Yours, mine, and ours.
Blended families can be a wonderful opportunity to expand the number of people who love our children. It can also be extremely difficult when things go off the rails.
Whether you’re just meeting someone with children or in the midst of a difficult blended family situation, the following ideas can be the key to smooth sailing.
- Expect a learning curve and allow time to create a new normal. If you expect that things will go swimmingly, you will be in for a big surprise. If you expect that there will be bumps and have a plan for them, it will be easier to manage them.
- Discuss budgets and finances before establishing a new family. Expectations about money can cause major arguments. Major differences in incomes, spending priority differences, and differences in wealth can all lead to complications, hurt feelings, and broken relationships. It is crucial to have a discussion about the household budget – who will pay for rent/mortgage and utilities. The food budget can be tricky depending upon the composition of the family but must be planned. Discussions about managing the differences between being a spender or a saver are crucial. Money issues can lead to deep resentments.
- Establish expectations regarding schedules, activities, division of household chores, discipline, communication expectations with former partners. Remember that we all have expectations about the way things work. Household chores can be a big source of arguments, especially when step children do not complete their chores. If a friendly relationship exists with a former partner, it may need to be scaled back, but a conversation about what everyone is comfortable with is important.
- Consider having regular family meetings. Children often lack a format for bringing up sensitive issues. Regular family meetings can be an opportunity to bring up issues and rules for how to bring up issues should be established. Focusing on behaviors should be key, rather than lodging criticisms and complaints. This format will help children learn the healthy way to confront issues rather than learn avoidance tactics. Family meetings can also be an opportunity to acknowledge positive events such as awards and good grades. Regular family meetings can help reduce anxiety.
- Treat children equally. Children should have the same rules and treatment as much as possible. It is impossible to have the same parenting style and the exact same rules for all children but rules that vary widely will cause arguments and resentment. Each side will have to give a little but the harmony will be worth the sacrifice.
- Discuss ways of strengthening interfamily relationships. For example, the relationship between step-mother and step-son or step-father and step-daughter should be given extra attention. These relationships tend to need extra strengthening compared to biological parent-child relationships. Step siblings often struggle with forming bonds so finding commonalities or new activities/hobbies can be bonding.
- Everyone needs validation and empathy, especially the children. They need a lot of understanding about being part of a situation that is beyond their control. Children have difficulty understanding and expressing emotions about the situation and often express their frustration through unwanted behaviors. Validating statements to children include “I know this is new for you” and “I know it is difficult to share a bathroom with your step-brother.” Empathic statements sound like “I feel sad that you are frustrated about sharing a room.”
- Step-parent/non-biological adult needs to be the back-up disciplinarian, not the primary disciplinarian for children older than 3. Have a conversation BEFORE situations arise about how to handle various common scenarios, such as talking back, not following commands, not doing homework/chores, etc. Having a plan in place about the role of each adult and practicing can avoid a lot of arguments. Being a step-parent can be especially challenging when there are substantial differences in parenting styles. Consequence parenting charts can be an excellent way of parenting a non-biological child. Set up a chart with the child’s top 3 to 5 behaviors and identify a natural consequence. Ask the child for input – they are more likely to participate in the process. Some examples include: homework done by 6pm with a consequence of no television for the evening for not completing it. It is easier to use consequences of taking something away such as television or electronics for 24 hours rather than making a child perform a task such as doing the dishes.
- Use healthy communication skills. Focus on behaviors and feelings, not personality traits. Avoid criticism, complaining, and condescending tone. Using and modeling health communication keeps things calm and is good for children to learn. For example, “Josh, when you leave your bookbag in the hallway, it makes me frustrated.”
- Establish house rules. House rules are more impactful when all family members generate them, such as at a family meeting, and they should be written down for everyone to see. Examples include no disrespectful communication, no bashing on social media of step-parent or step-siblings, written chores/consequence charts, no sharing/using step-sibling’s belongings or space when they are gone.
- Create rituals and traditions that are unique to the new family. Rituals are bonding and connecting and create a sense of belonging. Examples include Taco Tuesday, movie/game night, secret handshakes or code words.
The implementation of these suggestions will smooth some rough seas for blended families. With a little attention and effort, blended families can create a wonderful, strong foundation for all members of the family.
Kristin Stonesifer, LCSW