>> Blended FAmilies
BLENDED FAMILIES: A GUIDE FOR STEPPARENTS
Today, at least one-third of all children in the U.S.
are expected to live in a stepfamily before they reach
age 18. The blended family is becoming more of a norm
than an aberration. Born of conflict and loss, newfound
commitment, and often heart-wrenching transition,
stepfamilies face many lifestyle adjustments and changes.
Fortunately, most blended families are able to work
out their problems and live together successfully.
But it takes careful planning, open discussions of
feelings, positive attitudes, mutual respect and patience.
EIGHT MYTHS ABOUT BLENDED
To a child who does not belong to one, the term stepfamily
may suggest Cinderella's troubled family or the eerily
perfect Brady Bunch. Actually, neither situation tells
the whole story. In a stepfamily, or blended family,
one or both partners have been married before. Each
has lost a spouse through divorce or death, and one
or both of them have children from their previous
marriage. 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.
Here are some common myths about blended families:
MYTH #1: Love occurs instantly between a stepchild
Although you love your new partner, you may not automatically
love his children. Likewise, the children will automatically
love you because you are a nice person. Establishing
relationships does not happen magically overnight.
Even when you recognize the time involved, it is hurtful
to want a relationship with someone who doesn’t
want a relationship with you. When people hurt, they
may become resentful and angry.
Stepfamily adjustment will be easier if you begin
your relationships with your stepchildren with minimal,
realistic expectations about how those relationships
will develop. Then you will be pleased when respect
and friendship blossom and less disappointed if it
takes longer than you anticipated.
MYTH #2: Children of divorce and remarriage
are damaged forever.
Children go through a painful period of adjustment
after a divorce or remarriage. Adults often feel guilty
about this, and want to “make it up” to
their children. This makes it hard to respond appropriately
to each child’s hurt and to set appropriate
limits (an important part of parenting).
Research has demonstrated that in time, most children
recover their emotional equilibrium, and will be no
different in many important ways from kids in first-marriage
MYTH #3: Stepmothers and stepfathers are wicked.
Because many fairytales feature stepparents who are
unkind or unfair, new stepparents may be confused
about their roles. You may be a wonderful person who
wants to do a good job, but the negative model of
the stepparent can impact you in a very personal way,
making you self-conscious about your new role.
MYTH #4: Adjustment to stepfamily life occurs
Couples are optimistic when they remarry. They want
life to settle down and to get on with the business
of being happy. However, it can take a long time for
people in newly blended families to get to know each
other, to create positive relationships, and to develop
a family history.
MYTH #5: Children adjust to divorce and remarriage
more easily if biological parents withdraw.
Children will adjust better if they have access to
both biological parents. Sometimes visitation is painful
for the nonresidential parent, but it is important
for the child’s adjustment and emotional health
– except, of course, in the rare instances of
parental abuse or neglect.
It helps if all the parents involved - both biological
and step - work toward a parenting partnership. Sometimes
this can’t happen right away, but it can be
something to work toward.
MYTH #6: Stepfamilies formed after a parent
dies are easier.
People need time to grieve the loss of a loved one.
A remarriage may reactivate unfinished grieving, which
can have a detrimental effect on the new relationship.
A person who is deceased exists in memory, not in
reality, and sometimes gets elevated to sainthood.
When people remarry after the death of a spouse, they
may want a relationship similar to their previous
one. New partners may find themselves competing with
MYTH #7: Part-time stepfamilies are easier.
When the stepchildren visit only occasionally, perhaps
only every other weekend, there is not enough one-on-one
time to work on stepchild/ stepparent relationships,
and less opportunity for family activities and bonding.
Since stepfamilies follow an adjustment process, the
part-time stepfamily may take longer to move through
MYTH #8: There is only one kind of family
A stepfamily doesn’t have to be – and
probably won’t be – “just like”
a biological family. Today, there are lots of kinds
of families: first marriage, second marriage, single
parent, foster, stepfamily. Each type is different;
each is valuable.
PREPARING TO BLEND TWO FAMILIES:
TIPS FOR AVOIDING PROBLEMS
In order to successfully blend two families, there
are a number of important matters that should be discussed.
By dealing with these issues before blending families,
you can help keep potential problems from arising.
Once a couple has decided to remarry, they should
agree on where they will live. Many couples find that
moving into a new home rather than one of their prior
residences reinforces the idea of a new beginning
for them as well as the children. The couple also
needs to decide if they will share their money or
if each wants to keep his/hers separate.
Partners should also determine how they will handle
medical care in case the other biological parent isn’t
available to sign a release for one of the children.
Stepparents do not have the legal authority to sign
a release, unless permission is given to them (preferably
Resolving feelings and concerns about the
A second marriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger
and hurt from the first one, both for adults and children.
For example, a child can no longer hope that his biological
parents will reconcile. Or an ex-wife may stir up
trouble with her ex-husband when she hears he is about
to remarry. The new couple must negotiate a final
emotional divorce to clear the way for a fresh start.
Anticipating parenting changes and decisions
in blended families
Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will
play in raising their respective children, as well
as changes in household rules that may be in order.
Even if the partners lived together before marriage,
the children are likely to respond to the stepparent
differently after remarriage because he/she now has
assumed an official parental role.
The following tips can help make this difficult transition
a bit smoother:
Maintaining marriage quality
in blended families
- Set up a relationship with the children
in which the stepparent is more like a friend
or camp counselor than a disciplinarian.
- Let the biological (custodial) parent
remain primarily responsible for control
and discipline of the children until the
stepparent has developed a solid bond with
- Until stepparents can take on more parenting
responsibilities, they can monitor the children’s
behavior and activities and keep their spouses
informed (without appearing to be spies).
