Bringing two families together can seem nearly impossible. Blended families, or stepfamilies, are becoming increasingly common in the United States and at least half of the nation’s children live with a biological parent and the parent’s new partner. The joining of two parents and their respective children can create a great deal of challenges. But therapy for blended families can help ease the transition.
At My LA Therapy, our blended family specialist will help you learn practical skills for communication and teach you to honor one other’s needs as well as your own.
BLENDED FAMILIES: CHALLENGES FOR CHILDREN
- Children, especially older children, can easily become stressed by change, particularly when multiple changes occur at once. Children are often the ones most affected by the blending of a family: After children have experienced the divorce of their parents, they may find it difficult to adjust to a new parent and that parent’s new rules, and they might express their frustration with behavioral or emotional outbursts.
- Some children may also struggle with feelings for the new parent. Before the blending, a child may view a parent’s significant other as a friend, but when the significant other becomes a parent, the child may resent what he or she views as a “replacement” of his or her other parent. Children might also be reluctant to trust a stepparent, especially those who may feel abandoned by a biological parent following a divorce. Further, when the child comes to care for the stepparent, he or she may struggle with the new emotions, as the child may feel that love for the stepparent somehow betrays his or her biological parent.
- Sibling rivalry can also take on a new dimension, as children may feel compelled to compete for attention and dominance in the new household. A child may also worry that his or her biological parents may come to prefer the child’s stepsiblings.
- Visitations with the other parents can also present difficulties. What was once the “normal” routine—one family spending unscheduled and unstructured time together every day, planning events in a flexible or spontaneous manner—gives way to what can be a confusing, insecure pattern, where scheduling conflicts create tension, and new family members may find it difficult to find the time to get used to one another. In addition, children may complain about the stepparent to the “outside” parent, which can strain relations in what may already be a tense relationship.
- Grief can also be a factor in the transition. When a remarriage takes place following the death of one parent, a child may still be grieving the loss of the other parent and could be further triggered by the remarriage. Children in these situations will often need more space and time to finish the grieving process before they can come to accept the new parent. Thus, let the child 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.
BLENDED FAMILIES: CHALLENGES FOR COUPLES
- Research shows 66% of second marriages including children from previous marriages fail. This may be due in part to the increased stress experienced by all members of a new blended family. Stress in a new family situation is normal, even if the transition appears to have gone well, and although the term “blended family” might imply a smooth transition, the early years of a stepfamily relationship are often more likely to be difficult for all involved.
- Due to issues such as differing parenting and discipline styles, the development of new relationships, and strong and potentially conflicting emotions from all sides, it may take time for one family to get used to living with the other family, even if they all got along before the families began living under the same roof. The couple may face difficulties adjusting to their new roles as part of a larger family, rather than just as a couple, and issues that arise with a partner’s children may place tension on their newly formed bond.
- Individuals who do not have children of their own, and are thus becoming parents for the first time when they enter the stepparent role, might face additional stress as they become accustomed to the new role along with a new marriage. They may struggle to find the right balance between winning the affection and love of the children and parenting them appropriately, and it may take time to adjust to parenthood and be welcomed by a partner’s children.
BLENDED FAMILIES: SUCCESSFUL TRANSITIONS
Studies show that it generally takes between two and five years for a blended family to transition successfully. The first few years may prove difficult for some families, but when members of the family recognize that the new family will not be the same as the previous family, learn to respect each other, acknowledge the time needed to accept the changes and give new relationships time to form, they will often be able to succeed as a family. While changes to family structure require adjustment time for everyone involved, the following guidelines can help blended families work out their growing pains and live together successfully via a solid foundation:
- Don’t try to replicate – 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. Being civil; understand all relationships are respectful and have room for growth.
