You have probably heard the term blended family in general conversation or maybe even your family has been described as one. But, what exactly constitutes a blended family? Otherwise known as complex families, step-families, or reconstituted families, a blended family is, in the most simple terms, two families “blended” together. That sounds easy enough, but does it really work? How does a blended family operate? Let’s see what the experts have to say about the structure of these families and how they function.
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What Is A Blended Family?
A blended family consists of one or more partners who have children from a previous relationship who come together to make one family unit. These family arrangements have existed for probably all of human history, but they typically were not recognized legally unless the partners married and adopted the children. Traditionally the only “acceptable” family structure was the nuclear family: one woman and one man, living together with their biological (or possibly adopted) children. Times have certainly changed in the last few decades. With the divorce rate hovering between 40-50% in America, alternate living situations are at an all-time high. Studies like the one above show that millennials are waiting longer to marry, and the marriage rate is dropping overall, with more people choosing not to go that route. So, now the term family encompasses a much broader spectrum of arrangements.
Types Of Blended Families
There are several different types of blended families, each with its own struggles and strengths. The modern reconstituted family could have an infinitive number of arrangements. It is important to realize that every family is unique, and that goes for blended families too. Each family will chart their own course on important decisions like co-parenting, adoption, and how they address each other. There is no right or wrong. Each family must figure out what works for their situation and set of personalities.
A Married Couple Who Both Have Children
The first type of blended family structure is the classic Brady Bunch Family. Two biological parents who remarry, usually after divorce, the death of a spouse, or a child from another relationship. Both of the partners have children from a previous relationship. The partners will sometimes adopt each other’s children in the case of the death, imprisonment, or lack of involvement of the other biological parent.
Often, adoption does not take place. Instead, the new couple will co-parent alongside the biological parents. In this case, we often classify the non-biological caregiver as a step-parent, and the children become step-siblings. The new couple may also choose to have biological children together, producing half-siblings. However, many families choose not to distinguish between biological and stepchildren with all these labels. There is no right or wrong when it comes to family dynamics. It’s a personal preference.
Traditionally remarried couples and their children were seen as failures of some sort, but in modern times, this is not the case. These relationships are often seen as more healthy for everyone involved than for a parent to stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children. Married, blended families can be homosexual or heterosexual as laws protecting same-sex marriage and adoptions have been passed in the last couple of decades.
These families face hardships of all kinds, but as you can imagine, the more personalities you throw in the mix, the more there is to adjust to. The parents must learn to love and guide children who are not biologically their own, and they must learn to adjust to their new partner’s parenting style, which is often very different from their own. The children are not only inheriting new parents but also new step-siblings! It’s a lot to adjust to.
A Married Couple With One Biological Parent
The second structure is a couple who marries when only one of the partners has a child. This type of arrangement can be a little more difficult in some ways, as the new spouse is now also a new step-parent. They don’t just get a spouse but a whole new family! Just more to love though right?!
The Cohabiting Family
In the modern age, many parents are choosing not to marry. There are many reasons for this. Some just don’t believe in marriage. Many choose to stay single (on paper) for financial gains. Others had a hard time with previous marriages and don’t want to do that again. When marriage (or remarriage) is not in the cards, parents may decide to raise their children together in a successful blended family without all the official titles.
Difficulties Faced By Blended Families
New relationships of any kind can be difficult. While parents are likely to be excited about their new relationship and eager to create a home for the new extended family. The children are often a different story. Each household will deal with unique family issues. However, some of the most common difficulties faced by newly blended families are:
1. Children Accepting A New Parent
Children often have difficulty accepting a new parental figure. They feel someone is trying to replace their biological parent and often rebel against receiving instruction from the new step-parent. This is especially prevalent in teenagers.
2. Children Of Different Ages
Children of blended families are often of vastly different ages. The baby of the family, all of a sudden, has to adjust to the new role of big brother. A teenage, only child must adjust to having a seven-year-old around. Children of widely different ages can make forming new traditions harder, as it is more difficult to find activities and conversations that everyone can be happily involved in. They may also be closer in age than is possible for biological siblings. This often creates rivalry and bitterness over sharing rooms, toys, or even birthday celebrations.