- Working together, stepparents can come
up with a list of family rules. Discuss
the rules with the children and then post
them in a prominent place. This way the
stepparent is removed from the custodial
parent-stepparent-stepchild triangle because
he or she is simply following the house
rules, rather than acting like a policeman.
Newly remarried couples without children usually use
their first months together to build on their relationship.
Couples with children, on the other hand, are often
more consumed with their own kids than with each other.
Newlyweds need to build a strong marital bond. This
will ultimately benefit the children by creating a
stable home environment. Couples should set aside
time for each other, either by making regular dates
or taking trips without the children.
BUILDING NEW, STRONG BONDS
IN BLENDED FAMILIES
Blended family members can form strong bonds by:
- developing new skills in making decisions
as a family
- fostering and strengthening new relationships
between parents, stepparents and stepchildren,
- supporting one another
- maintaining and nurturing original parent-child
How does the age and gender of the children affect
Forming a stepfamily with young children is usually
easier than forming one with adolescents, Both biological
and stepparents will find it helpful to understand
basic child development so they don't mistake developmentally
normal behaviors as inappropriate, uncooperative or
hostile towards them.
|Young children under 10
- Find the adjustment easier because
they thrive on close, cohesive family relationships.
- Are more accepting of a new adult in
the family, especially when the adult is a positive
- Feel a sense of abandonment or competition
if they think their parent is devoting more
time and energy to the new spouse than to them
|Adolescents aged 10-14
- May have the most difficult time adjusting
to a stepfamily.
- Because of their sensitivity, stepparents
need to be especially aware of having time to
bond with them before stepping in as a disciplinarian
or authority figure
|Teenagers 15 or older
- Need less parenting and may have less
involvement in stepfamily life.
- Prefer to separate from the family as
they form they own identities.
- Are less interested in closeness and
bonding but may be disturbed by an active romance
in their family.
How do attachment relationships affect the
ability of stepfamilies to bond?
- Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend
to prefer verbal affection, such as praises
or compliments, rather than physical closeness,
like hugs and kisses.
- Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical
shows of affection from their stepfather.
- Boys seem to accept a stepfather more
quickly than girls.
Individuals who had a secure attachment relationship
with a parent or caregiver when they were very young
may have a better chance of relating well in their
new families than those who did not. This is true
whether they be the biological parent, stepparent,
People who have an insecure attachment history may
have problems establishing close, loving bonds in
a stepfamily. Fortunately, it is never too late to
overcome this deficiency. An insecurely attached child
can learn to trust others, to communicate and relate
to people who treat him with consistent affection,
attention, and respect. A connection will take place
if the caregiver stays centered and welcoming. Successful
relationships build an internal sense of security
for the child. They also foster the creation of the
interpersonal skills that will enable the young person
to make meaningful connections in the future.
Help: Building Great Relationships with Emotional
for suggestions on how to repair
What role should the nonresidential parent
have in the blended family?
After a divorce, children usually adjust better to
their new lives when the parent who has moved out
maintains a good relationship with them. When parents
remarry, the nonresidential parent often decreases
or maintains low levels of contact with the children.
Fathers appear to be the worst offenders; on average,
dads drop their visits to their children by half within
the first year of remarriage.
The less a parent visits, the more likely a child
is to feel abandoned. The nonresidential parent can
remain connected by developing special activities
that involve only the children and him/herself.
It is not a good idea for parents to speak negatively
about their ex-spouses in front of their children.
This undermines a child’s self-esteem and may
put him or her in the troubling position of defending
ADVICE FOR NEW STEPFAMILIES
FROM THOSE WHO’VE BEEN THERE
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL
HELP FOR BLENDED FAMILIES
|THE DO’S AND DON’TS
OF BLENDED FAMILIES
|…reassure children that the divorce/death
was not their fault. Invite questions and discussion.
…start talking with your children about
the possibility of blending your family long
before your marriage.
…assure children that they will continue
to have a relationship with the non-residential
…begin a dialogue about the future family
life, letting everyone acknowledge and mourn
losses through an open discussion of feelings.
…present a unified parenting approach
that is evenly applied to everyone in the family.
…spend some time alone with each child
and stepchild, connecting one-on-one.
… establish new traditions for the blended
|…push your children into creating relationships.
Allow bonds to evolve slowly and naturally.
Give your children the time, space and flexibility
to adjust to the new situation.
…expect your stepchildren to call you
mom or dad. Let them decide what they want to
call you, or mutually select a name that you
are comfortable being called.
…forget your marriage by focusing exclusively
on the family. Make alone time with your spouse
consistently, and nurture your marital relationship.
…allow conflict to arise between adults
in front of the kids.
…hesitate to ask for help from family
members, friends, or support
Studies show that children of stepfamilies face a
higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
They also are less likely to be resilient in stressful
situations. Although most parents are able to work
out these problems within the family, they should
consider seeking professional help for their children
if the children exhibit strong feelings of isolation,
being alone in dealing with their losses, torn between
two parents or two households, or uncomfortable with
any member of their original family or stepfamily.
It might be time to seek outside help for the entire
- a child directs her anger upon a particular
family member or openly resents a stepparent
- one of the parents suffers from great
stress and is unable to help with a child’s
increased need for attention
- a stepparent or parent openly favors
one of the children
- discipline of a child is left to the
parent rather than involving both the stepparent
- members of the family derive no pleasure
from usually enjoyable activities such as
learning, going to school, working, playing,
or being with friends and family.
By devoting the necessary time to develop their own
traditions and form caring relationships, stepfamilies
can create emotionally rich and lasting bonds for
each member. In the process, the children acquire
the self-esteem and strength to enjoy the challenges
that lie ahead.
Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Sheila
Hutman and Suzanne Barston contributed to this article.
Last modified on 1/8/08
Reprinted with permission from http://www.helpguide.org/.
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