Family dynamics are ever evolving on our society. Gone are the days when the family unit consists of one father, one mother and the children born from that marriage. Today 16% of children live in blended families. Six of ten women’s remarriages create blended families. (Source: www.family Love to Know.com/co-parenting/blended families.) Families don’t just come together like the 70’s TV show “ The Brady Bunch” There are true challenges and hinderances in blended families that must be identified and dealt with in our society. Cultural diversity is also a part of blended families. There are many types of blended families. There are same sex families, there are adoptive families, kinship families, foster families , extended families, co-parenting families living separately as well as co-parents living together but not in a relationship. There are arranged marriages or marriages of convenience, single parent, cohabitations, different religions marriages and all of these can be blended families.
The goals of this blog are to discuss the biggest challenges blended families face. How to create family bonds and effective communication with the family unit while allowing individuals to be authentically themselves. Establishing relationships is also a critical component with blended families to work on setting rules and disciplining the children. Finally, we will address the loss of the previous family dynamic and the new role of the blended family to make connections with each family member and when the family should seek outside support and counseling. Blended families can and are successful when there is consistency. Love, open communication, and respect for everyone.
Who lives in your house? This used to be a common question which consisted of a mother, father, children, and occasionally a grandparent. I grew up in a time where watching television we say families with two parents and children as being the norm. It did change with the popular show “ The Brady Bunch.” Mike and Carol each had three children and they married and moved in together and the kids immediately loved each other. NOT! This is not how it is today for a significant amount of families. Today there are popular television shows which show the diversity in family makeups. ‘The New Normal. “Instant Family” is a Netflix movie about another type of family. How do two adults fall in love and decide to live together and blend their families is both challenging and demands work from all parties involved. Often Parents just assume things will work out and they don’t include their children in the decision process. This is a common mistake. While I do agree it is your marriage or cohabitation, but it does affect relationships with everyone. Often there are ex-partners involved as well. So now you have other adults to consider along with the children.
Here are some things to consider PRIOR to marriage or cohabitating.
- The ages of the children
Younger children tend to form close bonds easier than children above 6. Why? They are still in the early developmental stages of developing attachments to people, so security is critical to them. When children enter school they interact with peers and lose some of the need to be around and connect as much with adults and for sure when the teen years come they don’t want nearly as much involvement with grown-ups as they did as young children.
- Involvement of other parents of the children
Yes, there will probably be some issues with time spent with which parent for holidays, outings, birthdays, and other special events. Parents want to feel their children are safe so it is normal to want to meet the adult they will be around. Meet yes, but manipulate or control No. The parent with the children must be the negotiator and relay the message to the other parent most times. This decreases communication issues or hurt feelings, (sometimes). Fights can be omitted by stating your position as the parent and not coming from the new person in the relationship. Trust must be established and that takes time. Remember you are not siblings. You all have different values, beliefs, and ways of doing things. Your way doesn’t equate to the right way. The goal should be to keep the kids safe, happy, and build bonds not to win the argument.
- Don’t belittle, demean, or speak negatively about the parent or kids in their presence
Even if you don’t like something, find the correct time and emotional state to discuss possible changes. Ex. If a child stole something once, you don’t refer to him as a little thief each time you go out and say. “ You better not steal anything.” This humiliates them and can cause an angry response. In advance have a discussion with the child about stealing and consequences including possible banning from the store or jail time and lack of trust. Try to find the root of the problem. Maybe they feel they don’t have what they need. Maybe they feel pressured by peers, Maybe, it’s a way to seek attention. I do suggest you talk to a counselor if it happens more than twice. The same rules apply for talking about the other parent. Don’t speak about their negativity in front of the children. This creates an atmosphere where they might feel they have to defend their parent in their absence and creates negative opinions of the person to the other children. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it is helpful to verbalize it. Think first.
- Flexibility is key
As mentioned above. You are not siblings. You will not always agree or think alike. Plan to have couples’ conversations and family talks where each person can weigh in on the topic of conflict. Children can surprise you with their requests and expectations. LISTEN a lot. Talk less as parents. Allow them to share their point of view and reasoning. Usually, there is a give and take on each side. If you truly listen effectively.
- Living arrangements
Kids need to feel secure and significant. If they had their own room and now w new step-sibling is coming and they must share, they might be upset and feel upstaged and less valued. Talk to them about it several times and listen to what they have to say. True sharing might be inevitable but allowing your child a space of their own can go along way. Maybe they can have another room in the home for their safe place. At minimal have an area in their room that they can claim. Maybe a corner or one side of the room. Bunks might not be the best option for some children. Let your children tell you what is important to them and even if you can’t honor their requests, make sure they feel heard and supported by you. I suggest special consistent alone time with you and the child as a reinforcer for cooperation as well as them to have their need of significance fulfilled. Another tip is to set up a bathroom schedule with days of the week posted and have a time limit for bathroom time. Post it on the wall for everyone to see. Have a consequence if the schedule is not adhered to. Similar rules for meals and allow kids to choose sometimes.
