To a child who does not belong, the term stepfamily may suggest Cinderella’s troubled family or the eerily perfect Brady Bunch. Actually, neither situation tells the whole story. In a stepfamily, or blended family, one or both parents have been married before. Each has lost a spouse through divorce or death, and one or both of them have children from a previous marriage. They fall in love and decide to remarry, and in turn form a new blended family that includes children from one or both of their first households.
Although you love your new partner, you may not automatically love his/her children. Likewise, the children will automatically love you because you are a nice person. Establishing relationships does not happen magically overnight. Even when you recognize the time involved, it’s hurtful to want a relationship with someone who doesn’t want a relationship with you. When people hurt, they may become resentful and angry.
Children go through a painful period of adjustment after a divorce or remarriage.
Adults often feel guilty about this, and want to “make it up” to their children. This makes it hard to respond appropriately to each child’s hurt and to set appropriate limits.
Research has demonstrated that in time, most children recover emotional balance, and will be no different in many ways from children in a first-marriage family.
Because many fairytales feature step-parents who are unkind or unfair, new step-parents may be confused about their roles. You may be a wonderful person who wants to do a good job, but the negative model of the step-parent can impact on you in a very personal way, making you self-conscious and lacking confidence about your new role.
Couples are optimistic when they remarry. They want life to settle down and to get on with the business of being happy. However, it can take a long time for people in newly blended families to get to know each other, to create positive relationships, and to develop a family history.
Children will adjust better if they have access to both biological parents. Sometimes visitation is painful for the non-residential parent, but it is important for the child’s adjustment and emotional health—except, of course, in the rare instance of parental abuse or neglect.
People need time to grieve the loss of a loved one. A remarriage may reactivate unfinished grieving, which can have a detrimental effect on a new relationship. A person who is deceased exists in memory, not in reality, and sometimes gets elevated to sainthood. When people remarry after death of a spouse, they may want a relationship similar to their previous one. New partners may find themselves competing with a ghost.
When the stepchildren visit only occasionally, perhaps every other weekend, there is not enough one-on-one time to work on stepchild/step-parent relationships, and less opportunity for family activities and bonding. Since stepfamilies follow an adjustment process, the part-time stepfamily may take longer to move through the process.
A stepfamily doesn’t have to be—and probably won’t be— “just like” a biological family. Today, there are lots of kinds of families: first marriage, second marriage, single parent, foster, stepfamily. Each type different: each is valuable.
In order to successfully blend two families, there are a number of important matters that should be discussed. By dealing with these issues before blending families, you can help keep potential problems from arising.
Once a couple has decided to remarry, they should agree on where they will live. Many couples find that moving into a new home rather than one of their prior residences reinforces the idea of a new beginning for them as well as the children. The couple also need to decide if they will share their money or if each wants to keep his/hers separate.
Partners should also determine how they will handle medical care in case the other biological parent isn’t available to sign a release for one of the children. Stepparents do not have the legal authority to sign a release, unless permission is given to them (preferably in writing).
A second marriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurt from the first one, both for adults and children. For example, a child can no longer hope that his biological parents will reconcile. Or an ex-wife may stir up trouble with her ex-husband when she hears he is about to remarry. The new couple must negotiate a final emotional divorce to clear the way for a fresh start.
Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes to the household rules that may be in order. Even if the parents lived together before marriage, the children are likely to respond to the stepparent differently after marriage because he/she now has assumed an official parental role. The following tips can help make this difficult transition a bit smoother:
- Set up a relationship with the children in which the stepparent is more like a friend or camp counselor than a disciplinarian.
- Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of the children until the stepparent has developed a solid bond with them.
- Until step-parents can take on more parenting responsibilities, they can monitor the children’s behavior and activities and keep their spouse informed (without appearing to be spies)
- Working together, step-parents can come up with a list of family rules. Discuss the rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. This way the step-parent is removed from the custodial parent step-parent-stepchild triangle because he or she is simply following the house rules, rather than acting like a policeman.
Newly married couples without children usually use their first months together to build on their new relationship. Couples with children, on the other hand, are often more consumed with their own kids than with each other. Newlyweds need to build a strong marital bond. This will ultimately benefit the children by creating a stable home environment. Couples should set aside time for each other, either by making regular dates out or taking trips out with the children.
