When two families become one

“Peter has two children from his first marriage. I’ve only got one. We’re getting married in September. I know this time round it’s going to work. We’ll be one big happy family.” Peter and Sue are about to marry and become part of the growing number of couples embarking on the journey of blended family life.

You’ll most likely know what a stepfamily is, but may not be so familiar with the term ‘blended family’. However, both mean the same thing – a family where at least one adult is a stepparent. Chances are if you are not one, you’ll know someone who is.

I’ve been a stepparent now for 23 years. I must be honest and say that to begin with, a lot of my learning about the ‘dos’ and ‘dont’s’ of blended family life came from trial and error. I’ve since discovered that some of the challenges I thought were exclusive to my family are in fact common to many others and can often cause strife. The current divorce rate for blended families is approximately 60 percent.

This led to a desire to help others like myself living in a blended family and having to address the inevitable challenges. So now, after years of research and utilising my social work background, I’ve discovered what skills and strategies separate the blended families who succeed from those who don’t.

A blended family can be an opportunity for growth and paves the way for a fresh beginning in a family’s life. It provides new opportunities to build family traditions after the loss from which the family has evolved (the death or separation of a parent). A single parent can once again enjoy the support of another adult alongside them, and their children gain another role model, while also possibly acquiring step-siblings.

With little information available to tackle the unique needs of blended families, it’s easy to see why couples often think their family will function just the same as a family which has both biological parents present. But it doesn’t. Divorce and separation reorganise a family, spreading it over two households. The primary emotional blood ties remain the same, despite the change in structure.

Often pain is still lingering from the loss of the first family unit so these ties can sometimes mean a rocky road and some tricky dynamics. Fortunately, these obstacles are not insurmountable and can be worked through once they’re recognised and addressed. A newly-blended family can build a successful future together with some planning and sensitivity around key issues.

Discipline – is there a way that works?

Discipline is a great example of a common obstacle. For some, feelings of guilt can make a parent reluctant to discipline their children. They feel they’ve put their children through enough trauma (divorce or death of a parent) and want to protect them from more distress. Basically, they just want their child to be happy – “They’ve been through enough already without us (parent/stepparent) getting down on them.”

Sound familiar? Or they fear their children won’t enjoy their time at their house and decide they no longer want to visit. These feelings and fears may cause a parent to miss valuable opportunities to teach their children important life lessons through boundaries and consequences.

Now this can have a flow-on effect in the relationships between stepparents and children. If you’re part of a blended family, it won’t surprise you to learn that very often, stepparents believe their stepchildren are spoiled. Unfortunately, this can fuel resentment towards their stepchildren. It can also trigger guilt – “Why can’t I just love this child like my own?” Meanwhile, the biological parent becomes torn between trying to keep both their spouse and their child happy. Despite this, all is not lost. Blended families can and do work through these trials. So how do they do it?

Strategies for success

Firstly, the strength of the marriage/committed relationship forms the foundation upon which a blended family is built or broken. Before a couple can hope to resolve any challenge, they must work at establishing a healthy communication pattern.

Make it a priority to discuss together all important decisions affecting your family. By taking each other’s thoughts and feelings into consideration when decisions arise, you ensure you’re acting with your spouse’s interests in mind. For stepparents, this has an added benefit because they’re not tempted to feel resentful that their needs are placed second to a child’s, which can sometimes be the case.

Secondly, develop guidelines together as a couple for encouraging positive behaviour with consistent consequences for less desirable behaviour. Have the biological parent enforce the consequences with their own child when necessary. This last point is essential for serious behaviour offences. It prevents stepparents from being confronted with a child saying, “You’re not my parent. I don’t need to listen to you.” If you can agree together on a plan for discipline, it will avoid potential turmoil and lay the foundation of stability and respect within the family.

Lastly, I’ll let you in on a secret that few people are of – it takes an average seven years for a blended family to build relationships and function as a genuinely united team. That’s right, seven years! Statistics suggest most blended families don’t hang around long enough to develop and enjoy the blessings of blending. The process can be faster if parents are proactive in bringing everyone together (or slower if they aren’t). Be encouraged – blending does require time and effort, but can bring much joy and fulfilment when a couple of have a plan to unite their family together as a supportive team.

A few quick tips

  • Children still need quality individual time with their biological parent to affirm this primary relationship. Stepparents, support your spouse with this.
  • Have a regular routine for access visits, with clear guidance on when, where and how things will happen. This lets children know what to anticipate, and helps avoid guilt-driven ‘Disneyland parenting’.
  • Avoid comparing children. For example, “My children would never do that!” Mention the positive qualities in each other’s children to diffuse unhealthy rivalry. You’ll feel better about your children and each other.
  • Children will role model your behaviour, so verbally affirm and support your spouse (the stepparent) in front of your children.