18 Essential Rules for a Happy Blended Family
Far from being the exception, blended families are quickly becoming the norm. While there’s a shortage of official statistics on stepfamilies in the U.S., the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of U.S. children reside in stepfamilies.
For every parent — and child — who finds themselves part of a blended family, it’s a completely new experience, and not always one you can prepare yourself for. Being a stepparent is not the same as being a biological parent. The family dynamics are naturally more complex, which can lead to dramas and misunderstandings.
That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to have a happy, secure blended family. It might take a little time. Unfortunately, becoming a stepparent doesn’t come with a guidebook, but these rules — some from parenting experts and some I’ve relied on myself over the last few years, as my husband and I created our own blended family of eight — will help you rise to the challenge, work through the growing pains and create a loving, respectful, peaceful home.
Keep Things in Perspective
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by your blended family setup, particularly if you don’t have control over a custody schedule. Try to accept what you can’t change and focus on making the best of your situation.
Kristen Skiles, stepmom and founder of Stepmomming, advises trying to understand the perspective of your partner’s ex to help you navigate your role with peace of mind. “When you stop seeing the ex as the enemy and instead seek to understand the other perspective, you make things easier for all involved,” she says.
Let Go of Guilt
It’s common for stepparents to feel guilt on many different levels — but you shouldn’t. Don’t feel guilty about the fact that your relationship didn’t work out with the other biological parent. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t love your stepkids the way you love your own kids. And don’t feel guilty if your blended family life isn’t “perfect.”
Parents in more traditional family structures don’t have perfect lives either — whatever outside appearances might suggest. Parenting is hard, period, whether it involves biological kids or stepkids. Try to go with the flow, and just do the best you can. Ultimately, if you’re honest with yourself and your partner, put the kids’ needs first and let go of “perfect.” You’ll get there in the end.
Successfully blending a family takes time. When you welcome your own child into the world, bonding normally happens quickly. It’s completely different when an older, non-related child comes into your life. Don’t put pressure on yourself, your partner and especially the children to live up to an ideal in your mind. If your stepkids don’t want to call you Mom or Dad, don’t take it personally — and accept that it might never happen.
“Have compassion for the kids and don’t have too many expectations, beyond basic respect,” advises licensed clinical professional counselor Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin. “Stay positive and realize that time itself is an important factor.”
Don’t compare your family to other blended families who may appear to have it all together. Appearances can be deceptive, and every family is different. Concentrate on your own family, let things happen at their own pace, and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.
Don’t forget to have fun with your stepkids! Bonding experiences are a crucial part of building a relationship with your stepkids and relationships between stepsiblings. Slatkin advises making a point of having regular family outings and trips to let you share lighter moments together. “Although the kids may be reluctant to interact with you at first, when you have fun together, they will more likely open up and become comfortable with the new arrangement sooner,” he explains.
By making bonding experiences fun, it takes some of the pressure off and encourages a more natural process. Plus, having a blended family shouldn’t be all about compromise and resolving conflict. Making time to have fun takes everyone’s mind off any tricky ongoing issues, such as animosity from the other biological parent.
Work on Communication Skills
If communication within your blended family is poor, you’ll continue to feel as if your life is out of control, warns Skiles. She recommends defining boundaries, sharing perspectives and communicating clearly about time swaps to build bridges and make life easier for everyone involved, particularly the children. “It’s important that you and your partner are on the same page, in order to present a united front to your children and parent more effectively,” says Slatkin.
Spend time thinking about — and improving – how you communicate with your partner to make challenges easier to overcome and prevent minor hiccups escalating into huge issues.
Create New Traditions
Depending on the age of your stepkids, they may have a lot of family traditions from when their parents were together. It’s possible to preserve old traditions while creating new ones. Ask the kids what new traditions they’d like to start, and make sure everyone is happy with the outcome. (Depending on how many kids you have, this might take some negotiation.)
The holidays are a great time to create new traditions, but throughout the year, simple family occasions like Friday pizza and movie nights or baking cakes on a Sunday are great ways to help everyone bond and look forward to special family time.
Your stepkids won’t fall in love with you instantly, and it might take you a while to feel close to them. Every situation is different, and your relationship with your stepkids depends on a range of factors. Many of these are outside your control, such as how often you spend time with them and how supportive their other parent is of your relationship with them.
A child’s age is also significant, says psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D. Children up to age eight are still in the age of attachment and dependency, meaning they may bond to stepparents more easily than adolescents (ages 9-13), who are in an age of detachment and independence and are therefore less likely to bond.