Forming a stepfamily with young children is usually easier than forming one with adolescents, both biological and stepparent will find it helpful to understand basic child development so they don’t mistake developmentally normal behaviors as inappropriate, uncooperative or hostile toward them.
|ChildrenUnder 10||Find the adjustment easier because the thrive on close, cohesive family relationshipsAre more accepting of a new adult in the family, especially when the adult is a positive influence.|
|AdolescentsAged 10—14||May have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. Because of their sensitivity, stepparents need to be especially aware of having time to bond with them before stepping in as a disciplinarian or authority figure.|
|Teenagers15 or older||Need less parenting and may have less involvement in stepfamily life. Prefer to separate from the family as they form their own identity . Are less interested in closeness and bonding but may be disturbed by an active romance in their family|
Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness ,like hugs and kisses.
Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical show of affection from their stepfathers.
Boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
Individuals who had a secure attachment relationship with a parent or caregiver when they were very young may have a better chance of relating well in their new families than those how did not. This is true whether they be the biological parent, stepparent, or stepchild.
People who have an insecure attachment history may have problems establishing close, loving bonds in a stepfamily. Fortunately, it is never too late to overcome this deficiency. An insecurely attached child can learn to trust others, to communicate and relate to people who treat them with consistent affection, attention and respect. A connection will take place if the caregiver stays centred and welcoming. Successful relationships build an internal sense of security for the child. They also foster the creation of the interpersonal skills that will enable the young person to make meaningful connections in the future.
After a divorce, children usually adjust better to their new lives when the parent who has moved out maintains a good relationship with them. When parents remarry, the nonresidential parent often decreases or maintains low levels of contact with their children. Fathers appear to be the worst offenders; on average, dads drop their visits to their children by half within the first year of marriage.
The less a parent visits, the more likely a child is to feel abandoned. The nonresidential parent can remain connected by developing special activities that involve only the child and him/herself.
It is not a good idea for parents to speak negatively about their ex-spouses in front of their children. This undermines a child’s self-esteem and may put him or her in the troubling position of defending that parent.
|Reassure children that the divorce/death was not their fault. Invite questions and discussions.Start talking with your children about the possibility of blending your family long before your marriage.Assure children that they will continue to have a relationship with the non-residential parent.Begin a dialogue about the future family life, letting everyone acknowledge and mourn losses through an open discussion of feelings.
Present a unified parenting approach that is evenly applied to everyone in the family.
Spend some time alone with each child and stepchild, connecting one-on-one.
|Push your children into creating relationships. Allow bonds to evolve slowly and naturally. Give your children the time, space and flexibility to adjust to the new situation.Expect your stepchildren to call you mum or dad. Let them decide what they want to call you, or mutually select a name that you are comfortable being called.Forget your marriage by focusing exclusively on the family . Make alone time with your spouse consistently, and nurture your marital relationship.Allow conflict to arise between adults in front of the kids.
Hesitate to ask for help from family members, friends, or support groups. Blending two families can be hard.
Since many remarriages include children from previous relationships, blended families or stepfamilies are more common than ever. When families “blend”, though, things rarely progress smoothly. Some children may resist changes, while you as a parent can become frustrated when your new family doesn’t function in the same way as your previous one. While blending families requires adjustment for everyone involved, these guidelines can help your new family work through the growing pains. No matter how strained or difficult things seem at first, with open communication, mutual respect, and plenty of love and patience, you can develop a close bond with your new stepchildren and form an affectionate and successful blended family.
What is a blended family?
A blended family or stepfamily forms when you and your partner make a life together with the children from one or both of your previous relationships. The process of forming a new, blended family can be both a rewarding and challenging experience. While you as parents are likely to approach remarriage and a new family with great joy and expectation, your kids or your new spouse’s kids may not be nearly as excited. They’ll likely feel uncertain about the upcoming changes and how they will affect relationships with their natural parents. They’ll also be worried about living with new stepsiblings, whom they may not know well, or worse, ones they may not even like.
Making your blended family a success
Trying to make a blended family a replica of your first family, or the ideal nuclear family, can often set family members up for confusion, frustration, and disappointment. Instead, embrace the differences and consider the basic elements that make a successful blended family:
– Solid marriage. Without the marriage, there is no family. It’s harder to take care of the marriage in a blended family because you don’t have couple time like most first marriages do. You’ll have to grow and mature into the marriage while parenting.
– Being civil. If family members can be civil with one another on a regular basis rather than ignoring, purposely trying to hurt, or completely withdrawing from each other, you’re on track.
– All relationships are respectful. This is not just referring to the kids’ behavior toward the adults. Respect should be given not just based on age, but also based on the fact that you are all family members now.
– Compassion for everyone’s development. Members of your blended family may be at various life stages and have different needs (teens versus toddlers, for example). They may also be at different stages in accepting this new family. Family members need to understand and honor those differences.
– Room for growth. After a few years of being blended, hopefully the family will grow and
To give yourself the best chance of success in creating a blended family, it’s important to start planning how the new family will function before the marriage even takes place.
