Blended families come in different forms.
Marriages, long term relationships, previous relationships and death are just a few ways a family can change and become blended.
We use the term ‘marriage’ in this page, but understand it is only one way to form a new family.
What Is A Blended Family?
In a blended family, or step-family, one or both partners may have been married before. The partners may have lost a spouse through divorce or death, or may have children from previous relationship(s). They fall in love and decide to remarry, and in turn, form a new, blended family that includes children from one or both of their first households.
When a new step-family is formed, the members have no shared histories or shared patterns of behaviors - they may even have different beliefs. Developing good family relationships requires a lot of effort and complicated adjustments as one family is mourned while another is formed.
Foundations for a Good Blended Family:
After surviving the loss of a partner or a divorce, and finding a new love, it may be tempting to remarry without first laying some solid groundwork. It's important to take some time, give everyone a chance to get used to each other, and the idea of a new family. Here are some tips:
Don't expect to fall for your partner's kids in a weekend. Good relationships take time to form and nurture. Get to know them and don't rush it.
Limit expectations. You may work very hard to get your partner's kids to like you. That love may not be returned immediately. That's okay - it'll pay off in the long run.
Too many changes at once can freak kids out. Blended families have the best chance for survival when a couple waits two years post divorce to marry, rather than quickly whipping kids from one family to another.
Work to experience every day life together. Sure going to the fair is great and all, but you don't do that every day. Try to get your kids used to daily life rather than focusing solely upon the fun stuff.
Work out parenting changes before marriage. Sit down, have a talk with your partner about parenting styles, and make all adjustments before you walk down the aisle. That'll help kids transition more easily to life as a blended family.
Don't allow your kids to issue ultimatums. Your kids or your partner may want you to choose between them. You don't have to. Remind them that there's room for both.
Insist upon respect. There's no way to insist that people LOVE each other, but you can insist that they respect one another.
What Goes Into A Successful Blended Family?
Your second (or third or fourth) marriage won't be like any of your other marriages. It's not going to be perfect, and it will have its quirks. Be sure to embrace the differences and remember these are the bits that are needed for a successful blended family dynamic:
A Solid Marriage - without that, there's no family. It's harder to work on a marriage in a blended family because there isn't the same amount of time. Work to make all the time for each other that you can.
Respect all relationships - respect is not to be given according to age, but also because you are each members of a family now.
Respect everyone's development - members of the blended family may be all over with regard to developmental milestones, and each should be respected and honored.
How Children (by age) Adjust To Step-Families:
Children of different ages, stages and sexes will adjust differently to a new blended family. However, it's key not to mistake differences in developmental milestones to differences in needs. All children need loving and trusting relationships.
Here are some things to expect by gender:
- Girls are often uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from stepfather.
- Boys accept a stepfather more easily than girls.
- Both boys and girls prefer verbal affection (compliments) rather than physical affection (hugs).
Here are some things to expect by age group:
Kids Under 10:
- Are more accepting of new adults.
- Feel competition for parental affection and attention.
- May adjust more easily due to desire for cohesive family relationships.
- Have more daily needs.
- May have the most difficulty adjusting to step-family.
- Need additional time to bond before accepting step-parent as disciplinarian.
- Do not openly demonstrate feelings, but may be as (or more) sensitive than young children.
- May need more love, support, and attention than younger children.
- May have less involvement in family life.
- Prefer to separate from family while forming own identity.
- Still want to feel loved, secure and important, although may not express it openly.
Relationships In A Blended Family:
- The Step-Parent/Step-Child relationship: Having another adult who is not their parent can be very difficult for a child to accept. They’ve already endured the breakup of their biological family, and now they’re being asked to accept a new parental figure into their lives.
- The Step-Sibling Relationship: Things can get even more complicated when both parents bring children into the new relationship. Not only do the children have to deal with new parental figures, but they have to deal with new siblings as well. This can be particularly difficult if any of the children involved were only children prior to the new relationship.