Do Your Own Thing
So, what if your family is different than everyone else’s? What’s important is the time you spend together and the fun you have, says clinical psychologist Dr. Becca Ballinger. “A defining characteristic of a blended family is that they don’t have to fit into a certain ‘mold,’ so anything goes!” she says. “I’ve seen too many blended families worry about providing a classic holiday for the kids and extended family members, and this usually never turns out like they imagined.”
So, take advantage of the opportunity to think outside the box, knowing that whatever your family holiday, vacation or weekend looks like, happy memories last a lifetime.
Accept the Bigger Picture
When it comes to blended families, the bigger picture usually includes ex-spouses, grandparents and other extended family members. This can make juggling custody issues tricky and requires maintaining balance and a sense of fairness.
“Your biological children may receive gifts from their grandparents, but your stepchildren are neglected, or your own parents may favor their biological grandchildren,” says Slatkin. “It’s important to be aware that there will be outside factors that may disrupt the harmony. Expect them and plan how to work out whatever is in your control.”
Defer to the Biological Parent
However much you love your stepkid and want to be active in their upbringing, you must respect the fact that you are not their biological parent. As much as you are in their life and have a relationship with them, any advice or decisions concerning the child should come from their biological parent, unless they have asked for your input.
Pickhardt recommends that the biological parent remains the corrective and demanding authority and the stepparent be the contributing authority — giver of good things and permissions — at least for the first year of blended family life.
Balance Discipline and Rules
All kids have moments of misbehaving, and your stepchild may react to their change in family life by acting up. It’s important to remember that their whole world has changed. They need stability and routine — and this includes rules and clearly defined boundaries.
Together with your partner, think about what your expectations for the children are, how you can give them consistent rules and boundaries, and how you can help them grow into respectful, responsible adults. At the same time, don’t forget what a huge transition entering a blended family can be for many kids.
Focus on Individual Relationships
You may be eager to be one big happy family right away, but it’s a good idea to move slowly and work on nurturing individual relationships with your stepkids. Spend time alone with each child to get to know them better, understand what they like and don’t like, and whether they have any concerns about being part of a blended family.
It’s a great chance to establish common interests, create a safe space to help the child feel comfortable enough to open up in and lay the foundation for a trusting relationship between you and your stepchild.
Don’t Forget Time With Your Biological Children
At the same time as developing relationships with your stepchildren, it’s important that you don’t forget your biological kids (if you have them). With young kids, this could be 20 minutes together, away from the rest of the family, in which your child is given the opportunity to decide on a game or activity.
Older kids might appreciate going somewhere with you — again, let them choose — while the rest of the family stays home. If time is short, make the most of all the alone time you get with your child, such as driving them to their after-school activities. Giving your child your undivided attention on a regular basis reminds them how important they are to you, despite all the changes taking place in your household.
Have Regular Child-Free Time
Couples need alone time, too. When families come together, life gets busy, and it’s common for date nights and child-free time to get neglected. Try to set aside time at least once a month to do something you and your partner both enjoy, without any children in tow, such as going to the movies, eating in your favorite restaurant or even going for a long walk someplace special.
Date nights and time away from the kids gives you and your partner the chance to reconnect, ease tensions and remember why you started this journey together in the first place. It’s a good opportunity to discuss family issues away from the kids, but try to talk about other stuff, too. You’re parents together, but you’re also a couple.
Prioritize the Kids
When you marry or move in with someone who has kids, you’re not just taking your relationship to the next level — you’re creating a whole new family. This can be daunting, stressful and confusing for you and your partner — and even more so for the children.
Remember that they don’t have the maturity or experience to deal with what’s happening. Whatever age they are, they need you to help them feel comfortable about the new situation. Listen to their concerns without judgment, don’t put pressure on them to react in a particular way and let relationships between stepsiblings develop in their own time.
Taking lots of photos of your blended family adventure is a great way to focus on fun times and remind yourself of the progress you’re making. Remembering things you’ve done together is a great opportunity to bond, and displaying family photos on your walls helps stepchildren feel part of the home.
Even better, involve the kids in taking photos and putting “Our Family” albums and collages together.
Get Professional Help
Don’t be embarrassed to get professional help if you’re struggling to connect as a blended family. It’s common for unresolved feelings from prior experiences with divorce, death in the family or neglect to emerge as soon as a new family blends, says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz. These feelings can manifest themselves as conflict over trivial matters, negativity or possessiveness.
“Sorting through all of these needs gets complicated and overwhelming,” says Luiz. “With professional help, the narratives can get sorted out, room can be made for compassion and the blended family can heal from the past.”
Above all else, remember why you’re in a blended family. You chose to love your partner, and if you make it a priority to find ways to show your stepkids love — without wondering if they love you in return — things will fall into place a lot faster.
A partner with kids really does come as a package deal. Try to embrace every part of that package — even the messy, complicated, stressful parts — and always try to find ways to show love, even during difficult times.