3. The Amount Of Planning
In situations where you have multiple parents raising children together, there are always custody considerations. Taking the kids somewhere for the weekend involves making sure they don’t have prior commitments with the other side of the family, etc. Planning a birthday party for one member of the family can feel like herding cats to get everyone free, on the same day, at the same time. Both parents and children can become frustrated by the need to plan around their new family members.
4. Parenting Styles
Not only do children have to adjust to getting a new authority figure, but partners must adjust to each other’s parenting styles as well. This often takes time and copious amounts of hard conversations to come to a place of agreement about family rules and how they will be carried out. This includes aspects of punishment, rewards, nurture, and quality time. The problem may be exacerbated by parental inexperience if one partner has no children of their own.
5. Family Traditions
Each family has its own special events and little routines that make birthdays or holidays special. It may be hard for some family members to adjust their normal routine to include the traditions of their new family. It may also be hard for some to share their traditions with new people. Family traditions are something most of us hold very dear and any change to those most sacred of events can take time to accept.
6. Parental Doubt
Parenting is hard enough when it is your natural offspring. It is even harder to navigate the waters of raising a child that you have adopted as your own. Many step-parents have insecurities about living up to the biological parent. They aren’t sure how to navigate the waters of a new child, and rejection from the child can be very difficult to accept.
Every family member will grieve the disruption of their normal at some point in this situation. Everyone is adjusting to a new house, new family members, new schedules, and new traditions. Children may feel grief over the inability of their parents to reconcile. They may resent the whole situation. New couples may find that they have no time to nourish their relationship as they try to balance time between their biological and stepchildren and establish a new family dynamic.
These are only a few of the innumerable situations that can occur in newly blended families. Some families make it look seamless, but it very rarely is. Adjusting to a new family takes time and work. It rarely just falls into place. However, blended families also come with a host of amazing benefits!
Benefits Of Blended Families
Successful blended families provide an environment of equality, respect, and love that only increases the joy of everyone involved. While they certainly face hardships, the benefits are great as well.
1. Children Get More Role Models
One of the unfortunate parts of a nuclear family is that we often inherit the good and bad traits of our parents. Adding extra role models into the mix can produce more well-rounded individuals. When a child loves and trusts the step-parent, they may learn skills and wisdom from them that their own biological parents do not possess. This is especially prevalent when the structure changes from a single-parent family to a blended family.
2. Increases Acceptance
Growing up in a step-family can increase a person’s acceptance of different ways of life. They are exposed to different ideas than they would have been in their nuclear family. They learn a whole new set of problem-solving techniques and learn to work together in a group.
The new family structure is often more healthy and whole than the previous situation. This may take time for children to see, but often a parent in a healthier marriage or committed relationship has a trickle-down effect on the happiness and security of the children as well.
Steps to Developing A Successful Blended Family
According to the experts at Choose Therapy, for everything to go smoothly, each family member should be involved in the process. The following tips can help new families to blend successfully. Though it is not a full-proof plan, following these tips give your family the best chance to adjust in a healthy and harmonious way.
1. Don’t Go In Guns Blazing
This is a delicate process, and you need to have a plan in place that works for everyone. The experts suggest making a general timeline that both spouses and the kids can agree on. For instance, if a marriage is to occur, then set a date that everyone is comfortable with and give the children time to adjust. Do the same for all major transition events.
Proper communication through each step is important. Talk with the kids about what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and what changes it will bring. Let them be a part of the process and ask if they have any ideas on how to make things go smoother. Children in these situations often feel as if they have lost control in a topsy turvy world, and including them in the process can give back some much-needed grounding for them.
2. Take The Long Road
Big changes are hard on everyone. Start by changing the things that have to be changed and leaving the other things alone. For instance, if your child can stay in their old school or daycare for a few extra months until the wedding and move are over, it may add some stability for them.
