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“My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page

by James Lehman, MSW
“My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Jill, stepmother to two teen girls and mom to one biological son, aged 10. “My stepdaughters don’t respect me—I’m the ‘evil stepmother’ to them—and pretty much ignore whatever I say. And my son is constantly telling me that my husband isn’t fair, and that he treats him differently than he treats his two girls. Sometimes I get so exhausted by the whole thing I just want to get up and leave.”

The kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. But know this: the people who really have to blend are the parents.

We often jokingly say, “You don’t get a manual on how to parent kids.” But each adult in a blended family brings a set of ideas about parenting with them, in addition to their own prior experiences. This often makes for a very complex situation, and it’s one of the reasons why parents in a blended family can get stuck in some disappointing and frustrating cycles of behavior. Look at it this way: there are so many different points of view and aspects to this relationship that it can naturally be very confusing for everyone. The children also have different experiences and perceptions of the parent-child relationship—and because of the very fact that they are children, they will not surrender those ideas easily. Remember, the secret to having a blended family is having blended adults. The kids just have a responsibility to live with each other respectfully and to respect the other parent.

I think the first question that has to be asked is “What does ‘blended’ mean?” Does it mean everyone calls the woman “Mommy” and the man “Daddy?” Does blended mean each parent supports the other parent no matter what? Or does blended mean that a couple comes to a series of decisions together about their expectations and thoughts regarding the development of children—and then they operationalize those ideas in how they treat their kids and what they expect from them?

I believe that blending two families is the most perplexing and difficult job two adults can take on. There are no quick answers or easy solutions. But there are some guidelines and suggestions I can give you to help you think about the scope and nature of some of the common problems that surface within your family—and how to solve them.

How to Get on the Same Page with Your Spouse

  • Before You Get Married: Establish Roles and Resolve the Conflicts You Can Resolve

One type of conflict that occurs between parents in a blended family is having a difference of opinion about general parenting ideas.This might include when bedtime should be, how homework is done, and how much TV is allowed in the house. Many of these differences can be talked about and resolved before you get married.

If your spouse parents differently than you do, talk about that openly—hopefully before you get married. Often people fall in love and don’t face those kinds of issues. They think it will all work out on its own—but the truth is, things usually don’t work out unless the people working them out have the skills to make that happen. Even if you are already married, I suggest you sit down and start talking about the parenting issues that are important to you today.

But don’t kid yourself, although you may agree to things and work them out ahead of time, as stressors and different situations happen, realize that it’s common for both you and your spouse to react in ways you didn’t anticipate. This is because family dynamics change, kids change, circumstances outside the family change. To put it plainly, it’s impossible to plan for everything.

The key is to be adult and understanding of each other. For example, it’s not uncommon for Democrats and Republicans to be happily married to one another. In the same way, if you’re in a blended family situation, you have to find a way to live with your partner by respecting the other person’s point of view when it comes to decisions about how to raise the kids in the family, too.

  • Recognize the Importance of the Birth Parent

It’s very important to establish the importance of the birth parent. This means that the birth parent is the primary parent. Think of it this way: marriages break up sometimes, but the birth parent-birth child relationship is never going to dissolve. Because of the birth parent-child connection, the birth parent should be the decision maker of last resort for their biological child, as long as the decision around that child protects the emotional and physical safety of everyone else in the family. What that means is that when we have conflicts, the birth parent will make the final decision, but that doesn’t mean the child should be abusive or hurtful.

That way when your stepchild is saying, “You’re not my father,” the answer is “You’re right, I’m not. But these are the expectations that your mother and I have, and if you don’t follow through you will be held accountable.” It allows you to avoid getting into those kinds of power struggles with your stepchild.

If your spouse isn’t parenting your child the way you think they should be, you need to be able to communicate with them about that and work things out. If there’s a disagreement, the birth parent’s decision takes primacy and the stepparent has to be mature enough and trusting enough in the relationship to go along with it, without a lot of pouting and self-pity.

  • Communicate Constantly and Present a United Front

I can’t stress this enough: the foundation for blended families rests on the principles of communication and cooperation between both adults. Compromise is the name of the game. And adults have to communicate, communicate, communicate. In a blended family, there is an absolute necessity for both adults to be on the same page. These two adults, when they decide to get together and marry, have to make a decision that they’re going to communicate about things in private, away from the kids.

The rule has to be, “Whatever agreement we come up with, we have to present a united front on it. And if we disagree, the birth parent should have the right to say, "This is my choice, this is my decision.” And in fact, the common theme in the family should be that Mom and Dad talk things out, that they look into things and work things out together.

