Children often have difficulties when it comes to adjusting to life with a blended family. Children grow up thinking and believing that their family dynamic will never change, and they are, understandably, very attached to the family they know. Children expect their lives to always follow the same rules and routines they’ve grown up with. It’s no surprise that changing your family into a blended family can be extremely upsetting and emotional for your kids. They may be hesitant to accept new family members, may be reluctant to change, and may develop emotional or behavioral issues while they try to cope with these life changes.
The transition will be difficult for everyone, but if you prepare yourself beforehand, and stick to some basic guidelines, you can prevent or at least minimize issues before they arise.
What is a Blended Family?
When a couple with children separates, one partner (or both) may eventually date or get remarried to someone else. This person may or may not already have children of their own from previous relationships. The union of these two families creates a “blended” family. The non-biological parent is often referred to as a “step-parent” and the non-biological siblings are referred to as “step-brothers” or “step-sisters.”
Blended families are very common; approximately 50% of families in the United States are blended families. But the transition can be very complicated and chaotic, especially in the beginning.
Explaining Divorce to Children
Let’s start at the beginning. When you and your partner decide to separate or divorce, you have to figure out a way to break it to the kids. There’s no painless way to do this, and children of different ages will react differently. The first thing to do is: have a plan for the conversation. Explain to your children that you and your partner will no longer be a couple or live together, but don’t go into detail about why. It’s important to emphasize that this decision is mutual between you and your partner (even if it isn’t). This will prevent your kids from choosing sides or placing blame. Use the word “we” when discussing the decision for divorce. Presenting yourselves as a team will also show your kids that you can still work together to take care of them.
It’s also very important to emphasize that your children had nothing to do with the decision, is it NOT their fault. You love them and you will all still be a family, even if things change.
Try to keep the conversation as calm as possible, and let your children ask questions if they have any. Don’t be surprised if they react strongly with anger or sadness. An article on Parents.com suggests you break the news to all your children at once, but follow up with each child separately, so you can focus on their individual feelings and adjust for each child’s age and temperament.
Adjusting to Life with Your Blended Family
The period between divorce and a new relationship is different for everyone. Try to give your children as much time as they can to adjust to their lives with separated parents. Introducing a new partner too quickly might overwhelm your children. When you do commit to a new relationship and become a blended family, just remember this is another huge change in your children’s lives. They will go through many emotions, and may resent their new step-family in the beginning.
It’s important to take things slowly with the new step-family, and be respectful of each child’s space, routines and emotions. Everyone will need time to get to know the new members of their blended family, to adjust to the step-parent’s parenting style, and develop new relationships. Try not to throw too many changes at your children all at once. For example, if you want to move in with your new partner, get married, and move cities, make sure you spread it out over time and introduce each idea slowly to your children.
Before getting married or moving in together, have a discussion with your partner about the parenting styles and expectations you have from each other as parents to both your biological children and your step-children. Discuss different scenarios, either made up or from real life, so you can get an idea of each other’s reactions. (For example, the reaction to your child failing a test, pushing another child at school, throwing a tantrum at the mall, using curse words, etc.) discuss how you would react in this scenario, and then ask how your partner would. Are you comfortable disciplining your step-children? And are you comfortable with your partner disciplining your children?
An article called Blended Family and Step-Parenting Tips published on helpguide.org recommends the step-parent not be a disciplinarian, but rather be a “friend” or “counselor” to the step-children. This is meant to prevent resentment and hostility towards the step-parent.
Bonding as a Blended Family
Becoming a cohesive family unit will take time, and that’s okay. Don’t try to force your children to get along with their step-family, but encourage respect, patience and bonding family activities.
“Creating family routines and rituals can help you bond with your new stepchildren and unite the family as a whole,” states the article Blended Family and Step-Parenting Tips.
Additional tips to help make the transition go more smoothly…
- Create clear boundaries and family rules for children of the blended family
- Keep both of the biological parents involved in their children’s lives
- Maintain open and frequent communication with all family members
- Encourage fun bonding activities
- Be patient and respectful of all family members
- Pay attention to your children, and reassure them of your love and care
- Consider family therapy as a way to help family members communicate with each other
There are many more things that can complicate a blended family:
- Hostility between ex-partners
- Sibling and step-sibling rivalries
- Tension between the new spouse and the ex-spouse
- Disagreements about custody with the ex-spouse
- Children feeling abandoned or betrayed by one or both parents
- Grief for a biological parent who passed away or who has moved away
- A step-parent who has no biological children and is suddenly a first-time parent
Having support and advice is invaluable in helping to navigate the complex world of blended family life. A family therapist can help you learn skills for working with your new family. If you would like to speak to one of our therapists, please reach out to us at Family and Child Development.