Planning your blended family
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. But by taking your time, you give everyone a chance to get used to each other, and used to the idea of marriage and forming a new family.
Too many changes at once can unsettle children.
Blended families have the highest success rate if the couple waits two years or more after a divorce to remarry, instead of piling one drastic family change onto another.
Don’t expect to fall in love with your partner’s children overnight. Get to know them. Love and affection take time to develop.
Find ways to experience “real life” together. Taking both sets of kids to a theme park every time you get together is a lot of fun, but it isn’t reflective of everyday life. Try to get the kids used to your partner and their children in daily life situations.
Make parenting changes before you marry. Agree with your new partner how you intend to parent together, and then make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. It’ll make for a smoother transition and your kids won’t become angry at your new spouse for initiating changes.
Don’t allow ultimatums. Your kids or new partner may put you in a situation where you feel you have to choose between them. Remind them that you want both sets of people in your life.
Insist on respect. You can’t insist people like each other, but you can insist that they treat one another with respect.
Limit your expectations. You may give a lot of time, energy, love, and affection to your new partner’s kids that will not be returned immediately. Think of it as making small investments that may one day yield a lot of interest.
Given the right support, kids should gradually adjust to the prospect of marriage and being part of a new family. It is your job to communicate openly (/articles/relationships- communication/effective-communication.htm), meet their needs for security, and give them plenty of time to make a successful transition.
Bonding with your new blended family
You will increase your chances of successfully bonding with your new stepchildren by thinking about what they need. Age, gender, and personality are not irrelevant, but all children have some basic needs and wants that once met can help you establish a rewarding new relationship.
Children want to feel:
Safe and secure. Children want to be able to count on parents and step-parents. Children of divorce have already felt the upset of having people they trust let them down, and may not be eager to give second chances to a new step- parent.
Loved. Kids like to see and feel your affection, although it should be a gradual process.
Valued. Kids often feel unimportant or invisible when it comes to decision making in the new blended family. Recognize their role in the family when you make decisions.
Heard and emotionally connected. Creating an honest and open environment free of judgment will help kids feel heard and emotionally connected to a new step-parent. Show them that you can view the situation from their perspective.
Appreciated and encouraged. Children of all ages respond to praise and encouragement and like to feel appreciated.
Limits and boundaries. Children may not think they need limits, but a lack of boundaries sends a signal that the child is unworthy of the parents’ time, care, and attention. As a new step-parent, you shouldn’t step in as the enforcer at first, but work with your spouse to set limits.
Let your stepchild set the pace
Every child is different and will show you how slow or fast to go as you get to know them. Some kids may be more open and willing to engage. Shy, introverted children may require you to slow down and give them more time to warm up to you. Given enough time, patience, and interest, most children will eventually give you a chance.
Use routines and rituals to bond
Creating family routines and rituals can help you bond with your new stepchildren and unite the family as a whole. Plan to incorporate at least one new family ritual, such as Sunday visits to the beach, a weekly game night, or special ways to celebrate a family birthday. Establishing regular family meals, for example, offers a great chance for you to talk and bond with your children and stepchildren as well as encourage healthy eating habits.
Helping children adjust
Kids of different ages and genders tend to adjust differently to a blended family. The physical and emotional needs of a two-year-old girl are different than those of a 13-year-old boy, but don’t mistake differences in development and age for differences in fundamental needs. Just because a teenager may take a long time accepting your love and affection doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want it. You will need to adjust your approach with different age levels and genders, but your goal of establishing a trusting relationship is the same.
Young children under 10
– May adjust more easily because they thrive on cohesive family relationships.
– Are more accepting of a new adult.
– Feel competitive for their parent’s attention. Have more daily needs to be met.
Adolescents aged 10-14
– May have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily.
– Need more time to bond before accepting a new person as a disciplinarian.
– May not demonstrate their feelings openly, but may be even more sensitive than young children when it comes to needing love, support, discipline, and attention.
Teenagers 15 or older
– May have less involvement in stepfamily life.
– Prefer to separate from the family as they form they own identities.
– May not be open in their expression of affection or sensitivity, but still want to feel important, loved and secure.
Gender Differences – general tendencies:
– Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, like hugs and kisses.
– Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from their stepfather.
– Boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
Blended family changes
As you blend two families, differences in parenting, discipline, lifestyle, etc., can create challenges and become a source of frustration for the children. Agreeing on consistent guidelines about rules, chores, discipline, and allowances will show the kids that you and your spouse intend to deal with issues in a similar and fair way.