  • Don’t Throw Labels Around

Labels are one of the biggest roadblocks to communication, because once you start labeling somebody, communication is over—you’ve effectively cut it off. If one parent labels the other as being too soft, or too hardline, those labels interfere with solving the problem. And by the way, that’s why people do label. Genuine communication is very difficult emotionally, and if both people aren’t on the same page, they often avoid it. How do they avoid it? By arguing, fighting, blaming, and labeling.

Let’s say there’s a dispute over the amount of time the kids in the family are spending on video games. You want to limit their game time, but your spouse thinks the kids should be allowed to play as much as they want. It doesn’t help when one adult says to the other, “You’re too soft on them,” or “You’re too rigid.” Again, that’s just labeling the other person. Instead, you need to sit down and ask investigative questions like, “What are you trying to accomplish by letting the kids play video games without putting a time limit on them?” So the question becomes, “What is your goal here?” And your spouse might respond, “I want them to feel like home is a place where they can relax and do the things they enjoy as much as they want, as long as they take care of their responsibilities.” And they should be asking you, “What are you trying to accomplish by limiting the video game time?” You might say, “I want them to have some structure in their lives. I think video games have their place, but they should not be our kids’ main source of entertainment. I’m worried that if we let them play as much as they want, it’ll become a cop-out and they’ll play video games instead of doing other things.”

Now both of these people have a legitimate perspective. The challenge is for them to come up with some kind of compromise. You do this by figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish or avoid. Once you do that—and can come up with a compromise instead of arguing or labeling the other person—you’re really communicating. Remember, basing decisions on what you’re trying to accomplish is often much more effective than basing them on “the way things were on when you were a kid.”

Remember, the key to finding harmony in a blended family is communication and maturity on the part of the parents. One important thing to realize is that the kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. Again, the people who really have to blend are the parents. And blending as adults means seeing your spouse as a partner, not as an obstacle.

Believe me, I know that this advice is easy to read but difficult to do. Know that although a lot of emotional labor has to take place, the fruits of your efforts will translate into much more peace in your home.

Next week: In Part II of our series on stepfamilies, James will tell you how to deal with kids who won’t blend. Plus: What to do if your stepkids disrespect you, including 5 tips on how to get the kids in the family on board—and restore your authority as a parent.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

My husband and I are almost always, 98% of the time on the same page. Of course I am with them more, so I see more, and am stricter than he is. Our difficulty is that the twins were adopted by my husband and his wife at birth. Two years later she left him with 4 children. I have been with them since they were three. The older bio boys hate the twins because they say they ran their mother off. The twins hate me because the adoptive mother is richer and nicer and sees them only 2-3 months a year because she moved so far away to be with someone else. The twins have been dx w/ adhd, bipolar and odd. They are both on behavior charts in school and in trouble A LOT. Their bio mother did a lot of drugs. Up until this school year we had them on meds, but at 800.00 a month we can't do that anymore, and the mom that left (a ped. nurse)says they don't need it. I have a 12 yr old that has no behavior problems. Of course she is a typical 12 year old, but doesn't get in trouble and is on honor roll. The twins constantly defy me every step, even the teachers...refusing and lying ALL the time. One steals and destroys. Neither can organize their own binders or follow any routine given to them. We have wondered about FASD. Maybe a few of our issues are similar to other parents. I know of two other families that we are friends of that have the same gut-wrenching dynamics.

Comment By : gardenweaver

My husband and i have been together for almost 6 years and he is very old school,he was brought up were there was hardly any love or affection shown to any of them.he was married before and had 4 children with her,then they divorced and he had 2 children with another. then came me with three of my own,2 years later we got custidy of the 2 children with the girlfriend and we get his other children from his ex wife on the weekends. Now that the children from his ex-wife are teenagers he is so afraid of losing them and that they will never see him again,he tries everything to make them happy. Instead of being there father he is being there friend. Now my children haven't seen there real dad in 7 yrs and they hunger for that fatherly love. In the beginning he did do that but it was always his kids. Just recently my children have the problems because all they want is a father. I'm tired of fighting, I'm tired of doing this on my own. Please help me,what can i do? my husband is very stubborn.

Comment By : tj9angels

James' words "Seeing your spouse as a partner and not as an obstacle" really hit home and are so important. Even though miracles may not happen with children overnight, this is a good mindset to have. Thinking this "recharges" the love between you both.

