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Blending Families Thoughtfully

In honor of National Stepfamily Day, author Judy Gilliam shares her tips and tricks for successfully blending a family home. Read along to learn some of the best ways to integrate your home and family.

Tips for a Healthy and Happy Blended Family

Building and nurturing any family can be challenging. When bringing two existing families together under one roof the task can be quite daunting. Even for the most prepared unions, when two families merge, there will always be adjustments. Don’t expect instant success; according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, it can take one to two years for blended families to adjust to the new family dynamics. 

The Pew Research Center reports that 65 percent of American families describe themselves as part of a blended family. Today’s families involve many “steps”—stepmothers, stepfathers, stepsiblings, step-grandparents. 

Anticipating challenges and being proactive in addressing potential problems can make the blending go much more smoothly. With planning and communication, with love and understanding, creating a new family unit can be thrilling. Here are some potential stumbling blocks in this journey and ways to resolve them.

Sharing Parents with New Siblings

It’s sometimes hard for children to compete with siblings in a traditional family. When it’s stepsiblings in the initial stages of blending, the problem can magnify. For children who haven’t had to share a parent, that adjustment period might take a little bit longer.

To address this, parents must discuss and agree on handling sibling relationships and consistent ways of disciplining. Nothing good comes from blaming the other partner’s biological child for causing confrontations and disagreements as this newly minted family evolves. If disciplinary styles vary significantly, expect to encounter problems. Parents must share with each other their thoughts and actions concerning behavioral expectations, consequences, and rewards. These need to be agreed upon and adopted as the same for all children. If the rules of the house change in major ways and differ from those of the former households, these rules must be thoroughly discussed by the parents, and then with the children. It is important to remember that in some ways, the stepsiblings may be more like strangers than brothers and sisters. 

One special circumstance occurs if there is a change-up in birth order. It could be that the child who was previously the oldest in their family configuration finds him/herself in the middle or the baby of the family is no longer the youngest. In each case, children may feel they have lost the power or attention they once had. Parents should acknowledge the resentment this could cause and provide a safe place to talk it through.

When families come together, there is a tendency, on the parents’ part, to identify children by their skill sets. They will, at times, place labels on children, such as “He’s the artist in our family” or “She’s our star athlete.” This can increase tension among siblings. It is best to point out that everyone has skills and talents and it’s healthy to explore new areas of interest.

Getting Attention

Real or imagined, children may feel they’re not getting the attention that they used to. When the number of children increases there is sometimes less time and money for each child’s extracurricular activities or for family outings.

To address this, parents and children can work together to create a set schedule that includes everyone’s input. If the parents are honest about their budgetary limits, each child will be better prepared to choose an activity for the month based on those limitations.

Once the activities are set, both adults must attend each child’s activities, whether sporting events, exhibits, plays, or concerts, so it doesn’t feel like any child is being favored over another.

Taking time to offer individual attention will increase the bonds between parent and child. Playing a game together or scheduling a once-a-month outing will give biological children and stepchildren positive attention, increase communication, and build relationships.

Bonding with the New Family Members

Bonds between any group of people take a while to develop; they can’t be forged overnight. The goal for the blended family is to create one unit that has fun, shares troubles and triumphs, and relies on each other. At first, the children may not be entirely comfortable with their new siblings nor with their new stepparent. There can be the feeling that there are two families who just happen to live in the same house. 

To address this, remember that time is key to creating a shared history, figuring out new relationships, and adapting to the new normal.

Start the bonding process slowly by beginning new family traditions. These might include reading a book together each night, forming a family book club, starting a game night, or taking family walks around the neighborhood every Saturday evening. Sharing a love of music, choosing to follow a certain sports team, and developing shared interests in different hobbies can encourage links with new members. Letting all of the family suggest titles, teams, and hobbies can make for a rich variety of experiences. If different cultural or religious backgrounds are part of the mix, have the traditions explained, demonstrated, and clarified. The member leading the discussion will, most likely, feel very important as he/she shares knowledge of cultural and religious heritage.

Changing Discipline

Once upon a time, the new stepparent was a breezy boyfriend or girlfriend, but now they have become an authority figure who lives in the house. This might cause confusion and lead to misunderstandings.

In working to solve this, parents must come together to work as a team. The parents must talk through, at length, and determine their own household rules. It’s a good idea to take notes and write down the agreed-upon rules and the consequences for breaking those rules.

If both parents have children already, there’s a high probability the previous households had somewhat different rules. It’s important to create the same expectations for everyone so that it doesn’t feel like two separate families under one roof. One parent cannot choose to be the “good cop” or the “fun one.” Neither can one parent count on the new stepparent to “lay down the law” and “whip everyone into shape.”

Most importantly, parents must identify the style of discipline and what type of consequences will be used. The parents must present a united front on disciplinary issues.

Family Meetings

Next, a family meeting to discuss changes in expectations should be called. Take out those notes that were made and go over them as a family. This discussion may take a while as children will bring up ideas that the parents had not considered. Their thoughts should be validated and discussed, added to the parents’ notes, and eventually turned into a final document representing all the family members. Having all the rules written down means that everyone will know exactly what the household expectations are, as well as the consequences for breaking them.

Be aware that kids quickly learn who the “easy target” is when it comes to getting their way. They can become masters of manipulation to pit one adult against another. Constant communication between the parents will help put a stop to that.

Explain to the children that both adults can enforce consequences to any of the children, and it’s expected that the children will obey the stepparent as they would any other authority figure.

Particularly in the early stages, stepparents need to focus more on building a bond rather than disciplining the children. Without a healthy relationship, discipline won’t work, especially with adolescents.

Taking Time and Making a Commitment

If the goal of the new family unit is to create a loving, healthy, and happy family, then paying attention to the stumbling blocks is crucial. Despite problems, growing pains, squabbles, and behavior that needs attention, adjustments will be made through mistakes. The family learns from the mistakes and celebrates the successes as they evolve and bond. If there is a commitment to forming relationships, everyone can adjust and embrace the new situation.

There will come a point where the household will feel less like a mash-up of families and more like one solid unit. Creating a functioning blended family is hard work that takes time, but the result is thrilling and worthy of effort, time, and love.

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