- Family time/special occasions
How will the blended family handle birthdays and holidays? All adults must be considered and consulted with. If there is a court order, then adhere to it. If one parent is open to modifying it put it in writing and sign it so there is no confusion. Ex. One-week kids spend Christmas with Dad, following week with mom. Include the dates and times. Also include any exceptions: Mom will pick up the child and take them to ballet practice or Christmas rehearsal and return to the other parent by set a time and location. Be specific so there is no confusion. If there are problems with seeing one parent, then a neutral public place is important to establish that both parents can get to consistently and in fair proximity to the home. Maybe there are sporting events and other extracurricular activities the kids will be involved in. Make sure the schools know who is on the contact list and update it as needed.
- Decide what’s important in YOUR HOUSE
Rules change from home to home and sometimes from situation to situation. Don’t be judgmental. Unless your child is harmed in some way then allow the parent who has physical possession of the child at the time, to make decisions. You can always talk after a situation is over. Don’t overreact. Have what the kids need in your house. Don’t expect the other parent to provide it. Have clothes, medication, and other necessities at your residence. This cuts down on having to change plans due to lack of preparation. If bedtime is 9pm in Mom’s house and 10pm at dad’s house don’t sweat it. Kids are resilient and will put the parents at odds if they can. Be united and remember step 3. Flexibility. This includes talks about values, expectations, consequences, religion, and cultural differences. The whole family should be involved in what is expected and what a new experience for one family might be normal for another. No judgments. Learn about the differences and teach your children about them and then decide which ones they might incorporate in the blended family. Ex. One person is Catholic and the other is Muslim. Maybe some kids attend mass with the parent once and then go to the Mosque another week. A discussion about what they experienced would happen and then plans for future religious outings and who might attend. I don’t recommend forcing them to go because resentment will build up and show up in other areas. Maybe seek support from an outside source like a pastor or counselor.
- Family outings/vacations
Allow the kids to assist in the planning. If necessary, go from oldest to youngest to pick an activity, and then everyone does it. If older children refuse, don’t force them. Give them some choice in the matter. Sometimes they have other plans of their own and it is better for everyone to not be around a sulky, moody child. Do encourage them to join in and make sure they are always invited but don’t force them to come unless it is required for safety, health, or other priority.
- Let the children talk openly
They will have some concerns and they should be able to discuss them with you. Don’t get upset with them if they express dislike towards your partner. Time is required to build trusting relationships. BTW your former relationship didn’t last, and kids might think this on won’t either. Assure them you hear and don’t judge them for their feelings. You don’t have to agree with them, but parents do provide security and significance to their kids with effective listening skills.
- Mistakes will happen
Don’t overact. Talk to everyone involved. Sometimes other things in life distract us from parenting. One movie I encourage blended families to watch is “Stepmom” with Julie Roberts, Ed Harris, and Susan Sarandon. I also like the sitcom” Instant Mom.” Patience is required for a family, blended or not, to thrive. Do hold people accountable but don’t be a record keeper of wrongs. Discuss it, fix it if possible, learn from it, and move forward. It’s okay to say you are sorry as a parent and model appropriate behaviors for our children.
- Kids need time to mourn the loss of their expectations from their parents
Just as when someone dies people mourn. A breakup is another type of death. Kids usually want to see their parents together, even when they don’t verbally express it. Often, they blame themselves when usually they have very little to do with it. Adults make the choices and children reap the outcomes. Let them be upset, angry, sad, or other emotions over their family not making it as planned. Do assure them of your love and commitment to them. In cases where one parent is not involved much or at all, assure your children you love and will provide and protect them.
Blending families to live harmoniously is not easy but can and does happen if you put in the work.– Monica Douglas Davis
Certainly, communicate often. Children learn from what they see parents do. Allow them to express themselves even when you don’t like what they are saying. Respect is necessary for the other adult, but you can’t force your children to love them. That might happen over time. Maybe not. Do have options to include children to be united with the family but also give them choices whenever possible. Be open to flaws in yourself, your kids, your partner, and their kids, and know the children will experience them as well. Correct and move forward. Make sure your kids are safe. If they express displeasure, please always listen to them, and not discard their feelings. Many children have been abused and don’t talk because they feel it would harm or upset their parents. Your responsibility as a parent is to protect them. Abuse of any kind is NEVER okay. Make sure you and your partner have discussed this thoroughly and I recommend having a professional assist you if there are any concerns.