How To Blend Your Family – 11 Steps To Success
Family dynamics have changed over the years and blended families are becoming more common in our society. With this change, it’s important to understand how the blending of two families can affect the children involved, and how you can make it easier on them.
Blended families (or stepfamilies) are formed when you and your partner begin a life together and bring a child (or multiple) from previous relationships into it. There are many ways a blended family can form and a variety of circumstances that can precede this transition. Children may come from only one parent or, each parent may have children they are bringing to the new family dynamic. While divorce is often the first thought of why blended families occur, this can happen when one or both parents have passed away as well.
While the preceding factors can have a strong influence on how your child transitions into the blended family, there are ways to make this easier for them no matter the circumstances (we’ll get to that in a minute!).
Strengths Of Blended Families
Blended families present a unique set of challenges, but when done with care and understanding they can be beneficial to everyone involved. Some of the most common advantages children of blended families experience include:
- Having an increased support system
- Gaining another role model
- Having a wider range of experiences
- Building resilience
- Becoming more flexible
- Experiencing a “chosen love” from their step-parent
Common Problems Blended Families Experience
While the benefits can far outweigh the struggles blended families experience, they can take up a substantial amount of time at the beginning of the transition. In fact, it’s been shown that it takes at least 2 years for blended families to adjust, however in some cases it may take up to 5. This is often relative to the age of the children involved. Younger children adapt more quickly, while older children often struggle to accept the change and build a strong relationship with the step-parent.
Some of the other common difficulties children in blended families experience include:
- Changing expectations when the new family forms
- Struggling with splitting time between parents
- Feeling disloyal to one or both of their biological parents. This can stem from more time being spent with one parent over the other, missed events from having to split time, or bonds beginning to form with the step-parent
- Suddenly having to share their space with other children
- Feeling a loss of control in their life
- Feeling less involved in the family, or forgotten if attention is not being split fairly
Children can respond to these feelings in a variety of ways. While some children may experience anxiety and begin withdrawing, others may experience intense anger or depression. As you transition into a blended family, it is important to be aware of your child’s responses and support them without judgement.
How To Make The Transition To A Blended Family Easier
The blending of a family can be particularly stressful for the children involved. For this reason, it’s essential that they’re at the forefront of the family dynamic. Why the blended family is forming can have a significant impact on how each child moves through the changes of joining another family. If it’s due to a loss of a parent, this transition may be more difficult because a step-parent may seem like a replacement for the lost parent. Before you begin blending your families it is important to consider how this may affect your child, and how they may perceive it.
Once you’ve considered how your child may view a new parent figure and any new siblings, it’s important to create a plan to help the transition go as smoothly as possible. There is no one way to blend a family and how blended families work can vary. Each child is unique in their own way and their views and experiences in joining a new family will be exclusive to them. There are, however, some ways you can help make the transition easier for them.
1. Limit Expectations
This is especially important during the first 2 years of the new family dynamic. Be realistic about what your family life may look like as each member adjusts to the changes.
2. Make Family Rules
When a new family is forming, it’s essential that new family rules are made to reflect that. Have your children take part in creating these rules and expectations. Encourage them to share things that are important to them and agree as a family on what’s most relevant. Having your children take part in this step will give them a sense of control over their changing lives, which is a vital aspect of their success.
3. Rule Enforcement
If a rule is needing to be reinforced, ensure the biological parent enforces it along with any consequences necessary. The step-parent should only enforce rules if the biological parent is unavailable at the time and if it is directly in conflict with one of the family rules agreed upon. If this happens, it is essential that the biological parent follows up with their child once they are available. Take this time to check in with them and gently reinforce the message of the step-parent.
4. Give Your Child A Voice
Encourage your child to openly share their experience of the new family with you. When they choose to open up to you, actively listen to what they’re saying and thank them for sharing it with you. If the situation calls for it, problem-solve with your child and help them move through the process with your support.
5. Regular Check-ins
Set up a time to regularly check in with your child away from the rest of the family. This serves multiple purposes. First, it reinforces to your child that they are cared for and still your priority. Secondly, it gives your child an opportunity to open up to you without worrying about anyone else around them. It takes some of the pressure off and will make them feel more comfortable sharing difficult feelings with you.
6. Family Meetings
Schedule a time for everyone in the family to meet. This should be done on a regular basis such as weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. During this time, discuss what is working, what you’re proud of, and encourage your children to share their experiences or concerns. Validation is an essential part of this process. Make sure you show your child you understand them and reinforce that it’s perfectly acceptable to be experiencing this change the way they are.
7. Position The Step-Parent
One of the biggest concerns of children in blended families is the replacement of a parent, whether living or passed. Take time to help your child understand that their step-parent is not replacing their biological parent. Remind your child that it’s acceptable to love both their biological parent and the step-parent at the same time, and that one does not take away the love they have for the other. Position the step-parent as a ‘bonus parent’ who adds to your child’s support system.
8. Talk Feelings
Children in blended families will experience a wide range of emotions as they begin adapting to the new family dynamic. Some of these feelings may be difficult to understand. Younger children especially will struggle with identifying and understanding their feelings, however, teens can find it difficult as well. As these emotions rise up, help your child identify and understand them. Support them through them. No emotion is right or wrong during this stage, however, how they work through them will have a strong impact on their ability to accept the changing family.
9. Consider The Child’s Space
While blending a family naturally means new members coming into the home, it is important to recognize the space that is specifically your child’s. This includes their bedroom and personal items. Having to share their space and things can bring up difficult feelings, and they will need your help to manage them as they arise. During this time be as fair as possible, and treat each child equally.
10. Spend Time One-On-One
When new people begin entering your and your child’s home, it can cause your child anxiety over their place in your life. They may begin to worry that you don’t have time for them anymore, or that they aren’t as important to you as the new family members. Quality time is one of 6 essential characteristics of a strong family, and its role in blended families is considerably influential. It’s important to spend time with your child alone doing something they like without the other members of the family. By doing this, you will be able to reassure them that they are still important to you and that your love for them hasn’t changed.
This can also be beneficial to do with your new step-children. Spending time with them one-on-one can help you get to know them and start building a bond with one another.
11. Co-Parent Well
Co-parenting is an important aspect of this transition in your child’s life. Making joint decisions about your child’s health, education and activities can instil a sense of normalcy. It also helps reinforce to your child that both parents are still there to support them and care equally about them. The step-parent should be respectful of these decisions and the co-parenting relationship.
Transitioning into a blended family can be a difficult challenge for everyone involved, but blended families can work. Being able to express and understand their feelings can be as difficult for your children as they are for you. Seeking help from a qualified professional, especially one who specializes in blended families, can be beneficial to both you and your child. This can help you maintain your connection with one another and move through this new change in a healthy, and supportive way.
Marsha Kooiman, MSW RSW
Marsha is dedicated Child & Family Therapist with a special interest in working with blended families. Having gone through a divorce herself , Marsha is aware of the experiences, worries, and issues that families encounter when parents separate. To learn more about Marsha, see Our Team page.