- Strengthen the family via trust and open communication – Be sure to discuss everything; don’t keep emotions bottled up or hold grudges. The way a blended family communicates says a lot about the level of trust between family members. When communication is clear, open, and frequent, there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and more possibilities for connection, whether it is between parent and child, step-parent and stepchild, or between step-siblings. Learn not to take children’s lack of enthusiasm (and other negative attitudes) personally. It isn’t that they don’t want you to be happy; they just don’t know what it will be like to share their parent with a new spouse, let alone his or her kids. These feelings are normal. Don’t assume. All brothers and sisters “fall out;” not all family arguments are the result of living in a blended family.
- Create clear, safe limits and boundaries – Uncertainty and worry about family issues often comes from poor communication. Thus, an important part of building trust in a family has to do with discipline. Children may not think they need limits, but a lack of boundaries send 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 and boundaries. Couples should discuss the role each step-parent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules. Also, create a list of family rules. Try to understand what the rules and boundaries are for the kids in their other residence, and, if possible, be consistent. Discuss the rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. It might be helpful to also set up some ‘house rules’ for communication within a blended family, such as: listen respectfully to one another, address conflict positively, establish an open and nonjudgmental atmosphere, do positive/fun things together, show affection to one another comfortably.
- Bond with children – Early in the formation of a blended family, you as a step-parent may want to focus on developing positive relationships with your stepchildren. You will increase the chances of success by thinking about what the children need. Age, gender, and personality are not irrelevant, but all children have some basic needs and wants that should be met as a precursor to a great relationship: to feel safe and secure, loved, seen and valued, heard and emotionally connected, appreciated and encouraged. Demonstrated affection may all help ease the concerns of children who are reluctant to trust a stepparent or who are worried that a biological parent might come to love them less. Parents may also wish to reassure their children that they will answer any questions and discuss any feelings the children might have. Try to spend at least one “quiet time” period with your child (or children) daily. Even in the best of blended families, children still need to enjoy some “alone time” with each parent. Also, creating family routines and rituals help unite family members. Decide on meaningful family rituals and plan to incorporate at least one into your blended family. They might include 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. Finally, If some of the kids “just visit,” make special arrangements and 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.
- Maintaining marriage quality – Newly remarried couples without children usually use their first months together to build on their relationship. Couples with children, on the other hand, are often more consumed with their own kids than with each other. You will no doubt focus a lot of energy on your children and their adjustment, but you also need to focus on building a strong marital bond. This will ultimately benefit everyone, including the children. If the children see love, respect, and open communication between you and your spouse, they will feel more secure and may even learn 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. 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 his or her children in daily life situations.
- Beware of favoritism and keep your expectations in check – Be fair; don’t overcompensate by favoring your stepchildren. You may give a lot of time, energy, love, and affection to your new partner’s kids that will not be returned immediately. This is a common mistake, made with best intentions, in an attempt to avoid indulging your biological children. Think of it as making small investments that may one day yield a lot of interest. On the other hand, don’t expect to fall in love with your partner’s children overnight. Get to know them. Love and affection take time to develop. You can’t insist people like each other but you can insist that they treat one another with respect.
- Keep 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. It can be established that the stepparent being more of a friend or counselor rather than a disciplinarian. Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for discipline until the stepparent has developed solid bonds with the kids. 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.
- Understand 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. 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.
- Find support – Locate a step-parenting support organization in your community. You can learn how other blended families address some of the challenges of blended families.
THERAPY FOR BLENDED FAMILIES
Family therapy is often an effective way for a blended family to work through the issues that each member brings to the new family. Before blending a family, some families may find it beneficial to attend therapy as a family and to speak to a therapist about the transition. Counseling both before a remarriage that will result in a blended family and during the transition process may help ease the tensions that often arise in newly blended families.
Adults who are planning to remarry or cohabitate with children from previous relationships might wish to plan ahead and prepare to face challenges by talking with one another and with their children about any possible differences in parenting styles and positive ways to handle any conflicts that might arise.
When parenting changes take place before the actual marriage, the transition to living together will often go more smoothly. However, if attempts are made and, despite best efforts to lay a foundation, your new spouse and/or children are not getting along or not agreeing on a way to protect and nurture the children, it might be time to seek help from a therapist, especially 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; and/or members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as school, working, playing, or being with friends and family.