If you’re a parent or stepparent in a blended family, chances are you’ve experienced some situations that left you feeling stumped, confused or stressed. As a mom and member of a blended family myself, I’ve found that the challenges and rewards never stop coming. Over time, our family has learned how to make it work, but it didn’t happen over night. We’ve found that the keys to success are communication, support — and a willingness to step back. (I’ll explain more about this in my tips below.)
According to recent statistics, about sixty-five percent of remarriages create blended families. There is little research available on what works and what doesn’t; however, more studies are being conducted daily to help guide those of us in the throes of it. The stresses that blended families face run from practical and logistical surface issues to deep-seated emotional ones. Here are 10 of the most present stresses and solutions for parents of blended families today:
1. Financial. When there are different child supports and alimony involved, it’s best if parents forming a blended family meet with a financial planner who can spell out the reality objectively so that both parents hear the same message, agree to the expectations and a financial plan that works before committing. (Even if you’ve been in your blended family for some time, it’s not to late to talk a financial planner and get some advice about how to come to the best solutions together.)
2. Transitions: In blended families, kids are frequently moving back and forth between houses. Depending on divorce agreements and prior arrangements, blended parents may have little input into how these transitions will impact their family. In other words, visitation may not change to fit the needs of the new family- accept this in advance.
3. Allow for private time with bio parents. As much as possible, step back and allow for private visitations with the kids and the parent from the family of origin. So for example, if a parent has two dinners with their children a week, try to allow them to have those visits with the kids from the family of origin without the new children present. This may mean the other children may have to leave the house once a week so that the parent can have his visits with his biological kids at his new blended residence without the stepchildren there.
4. Children are the last to be ready and able to blend effectively. No matter how much parents want children to blend, they are not ready until they are ready. Any ambivalence and uncertainty should be honored and explored. Parents chose the blended family, not the kids. They have loyalties to their parents and families of origin, which will mean they need additional time to adjust and blend comfortably
5. The greatest allegiance is between parents and kids. Despite what parents want, in blended families, the greatest allegiance is between parents and biological children, not blending parents or the couple. Therefore, the parent that is coming into the blended family and who will assume the role of stepparent needs to take a back seat when parenting their stepkids.
6. Support the Primary Parent. Parents in the stepparenting role need to support the parent in the primary parenting role, despite what they think and feel inside
7. The primary parent remains in charge of discipline. The primary parent needs to enforce all discipline for his or her kids. This can be very difficult for stepparents to accept once they live with the new blended family. This is also one reason to avoid blending until a really solid connection is made between stepparent and stepchildren. It’s natural that parents will have differences in parenting styles and they need to communicate about this separately from their children.
8. Stepparents need to “focus on connection, not correction.” As a stepparent, your primary concern is establishing a positive relationship and connection to the children you are blending with. As much as possible, try to ignore annoying behavior — try to let the primary parent handle it.
9. Protect the children from conflict. Children in a blended family have already been in position of conflict in their families of origin. Now they are at risk for having this repeated in a blended family if parents disagree over the parenting plan, for example. As much as possible, talk about these issues away from the kids, and present a united front.
10. Feeling two things at once is okay. Talk to children about how it’s normal and natural to feel two emotions at once, such as loyalty to a biological father and connection to a stepfather: it’s okay to have two different feelings simultaneously. They aren’t being disloyal or loving their original parents any less because they are developing a new connection with a stepparent.
About Dr. Kate Roberts
Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a Boston-area licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist who has coached parents and families for more than 25 years. She offers parents practical strategies in her bi-weekly parenting column; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News and in her Savvy Parenting blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Roberts has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout New England and works with parents and children through Massachusetts General Hospital. You can check out Dr. Kate's website at www.drkateroberts.com and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.