need is unavailable. Couples therapy, family therapy, and even therapy focused on the children are all available.
Creating a blended family is usually not easy. You will likely run into some of these challenges or a host of others. Remember that each family is unique. The problems you face and the solutions that are right for your family will vary from that of other families. They will depend on the age of your children, the length of time it has been since your divorce or the death of your spouse, and the personalities of all those involved.
What is for sure is that preparation is key. Taking the time to let your family adjust can make all the difference in the success of your endeavor. However, time alone won’t magically make everything fall into place. If you are experiencing trouble in your transition, don’t be afraid to reach out for help!
Nourish your romance with a special date this holiday season. Check out our list of “25 Fun and Festive Christmas Activities For Couples.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Each family faces unique issues, but some of the most common issues affecting blended families include difficulty bonding with step-children, co-parenting with biological parents, and different parenting styles of the new spouses.
There are several unique challenges faced by blended families. New partners often go into a relationship with the excitement of new love, but they do not prepare themselves or their children for the changes it brings. Co-parenting, bonding with step-children, and dealing with ex-partners are all challenges faced by blended families.
Dealing with issues in a blended family often takes help from a professional therapist. However, working on your romantic relationship, scheduling fun family activities, and encouraging open communication between all family members are key to a successful blending.