Comment By : Learning and Thankful

My problem is that we have his, mine, and our children. His children from his first marriage are the oldest and always in trouble at school and also have always tried to separate us (together for 6 years). they lie a lot to that end, but since they don't live with us, I try to grin and bear it. My husband treats them much better than anyone in our house. He treats the 2 kids we have together just ok, but still infinitely better than my son from a previous marriage. My son is only 7 so my husband has been in his life more than not so I just can't understand why he doesn't seem to love my son. We are to the point of divorcing between him not liking my son, me not trusting his and him having very little to do with ours. We need help in a bad way and he refuses to get counseling. He also drinks too much which doesn't help the situation either considering he is drunk most nights of the week.

Comment By : Wits End

we have been to gether foe 5 yrs i have a 16 he has a 10 and we have a 3yr and a 2 yr together. my husband wants me to be very open to anything he has to say about my 16 yr but he is exstemly closed off to hear anything about his 10yr he always act as if im against his 10 yr and im unable to say anything about his 10 yr old or his mother . i feel very fustrated . he is very patient and soft with his 10 yr who comes one the weekends but he is harsh with my son and gets easly fustrated with our toddlers that hurts me he acts like if he dosnt treat her better she wont love him any more. his mother comes over and takes over my home and dosnt respect me as the woman of the home am i being petty ? iv held this in for 5 yrs when i have tryed to voice my feelings he gets mad at me and says im starting a fight so i dont say anything any longer please help me i resent everyone now and visits are so dreadfull to me. i love my husband but somethings have happened that cleary state they are more important than mine and ours pleassseeeee help me

Comment By : fustrated

Well it's been 8 years for me and my blended family still hasn't blended. All the kids live at home, and i am the main parent at home. My step kids will not listen to me 1/2 of the time, i tell their father and all he's done is talk to them for about 8 years and nothing has changed. What can i do?

Comment By : Stellato

* Dear 'Stellato': As James Lehman says in this article, communication is essential. This is not JUST communication between your husband and his kids, but between the two of you as parents. Decide what your house rules are as a couple and then have family discussions with everyone in attendance to discuss those rules and concerns. James recommends that if the birth parent disagrees with you regarding discipline, that it would be your role as the step parent to support your husband’s decisions. It’s especially important that your behavior requirements are not stricter then what their father would ask of them or your discipline is not stricter. This will end up in a cycle of rebellion and consequences. Your remark suggests that your husband does talk to the kids about your concerns. If your husband is supporting you and you have coordinated your rules and consequences, consider that you may be working with kids at a difficult stage in their development. If you are trying to work with adolescents, for example, they are focused on asserting their own independence and are likely to rebel against anyone in authority over them. As I’m sure you know, it takes time and sustained effort to gradually develop relationships with kids in a new marriage. Disciplining goes more smoothly between step-parents and kids if there is a foundation of respect and loyalty in your relationship.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This is great

Comment By : Sharyn

I have been with my feince for almost 5yrs now and like most relationships the first 2yrs were the best. We lived apart for the first year then decided to move intogether as a blended family. We discused the house rules when him and his 2 boys moved in. We were in agreement with it all, until his oldest boy deceied to be the boss. The boys lost their mother to cervical cancer 6yrs ago, so I kind of knew it wasn't going to be easy. However there is much more to this story then I expected. The oldest boy had been the boss of his old house hold until they moved in with me and my kids. I strongly beleve we are parents for a reason, to teach and be in charge of making the adult desicions. His oldest started out with eating disorders, anger issues, liying,manipulating his dad,not being social with pears, diagnosed with NTS,trying to make dad and I fight so he is inpowerd in some way. The oldest had stated to take his own life in grade 3 before they moved in and I strongly wanted him in theropy! He laughs at people dieing,getting hurt has very negative dark thoughts and now his youngest son has been diagnosed with ADD. Dad is a long distant truck driver and is out of the home for 5 days at a time and I am left to try and parent these already molded kids. They disrespect me, lie about me, and do not open up or come to me like my kids do. You would think after almost 5 yrs they would need a mother figure? I often wonder if the suffer from detachment disorder. Dad is soft as I think he still suffers from that quilt seed of the boys loosing their mom. I feel I am just here and not being of any help to this situation. I have mentioned them moving out as I am at my wits end. Not to mention there is NO family support but mine. Me and my kids have not been excepted or egknowledged at all from any of the family members on his or the deseased sides, my guess is that I am not the boys mother. I have known the boys longer and have been the only mohterly figure in their lives. I have my family sick of hearing the issues and my unhappiness and they think its best to leave, plus the help of all the other family members wanting me out of the picture too! The thing is if I leave then there will be another lady and step mom. I don't believe its any thing I have done wrong nor is there anything I can do. I have 3 wonderful teenagers and have always been a great mom. His boys are 8 and 11,it almost makes me feel I am waisting my time, that I am settling for a really neg relationship. Any advise can only benifit this situation. Every time I mention I want them to leave my fience brings up another failed way to try and fix the problems. I am looking for ways out as I think things are getting worse not better. HELP!!!

