How to Help Your Stepfamily Blend

Advice for step-parenting and blending families

blended family
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When deciding to make a life together with your partner to form a new, blended family, many rewards and challenges lie ahead. A blended family can include your children or your new spouse’s children from a previous relationship. It can take a few years for a blended family to establish itself and function well together. It is normal for the children to feel uncertain about the upcoming changes and how it will affect current relationships with their natural parents. They will also worry about living with new step-siblings. Planning how your blended family will function before the marriage takes place will give you the best chance of success.

Step-parenting 101

One of the biggest stepfamily challenges involves parenting and discipline. If a couple takes the time to discuss their expectations around parenting and discipline, it can be very helpful. These talks should happen prior to remarrying. You and your spouse need to be specific about your expectations. For example, what the house rules are, who does certain chores and what will rewards or punishments look like. You should also talk about your values, beliefs, and philosophy around both parenting and how to develop a cohesive unit as a step-family.

It is particularly critical that there is consistency in the parenting structure. You want the kids to adjust as smoothly as possible and being consistent will definitely help with that. Generally, the biological parents should be the ones to take primary responsibility for enforcing rules, with the stepparent acting in a supportive role. You both should always be on the same page as not to unintentionally encourage manipulation among the children. You also do not want to be shocked by anything upon moving in together. You do not want to discover that the youngest also gets to sleep in your marital bed, meals are in front of the T.V. or the kids can come and go from the house without permission if you are dead set against such things.

Once you have put your parenting structure in order, turning it into a supportive, loving, well-blended home is another task entirely. Do not expect instant "Brady Bunch" harmony. All of you need time together to bond and navigate the new relationships. Remember that you are dealing with children! It is a major expectation of them to do this along with visitation and time-sharing schedules. You should not force these relationships and connections. You can demand respect, civility, and courtesy, but you cannot force the kids to all like their stepsiblings or a stepparent. 

The Kids vs. The New Spouse—A Losing Battle

Who comes first, your kids or your spouse? The answer is both. Just as in your first marriage, both the kids and the primary adult relationship were priorities. You may be divorced because you did not nurture your first marriage. If this was the case, you know the importance of nurturing your new marriage or it will fall apart. When your children see you and your new spouse in a nurturing and loving relationship, this is healthy for them. However, your kids do not care about your romantic life, and they did not ask for the divorce. That means you must pay attention to their emotional needs and tend to them.

Both you and your spouse have an obligation to make all the kids in the household feel safe and secure. They need to know they can trust you both and go to either of you to talk openly. You should also be checking in with them frequently and not express anger if they are unhappy with some of the new arrangements. Do you best to help each child individually with his or her struggles adjusting to the new household. Depending on the gender and age of the child, each will adjust differently. If you can’t get out of spouse vs. kids power struggles, it’s time to seek help from a family therapist

Yours, Theirs and Each Other’s

You may decide to have a baby with your new spouse. This will add another shift in the family dynamics. Do not be surprised if the kids aren't jumping for joy with you. If you have created a stable stepfamily structure, the transition will be easier. But, you are still going to want to prep the kids for what’s happening and tend to their emotions and questions around it. A baby might actually help create closeness and connection between everyone in the stepfamily.

The Ex-Factor

One of the biggest sources of children's problems after a divorce is the failure of parents to keep their negative feelings or disparaging comments about their ex (or their new spouse's ex) to themselves. Keep yourself in check! Kids only feel bad about themselves if you criticize their other parent. They will only feel stress if you two do not get along and fight too.

As great as it would be if your child's homes would be identical, this is entirely unrealistic. Ignore the things that don’t really matter. You should not make an issue of anything that isn’t a safety concern. Your kids will adapt to the rules of each house. Be flexible and reasonable with your ex regarding visitation and time-sharing.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Recognize that you and your kids still need your own time together. Your kids need to know that the “original family” is still special and not just part of another big group. It’s perfectly okay to do something on your own just with your kids and your spouse should too.

Don’t even try to create perfect equality for all the kids. This is impossible. Be as equal as you can and when you can. Help your children cope with their perception of inequality and the feelings, like jealousy, that might come up. For example, if one of the step-children comes home with a new toy from the other parent, normalize and validate the jealous feelings around this.

On the flip side, don’t try to “buy” your step-children's love or try desperate attempts to get them to like you. This will likely backfire and not work. You also do not need to overindulge your biological children out of “divorce guilt.” By the same token, these are both ineffective parenting strategies.

A blended family is still a family, first and foremost. Nowadays, families come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. What makes a family is more about connection and love between and within dependable relationships than genetics. You may make mistakes that you can learn from. You and your spouse are going through the learning curve together. The better you are at being a partner, parent, and stepparent, the happier and blended the family.

Online resource: National Stepfamily Resource Center