If a full move has to occur, try not to pressure them too much. It will cause immense stress. Perhaps allow them to decorate their new room or ask for their input on how the new house will be set up. Allow them to tour schools in the new area and see if one or another feels better to them, and then make the decision as a family.
3. Pay Attention
A bigger family is just more people to love, but it also is more people demanding your attention. Some children and partners will outright demand it, with verbal outbursts and negative behavioral changes. Others will retreat into themselves. It’s best to have a plan here too. Try to evenly distribute your time with each child and step-child, making sure that the time you have is quality time, spent specifically addressing that child’s needs. It is fine to have a calendar with scheduled time slots. Schedule “mommy and me” time and “daddy-daughter days.” It may feel forced at first, but eventually, it will become natural.
Don’t forget your spouse. Most parents are so focused on making sure that their children don’t feel neglected or abused during these transitions, that they overlook nurturing the relationship that is at the core of it all. Be sure to make time for your new partner. Children feel most secure in a home where they know that their parents love and respect each other. Kids are very intuitive and can feel your stress. If they can look to you and see that everything is good with this new environment and that you are happy, they will feel more at ease as well.
4. Make Time For The Whole Crew
You should focus on having personal time with each kid, but you also need time to bond as a family unit. This might take some creativity. Finding activities that work for everyone is a challenge, especially if your new family has children will large age gaps. Shameless plug coming…consider an expertly created Adventure Book or take a weekend trip to a nearby city with one of our guided scavenger hunts. This is literally the reason we make these tools, to help families and loved ones connect on a deeper and more adventurous level. Whether you use our tools or not, consider family time the most important aspect of your transition. The dishes can wait. The laundry can wait. Play a board game together and then tackle those dishes as a crew.
If this feels like too much pressure. Allow each family member to plan a family night. This will allow the kids to have a say in what happens in their family and give each one a say. They may be reluctant at first, but when everyone else is having fun, it’s hard not to join in…eventually!
5. Your Partner Is Just That
This new venture will likely be the greatest challenge your relationship faces. Studies show that in the US, about 41% of first marriages end in divorce, but 60% of second marriages do. Nourishing your relationship is of the utmost importance, and so is having a plan for parenting your children. Parenting styles differ drastically across the American population, and just because you and your new partner get along great, and love each other madly, doesn’t mean you are naturally going to have the same parenting ideas.
Before you take any drastic steps to marry or cohabitate, there need to be some intense conversations on aspects of parenting. You may even need to do some couples therapy to find a way to meld your two different takes on parenting. Most of these issues can be worked through, but it is much better to talk them out beforehand. It’s more productive to have a plan ahead of time than a negative experience with your child and your new spouse that you have to battle through later. Set clear expectations of each other. Talk through different scenarios and how you will handle them and come to an agreement before you involve the children.
Experts suggest that at first, you set up the step-parent as a friend and confidant. Leave major discipline issues to the biological parent. Respect is a must. This is not a license for the child to take advantage of the new step-parent but gives the relationship time to solidify a bond before the new parent becomes the primary disciplinarian.
6. Rules Rules Rules
Behavior issues are likely to happen in your new household. Everyone is under varying amounts of stress from new schools, to lost traditions, and new personalities. Once you and your partner have agreed on a plan, set it before the family. Children (whether they want to admit it or not) do better with clear boundaries and consequences. As a unit, lay out the new family rules and clearly explain the consequences for breaking the rules.
It is important to make sure that consequences are equal across the playing field, taking into account age-appropriateness, of course. The goal is to ensure that everyone knows where you stand, and that you and your partner are in agreement. The rules should ensure that everyone is treated equally, in an attempt to decrease new sibling rivalry. Another great tip is to consult with the children’s other biological parents and attempt to create a rule structure that is as consistent across households as possible.