Comment By : CONFUSED STEP MOM

* Dear Confused Step Mom: It sounds like you are very frustrated. It can be so hard to support your partner when you don’t agree with their parenting decisions. James Lehman felt that in blended families, the biological parent should be the one to take the lead on setting and enforcing rules for their own children. He recommends that the partner or step-parent find a way to take on a supportive role to uphold the biological parent’s decisions—as tough as it may be. Here is an article that gives more ideas for blended families: The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting. We wish you the best.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What do you do when you try to share with your spouse (who is the step-parent) that you have found more effective ways (positive discipline and James Lehman) of dealing with the children (mine and ours) but he refuses to join. Things are tense all the time. He does travel and when he is gone things are less tense. There is one set of rules and consequences for not obeying. He doesn't want to acknowledge that he may be at fault for "disrespectful" behavior. He sees himself as the head of the house and everyone should obey his command. He is not respectful or give praise when things are done that he asks. Please help!! Frustrated for the past 4 years.

Comment By : NJB34

* To ‘NJB34’: It can be so difficult when you are in complete disagreement with your spouse. When discussing parenting issues such as this it is helpful to focus on your common goals: what do you both want for your children? The point here is for you and dad to come up with a plan together that will help your children achieve the goals you have for them, one goal at a time. It might help to seek some support in your local area as you work through this, too, to help you learn new ways to communicate with your spouse. This could be from a counselor, social worker, or religious leader to name a few examples. This isn’t an easy situation. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

It seems as though I am a convenience for my husband and his ex, to raise their 13 yo twin girls. I realize after we married (we only dated for 2 months...big mistake) that these girls were basically just being fed, clothed, and sheltered! Neither of their parents have any true interest in what goes on in the twins lives! Of course the girls don't want to listen to me without some sort of resentment towards me so I try to be gentle and a bit subtle in teaching them, not only for them but for my own sanity to be able to live under the same roof!! I know I'm not exagerating because I have a son that deals with it too, he says he has just learned to stay away from them, he has become very quiet and to himself over the last year since I married, he is 15. My son and I had a very close and meaningful relationship prior to this marriage, now the twins demand so much attention, my son and his needs get pushed aside! I have to remind myself to "check in" with him to see how he is doing! I have worked and attempted many avenues, including counseling, to get us all on a good path and on the same page to no avail!! I told my husband of 1 year, I am leaving! I made a foolish mistake in not getting to know him or his kids better before saying "I Do" . I feel bad, but my husband actually seems better with it than I thought! Must be because his ways are simply not the same as mine! I am ten years older and have raised 3 grown daughters, I know the mistakes I made and the things I did right! I see trouble ahead for these girls, but honestly, my dutie was to be a helper for my husband, not take on 90% of the responsibility of their future and well being! That is way too much for me an I've been there done that! I want to just go back to me and my son and the life we had prior to all of this! I believe he will be ok with that too!

Comment By : LettingGo

How do I deal with my spouses ex-wife bringing food over for their son and it is off limits for any other children in the home. We have an extra fridge in the basement and she brings over food that is only for him. My husband does not see anything wrong with this. But it is upsetting to me when the other 3 kids see all the stuff in the extra fridge that they aren't allowed to eat. I think that all food in a home should be for all people. But my husband thinks there is nothing wrong. It really makes me mad.

Comment By : onetiredmama

* To ‘onetiredmama’: I can certainly see why this would be so frustrating for you. It sounds like you place a high value on sharing and generosity and this situation really contradicts those values. It might be helpful for you to talk to your husband about your common goals (what do you want your kids to learn?) or your common values (what kind of people do you want your children to be?). Ultimately, you and dad get to decide how that food is handled once it’s brought into your home. Focusing on the areas of agreement that exist between the two of you is the jumping-off point for a conversation about how this will be handled going forward. Be sure to have this conversation in private and do your best to present a united front to all of your children. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have a 10 year old step-daughter. She is constantly getting into trouble at school. When she is asked why she did what she did, she tells my husband it is because I don't give her enough attention. This was put in her head by my husband and her mothers father. Everytime something happens my husband attacks me telling me it is my fault the reason she acts like she does. We have lived together since she was 6. When we got together, she had no rules to follow. My husband felt sorry for her because her mother is a drug addict and did not pay attention to her. I can't seem to grow any feelings toward her because I am constantly being accused of being the reason she does not listen or follow any rules. I don't know what to do. She really knows how to get my husband going to get the sympathy card.