Other common challenges include:
Age differences. In blended families, there may be children with birthdays closer to one another than possible with natural siblings, or the new step-parent may be only a few years older than the eldest child.
Parental inexperience. One step-parent may have never been a parent before, and therefore may have no experience of the different stages children go through.
Changes in family relationships. If both parents remarry partners with existing families, it can mean children suddenly find themselves with different roles in two blended families. For example, one child may be the eldest in one stepfamily, but the youngest in the other. Blending families may also mean one child loses their uniqueness as the only boy or girl in the family.
Difficulty in accepting a new parent. If children have spent a long time in a one-parent family, or still nurture hopes of reconciling their parents, it may be difficult for them to accept a new person.
Coping with demands of others. In blended families, planning family events can get complicated, especially when there are custody considerations to take into account. Children may grow frustrated that vacations, parties, or weekend trips now require complicated arrangements to include their new stepsiblings.
Changes in family traditions. Most families have very different ideas about how annual events such as holidays, birthdays, and family vacations should be spent. Kids may feel resentful if they’re forced to go along with someone else’s routine. Try to find some common ground or create new traditions for your blended family.
Parental insecurities. A step-parent may be anxious about how they compare to a child’s natural parent, or may grow resentful if the stepchildren compare them unfavorably to the natural parent.
Strengthening your blended family
Establishing trust is crucial to creating a strong, cohesive blended family. At first, children may feel uncertain about their new family and resist your efforts to get to know them. This is often simply apprehension about having to share their parent with a new spouse (and stepsiblings). Try not to take their negative attitudes personally. Instead, build trust and strengthen your new blended family by:
Creating clear boundaries
Discuss the role each step-parent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules.
– Establish the step-parent as more of a friend or counselor rather than a disciplinarian.
– Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for discipline until the step-parent has developed solid bonds with the kids.
– Create a list of family rules. Discuss the rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. Understand what the rules and boundaries are for the kids in their other residence, and, if possible, be consistent.
Keeping ALL parents involved
– Children will adjust better to the blended family if they have access to both biological parents. It is important if all parents are involved and work toward a parenting partnership.
– Let the kids know that you and your ex-spouse will continue to love them and be there for them throughout their lives.
– Tell the kids that your new spouse will not be a ‘replacement’ mom or dad, but another person to love and support them.
Communicating often and openly
Discuss everything. Uncertainty and worry about family issues comes from poor communication, so talk as much as possible.
Never keep emotions bottled up or hold grudges, and try to address conflict positively
Listen respectfully to one another. Establish an open and nonjudgemental atmosphere.
Provide opportunities for communication by doing things together as a family – games, sports, activities.
Tips for a healthy blended family
– All brothers and sisters “fall out,” so don’t assume all family arguments are the result of living in a blended family.
– Beware of favoritism. Be fair. Don’t overcompensate by favoring your stepchildren. This is a common mistake, made with best intentions, in an attempt to avoid indulging your biological children.
– Make special arrangements. If some of the kids “just visit,” make sure they have a locked cupboard for their personal things. Bringing toothbrushes and other “standard fare” each time they come to your home makes them feel like a visitor, not a member of the blended family.
– Find support. Locate a step-parenting support organization in your community. You can learn how other blended families overcome challenges.
– Spend time every day with your child. Try to spend at least one “quiet time” period with your child daily. Even in the best of blended families, children still need to enjoy some “alone time” with each parent.
Maintaining marriage quality in a blended family
While newly remarried couples without children can use their first months together to build on their relationship (/articles/relationships-communication/relationship- help.htm), couples in a blended family are often more consumed with their kids than each other. But focusing on building a strong marital bond will ultimately benefit everyone, including the children. If kids see love, respect, and open communication between you and your spouse, they will feel more secure and are more likely to model those qualities.
– Set aside time as a couple by making regular dates or meeting for lunch or coffee during school time.
– Present a unified parenting approach to the children— arguing or disagreeing in front of them may encourage them to try to come between you.
When to seek help
If, despite all of your best efforts, your new spouse and/or children are not getting along, find a way to protect and nurture the children. It might be time to seek outside help from a therapist if:
– a child directs anger upon a particular family member or openly resents a step-parent or parent
– a step-parent or parent openly favors one child over another
– members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as school, working, playing, or being with friends and family
It might be time to seek outside help for the entire family if:
A child directs her/his anger upon a particular member or openly resents a step-parent or parent.
One of the parents suffers from great stress and is unable to help with a child’s increased need for attention.
A step-parent or parent openly favors one of the children.
Discipline of a child is left to the parent rather than involving both step-parent and parent.
Members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as learning, going to school, working, playing, or being with friends or family.