- Disciplining Step-Children: This can be a very touchy subject. Is the non-biological parent allowed to discipline all the kids? Just their own?
- Dealing with the other biological parent and/or their family: When one parent enters into a new relationship, the dynamic between them and their child’s other parent can change dramatically. When it’s a case of the other biological parent’s death, dealing with their family can be challenging as well.
Differences in Blended Families:
Merging two families means merging different parenting styles, discipline, lifestyle and other things that may be a source of frustration for children. Make sure that consistency exists across such things as rules, chores, discipline, and allowance. This should reduce any feelings of unfairness and frustration for children.
Blending two families together comes with its own set of challenges. The kids have already had to deal with the trauma of the divorce/breakup or death of a parent that lead their parent to be put in the position to create a blended family.
While it’s true that kids are resilient, they are also greatly affected by the breakup of the once secure family they had. It becomes even more complicated if it’s the third, fourth, etc. marriage for a parent.
Here are some common differences in blended families:
- Fighting among the children
- Age differences - children may be closer together or farther apart than they were before, or the step-parent may be close in age to the eldest sibling.
- Parental inexperience - if one stepparent is a new parent, it may be challenging for them to understand the ages and stages children go through.
- Parental insecurity - comparing oneself to the natural parent may be challenging for a step-parent to handle, especially if the step-children compare them unfavorably to their natural parent.
- Disrespect from the children
- Coping with the demands - custody arrangements may become particularly challenging for children. It may make family events, birthday parties, and vacations more challenging for the parents and children alike.
- Resentment from the other biological parent and/or their family
- Change in family traditions - families tend to have different ideas about how holidays, birthdays, and family vacations should be spent. Children may have trouble coping with the changes, especially if they feel forced into following another family's traditions. Try to find some common ground and create new traditions.
How To Strengthen a Blended Family:
One of the most important parts of creating a blended family is the development of trust. Children, who may be still mourning the loss of their original family unit, may resist efforts of the stepparent to get to know them. The lack of enthusiasm isn't something to be taken personally - this is entirely normal.
Here are some other tips to strengthen a blended family:
Keep communication open -
With open and frequent communication, there are fewer chances for misunderstanding and greater possibilities for connections for all members of the family. Worry and uncertainty about family problems may rise from poor communication.
Keep all parents involved -
Kids will adjust to the blended family and to a step-parent more readily if their biological parent is still involved. Work with your ex to make sure you are both involved in your child's life - let them know neither of you will be going anywhere. Step-parents should explain that they are not intended to be replacements for their Mom or Dad, just another person who loves them.
Create Safe Boundaries -
Discipline can be something that can make or break the trust-building part of a blended family. A couple should discuss the role of the step-parent in discipline to ease the transition. The step-parent may need to take the role of a friend rather than a disciplinarian while the biological parent is in charge of discipline until the children have completely bonded with the step-parent. Post established rules and discuss these with children so they understand what the rules are and why the rules exist.
Use routines -
Family routines and rituals can help strengthen a family. Work together to establish at least one ritual into your blended family - even if it's as simple as Saturday morning pancakes.
If You Need Help For Your Family:
If you've tried and your new spouse and children aren't getting along, find a way to be nurturing despite the situation. You may need some outside help if:
- a child directs anger at one family member or openly resents a parent or step-parent
- a step-parent openly favors one child over another
- members of a blended family have no pleasure in normally-enjoyable activities
If any of these occur, it may be time to seek the outside influence of a therapist. You can find one through your family doctor, your friends or family, the listing of providers from your insurance company, or mental health associations.
Additional Resources for Blended Families:
Kids Health - Living with Stepparents - guide for children about how to live with step-parents, how to cope with feelings and tips for feeling more secure.
Helpful Advice for Blended Families - article in Psychology Today about small things to do to increase communication and create a successful blended family.
The Idiots Guide To Step-Parenting - a book from the popular "Complete Idiot's Guide" series with tips, tricks, and steps to take to become a successful step-parent.