Comment By : Very Frustrated

I'm very frustrated! I'm not married but i love my boyfriend like crazy!! He has a 5 year old daughter and she is with us for half the week every single week. Every time she is over all me and my boyfriend do is fight! I know she is only 5 but i think she likes seeing me and her dad argue. Its wrong to say but she just always seems cheery during those times. I have talked to him about us not arguing in front of his doughtier but he really does not listen. I feel its driving a wedge between me and her and him. Its really turning into a battle of them against me. I feel my home life is no longer under my control. Example If i ask her not to walk on the back of couch she does it anyway, and then me and her dad just argu because i told her no. I love him dearly but I'm not sure how much of this i can take. Any advise?

Comment By : Help

* To “Help”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. It can be frustrating to feel like you have little control over things. Blended families such as yours can be extremely challenging. James Lehman does suggest that in blended family situations such as this, you allow the biological parent to take the lead on setting limits and giving consequences. In the moment when the inappropriate behavior is happening, it might be best for you to walk away and take care of yourself. Try not to take the behavior personally. As much as it may appear she’s doing it as a way to get to you, it’s more likely due to her having poor problem solving skills. Over time, if you stay calm and walk away when she’s behaving this way, her behavior should diminish. This does not mean that the two of you can’t talk about your common goals and rules that you both agree on as well as some ways you might hold your stepdaughter accountable. It can be effective to find a time when the two of you can talk without her being able to hear, maybe when she’s at her mom’s house. Continue to try not to argue in front of her when the two of you disagree and try to present a united front. We wish you luck as you and your boyfriend work through this challenging issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I have a 12 year old daughter and a 13 year old step daughter and they do have to share a room because my step daughter is only with us every other week. She the step daughter has started lashing out at my daughter and I am not sure how to handle the situation. I sometimes believe she is jealous that my daughter is home with her dad all the time when my daughter just has to go to her dads everyother weekend. But because this situtation has gotten out of control it has caused my husband and I to seperate. We will be married a year Monday and we have dated for 3 years and all was fine until we got married. Please help I want our marriage to work and when I talk to him about it he says he has to talk it over with his daughter. I feel like he is letting her dictate our marriage cause if she does not like it then he will do what she says.

Comment By : helpmyblendedfamily

* To “helpmyblendedfamily”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. What a tough situation. Blending two families into one can be challenging. It can seem even more challenging when your spouse doesn’t seem to be on the same page when it comes to parenting issues. From what you have written, it sounds like you and your spouse don’t agree on how best to deal with the issues of your two girls not getting along. I am sorry to hear you are going through this. It might be helpful to speak with a marriage or family counselor. A counselor may be able to work with you and your husband to develop effective ways of dealing with the situation. The 211 National Helpline line is a nationwide resource that is available to put you into contact with local services and supports. We would encourage you to contact the helpline at 1-800-273-6222 to find out what types of local supports are available to help you through this challenging situation. You can also access the helpline online at 211.org. You might consider finding a counselor who specializes in blended families. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this challenging situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My boyfriend and I are having a very hard time in our relationship. I know that blended families are a hard issue but I just don't know what to so anymore. My boyfriend feels like he is torn between me and his kids (boy 16, girl 15). We lived 9 hours away for a while but have been with-in 20 miles of them for the last year. We as a couple wanted to be closer to them so that he could re-establish a relationship with them, and I could start to have one. In the last year the kids have stayed with us twice. The first weekend went well, until a couple days later and there were allegations that I was mean to the kids. I want a relationship with them too much to do anything that would be seen as mean at all. Since moving closer to the kids our relationship has gotten to the point of us considering a break-up. The kids find any and all reasons not to come to our house. Which breaks my boyfriends heart. I have tried being present when they are here, I have tried being out of the house to give them time to just thier Dad. Neither have worked. I know that this blending isn't going to happen overnight, but I don't want to lose the love of my life. Please help!

Comment By : brokenhearted

* To Brokenhearted: It sounds like you are in a difficult situation indeed! It is hard when you try to have a relationship with your partner’s kids, and they do not appear to want a positive relationship with you. It is normal for most kids to have some reluctance about a relationship with their parent’s partner, and we recommend letting this relationship develop at its own natural pace. We recommend talking with your boyfriend so you can start to make a plan for what happens when his children come to spend time at your house. It might also be helpful to work with someone in your local community to help you move forward. If you are not currently working with anyone, 211.org is a great place to start. 211 is an information and referral service that connects people with resources in their community. You can also reach them by calling 1-800-273-6222. We wish you the best as you continue to work on this; we know this isn’t easy.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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