Blended families are as old as time, however they are becoming more and more common in today’s society. Building a new family from two previous families due to either divorce or the death of a spouse will present many challenging variables along the way that can potentially generate feelings of isolation, resentment and emotional pain amongst the family’s members.
Most blended families are wrestling with one or more of the following:
- A biological parent who is child centred in parenting style (often out of guilt)
- A step parent who is too harsh
- Children who feel loyalty conflicts
- Different standards between households
- Broken trust
- Feelings of rejection
- Different parenting styles between spouses
- Rejection of step parent’s authority
- Manipulation from the other household
- Struggle in protecting sense of dominion
- Lack of relationship between the step parent and child
- Lack of respect from the children towards their parents
- Lack of communication between spouses
- Conflicts regarding the step parent implementing discipline
- Methods of correction
- Teenage rebellion
- Sexual attraction between steps siblings.[i]
While blended families require time, understanding and a measure of grace for the many adjustments along the way, there are positive guidelines to follow that can help all members adapt and find a new sense of belonging and acceptance.
Building of trust takes time and intentional effort but it is possible. Consider ways and activities that you might work together to create a sense of belonging. Include your children in the planning of these activities. How can you make new memories for this blended family? What traditions might you like to develop and integrate into your blended family? How can you respect each child’s private world? Find ways that you can encourage each child in their uniqueness and most importantly, be consistent and keep your promises.
Without a doubt, the most foundational issue for any family unit’s health is open and honest communication. The most important communication skills are active listening and speaking the truth in love. Nowhere are these skills more crucial than in the blended family and the marriage relationship itself.
Active listening means fully hearing what the other person is saying and reflecting that back to the other party. Simple, but not always easy. It involves warm, non verbal cues and the giving of respect and empathy to the other party. It is a crucial skill for all family members to develop; children will learn this skill predominately through parents modelling it well.
Good communication will cultivate an environment of unconditional love and safety and allow for the development of emotional closeness between family members. Boundaries are more likely to be respected and problems and conflicts can be addressed in the open. Differences are more likely to be tolerated with love and acceptance and children can sense that there is a firm foundation to re-build their sense of belonging, trust and identities upon.
Be prepared and observant. Undoubtedly, there will be various degrees of conflict as you seek to merge two new families together into one. Expect the conflict. Be proactive and discuss how you will resolve expected challenges before they actually challenge you.
Consider and be sensitive of each family member’s needs. If you both have a child or children, are the kids going to share a room or will they each have their own room? What is each child’s need for personal space and privacy; what are the pressures they are experiencing – socially, gender-wise, and age-wise? What stage of growth and development is each child at and how will this impact your decision making together?
Consider having family meetings and encourage input from each member, regardless of age. This can have a big impact on minimising the potential for resentments and bitterness taking root in the family unit. Bitterness is the scourge of blended families; do everything to avoid allowing it to take root in your family.
Be Consistent & Set Boundaries
Set healthy and reasonable boundaries within the new family unit. Children need to know the ground rules. Whatever your ground rules are, they need to be applied consistently to all the children – even the non custodial children who may visit periodically. Double standards for siblings living within or visiting the same household can stir up much resentment and undermine all of your hard work to establish a new, healthy family unit.
Ensure that the children each know what is expected of them and that both parents can be trusted to consistently uphold the rules.
Be Goal Orientated
Be intentional in your parenting together; think and discuss your expectations and begin with the end in mind. Evaluate where in the parenting stage each child sits and set goals for the immediate future as well as for the long term.
Spouses do well when they consider and “pick the hill they are willing to die on.” Not all areas can be worked on at once or with an equal amount of energy. Be specific.
Be patient and limit your expectations. Stepparents do not always hit it off with their stepchildren. Even after investing a lot of time, effort and love into the relationship, your stepchildren may still not respond as you would like them to. Or you may struggle with feelings of guilt because you just can’t seem to find that love in your heart for them the way you think you should or the way your partner would like you to. This is very normal in blended families. Try to remain consistent in everything you do and consider that love is an action, not a feeling. You can still demonstrate love to your step child through your chosen attitudes of patience, kindness, acceptance and grace.
Understand that your step children may be struggling significantly with grief from the loss of their original family unit. They may experience a wide variety of emotions ranging from anger, resentment and confusion to fear, disappointment and sadness. These emotions may fluctuate wildly as they grow and develop emotionally. Give yourself and them some space and grace.
Blending two families together is not easy. It is rare to experience smooth transitions into new families with children from previous relationships of one or both spouses. Be encouraged – a strong and healthy blended family is possible! The husband-wife relationship in the blended family is primary in the network of dependent relationships. Start with this relationship first and consider seeking professional help and support if the challenges along the way feel disorientating or overwhelming.
You may like to consider investing in one of the workshops that Bethesda Counselling & Family Therapy periodically facilitate for those building a blended family.