7. Communication Is Key
At the end of the day, you are the parent, and you are responsible for your children and the decisions of your new family. You will have to make decisions that are in their best interest. That doesn’t mean they are going to like them. You will likely experience backlash. That doesn’t mean you should change your decision, but you should keep an open line of communication for each family member to express their concerns and frustrations.
Just by allowing your child to express their displeasure and giving an explanation of why you made the decision, you can dissolve a majority of the tension. Expressing their feelings allows them to verbally process their emotions. The fact that you will listen and empathize with them makes them feel secure and valued. They might still not like your decision, but at least they will feel that you do care and are taking their perspective into view.
8. Be Patient
There is a lot of excitement and nervous energy when building a new family. You may feel tempted to rush it and have an overwhelming desire for everyone to just get along and love each other. While in rare instances, this can occur, it is unlikely. You are dealing with several different personality types and each one will adjust differently. Take your time, and set your expectations low. If you go into the process knowing that is going to take time and that there will be roadblocks, you are likely to handle them with much more grace when they do arise. On the other hand, if you expect everything to just float into place smoothly and you don’t have a plan, you will likely be stressed, bitter, and frustrated when things don’t work as you imagined.
A Few More Considerations
· Be Prepared For People’s Perceptions
Your family is your business, but that doesn’t mean grandma won’t have a few words to say. There is an old southern saying that “opinions are like butt cracks, everyone has one, and most of them stink.” While a bit silly, you get the point. Family members, friends, and your ex-spouse will all likely have opinions and suggestions for your new relationship and how you are handling every little situation.
Most of the peanut gallery has good intentions. They love those kids too and are just trying to be helpful. However, you may need to set some boundaries with family members and will likely have to defend yourself against negative perceptions. It’s not a bad idea to talk through some of the common issues with your partner and be on the same page about how you will handle his mom, and your dad, or whoever it is. Again, address how you will handle possible future issues so that when they do come up, you will know how to walk through them together.
· Keep It Civil
According to Ph.D. Jeanne Segal, “Children will adjust better to the blended family if they have access to both biological parents.” When at all possible, work together with your children’s biological parents. In the event they have passed or are dangerous, then this obviously isn’t an option. However, if safety isn’t an issue, then involve the other set of parents as much as possible.
Being on the same page with the “other side of the family” and keeping similar boundaries and structures will increase the stability for your children. Keep open lines of communication and make every attempt to co-parent with the other side in a mutually respectful manner. It’s easier said than done and may require professional help, but make every attempt on your part to respect your former partner and their role as your child’s parent.
· Know When You Need Help
There is no shame in bringing in a professional third party to help with these difficult transitions. Seeing a couples therapist or even doing some family therapy sessions can really help take some of the stress off of you. A trained psychotherapist has the ability to notice subtle nuances in behavior that you may not see in yourself or your children. They will be able to offer advice and expertly walk you through difficult situations. Most importantly, they can help prepare for possible future issues, as they have experience with other families and know the likely culprits. They may foresee situations that you would never have thought to have a plan for.
Blended families have become the norm in our society. Like any family, they can be mutually beneficial for all parties involved, or they can be a complete disaster. It really depends on the way the situation is handled. Every family, blended or not, has its difficulties. Marriages are hard. Raising children is hard. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a very successful blended family. Plan ahead. Put in the work together, and take your time. You got this!
Taking a family trip is a great way to get to know each other and form some strong bonds, but be sure to review our “Must-know Tips For Traveling With Kids” first, to help ensure your first family vacation is a success!
If the upcoming holiday season is your first as a newly blended family, we also offer some suggestions for holiday traditions. Start some together and make festive times just as memorable as they are fun!
Frequently Asked Questions
A blended family is formed when two devoted partners come together to raise children from previous relationships. These families can take on many structures and each is unique!
There are many types of blended families. Examples include two divorcees each with children from a previous marriage, or a single parent who marries a partner who co-parents with an ex-spouse.
Nurturing a blended family can be hard, but quality time together can get you on the right track. Try a weekend getaway with family-friendly experiences or challenges from a family adventure book!