A Recipe for Blended Families:
When Some Ingredients Don’t Mix Well
By Karina Baltazar-Duran, LMFT
When the dissolution of a Happily Ever After occurs, it’s hard to pick up the pieces after. When this dissolution involves children, there are suddenly multiple people’s pieces to pick up. Two incredibly vulnerable families come together in a second marriage and become a blended family now involving stepsiblings and stepparents. Whether you are the mom who is remarrying, the new stepdad, or a new stepsister, suddenly your family has expanded overnight and you’re just supposed to learn how to find your place in it? All families have challenges, however blended families can come with an increase of challenges due to unresolved issues from prior relationships, unprocessed childhood trauma, and insecurities each person can potentially bring into the family. With determination, focus, and understanding, navigating through a blended family doesn’t have to be impossible.
According to principles in Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT), an evidence based practice created by Dr. Howard Little Ed.D, Professor of Public Health Sciences, Psychology, and Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, “The family is the primary context of healthy development”. Growing up in our families is how we learn to communicate to others and relate to the world around us. We can either learn this in a chaotic environment, or we can learn it in a supportive environment. The difficulty of a divorce doesn’t have to stunt this learning process. A second marriage can be a second chance to create emotionally healthy children within your new blended families. With parents in the driver’s seat, the new blended family can drive change, which can be a better experience for everyone (#growth).
Tips to parent a blended family effectively:
1. Be a united front with your spouse.
- It’s common for kids to test boundaries when getting to know their new step-parent. Being on the same page with your spouse teaches your kids you are the strong, united front this family needs. After all, kids are looking to feel protected, and a united front supports this.
- Set aside time to have discussions about the family such as discipline, with your spouse to keep your union stable. Disciplining another’s child can be tricky, make sure you and your partner discuss what you’re comfortable with ahead of time.|
2. Build a relationship with your stepchild(ren).
- Stepparents should actively find a way to relate to their new step-child. We can’t depend on kids, especially adolescents to initiate this when their emotions are still forming.
- Often, parents make the mistake of pushing their child to get to know their new stepparent rather fast, when the reality is, this is as much of an adjustment for parents and as it is for siblings. Just like with people we come across in life, relationships take time to build.
- Seek their interest, find something in common, involve them in planning activities. Find family activities to build connections like cooking, family game night, creating schedules/chore charts, home improvement (painting their rooms, building games like corn hole), watching tv shows that highlight blended families such as: Step by Step, Moesha, Reba, Modern Family, The Fosters, & This is Us.
- Find a personality test to take as a family to learn more about each other. Myers Briggs, Real Colors Personality Test by National Curriculum and Training Institute (NCTI) & “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman are great ways to understand and learn about each other. The stage you set from the beginning can either help or hinder your relationship with your new stepchild.
3. Understanding Adolescence.
- Many parents will remarry prior to their kids becoming teenagers. This important stage of a person’s life, adolescence, is where they learn how to communicate, how to work through problems, and as a stepparent, you have a great opportunity to influence them.
- Adolescence is already a difficult time emotionally, much more when having to worry if your stepparent likes you. Many teens worry: Will they eventually leave me too? Teenagers need to feel protected and safe. These qualities can seem simple but divorce can often lead to children and teens having lost these feelings of safety and protection.
- Stepparents can create opportunities for new connections, teach kids how to learn to trust, and by expressing your own vulnerability, give your new stepchildren a reason to connect with you. Remember, everyone in the house is lowering their guard one more time too.
- Understand everyone is going through their own experiences. Your new stepfamily member’s experiences don’t have to look like yours. Phrases like “I wouldn’t have done that at their age”, or “I can’t believe they’re still acting out” are invalidating and unsupportive. Everyone is different, everyone has had a different experience prior to this family, and everyone has their own pain. Try not to take offense when your teens are not as engaged, their capacity to process emotions is shorter during this time, it may take them longer to adjust.
4. Use your previous experiences as a guideline.
What worked before? What didn’t? What failed miserably in your last marriage when it came to parenting? We all learn from previous mistakes. Be consistent & be present.
5. Set boundaries.
- It can be overwhelming to find your place in a new blended family. Asking for space or creating your own space helps to set clear, healthy expectations for everyone.
- This includes scheduling time for parents to be just a couple. Date nights and finding a sitter are an investment to keep your marriage strong. Be careful to not just become parents again, you’re a couple too this relationship also needs time to flourish.
6. Persistence yet patience.
Challenges will happen. It is not a sign of poor parenting when conflict arises, rather human nature. We grow through error, however with support we can come out on the other side with a better perspective and a second chance.
7. Don’t be afraid to seek support.
Blended families can be overwhelming. Seeking support in the form of Facebook groups, self-help books, pastoral counseling, and family counseling are effective tools to maneuver this newfound family. A family is what you put into it. Be the strength your new blended family needs. At Thriveworks, we’re here to support you through it with family therapy sessions.