When families "blend" to create stepfamilies, things rarely progress smoothly. The truth is you may find yourself in an already high-conflict or avoidance based relationship with the other parent. Each side has expectations and plans that are not always communicated to the other. Some children may resist changes, while parents can become frustrated when the new family doesn't function like their previous family. While changes to family structure require adjustment time for everyone involved, these guidelines can help blended families work out their growing pains and live together successfully.
Having survived a painful divorce or separation and then managed to find a new loving relationship, excitement can get the best of us and the temptation can often be to rush into remarriage and a blended family without first laying solid foundations. By taking your time, you give everyone a chance to get used to each other, and used to the idea of marriage.
- Too many changes at once can unsettle children. Blended families have the highest success rate if the couple waits two years or more after a divorce to remarry, instead of piling one drastic family change onto another.
- Find ways to experience “real life” together. Taking both sets of kids to a theme park every time you get together is a lot of fun, but it isn’t reflective of everyday life. Try to get the kids used to your partner and his or her children in daily life situations.
- Make parenting changes before you marry. Agree with your new partner how you intend to parent together, and then make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. It’ll make for a smoother transition and your kids won’t become angry at your new spouse for initiating changes.
- Don’t allow ultimatums. Your kids or new partner may put you in a situation where you feel you have to choose between them. Remind them that you want both sets of people in your life.
- Insist on respect. You can’t insist people like each other but you can insist that they treat one another with respect.
Decrease conflict with the "other" household. Parental conflict seriously compromises children's adjustment. Keep drop-offs and pickups peaceful. Handle differences between households calmly and neutrally: "You drink Coke at mom's house. We drink milk here." Address problems with your ex out of children's earshot. In conflicted divorces, stick to a detailed, iron clad visitation schedule
Early in the formation of a blended family, you as a step-parent may want to focus on developing positive relationships with your stepchildren. You will increase the chances of success by thinking about what the children need. Age, gender, and personality are not irrelevant, but all children have some basic needs and wants that should be met as a precursor to a great relationship.
Children want to feel safe and secure, loved, heard and appreciated. Children want to be able to count on parents and step-parents. Children of divorce have already felt the upset of having people they trust let them down, and may not be eager to give second chances to a new step-parent. They also like to see and feel your affection, although it should be a gradual process. Kids often feel unimportant or invisible when it comes to decision making in the new blended family. Recognize their role in the family when you make decisions. Creating an honest and open environment free of judgment will help kids feel heard and emotionally connected to a new step-parent. Show them that you can view the situation from their perspective. Children of all ages respond to praise and encouragement and like to feel appreciated for their contributions.
Therapists with training and experience in stepfamily dynamics can help meet the challenges of stepfamily living. Couple therapy can offer a safe place to share feelings and can help resolve differences. A skilled therapist can sometimes help ex-spouses work together. If the children's behavior deteriorates, try increasing parent-child time, backing the stepparent out of a parenting role, and easing loyalty conflicts. If depression or acting out continues, seek help for your child, or for you as the parent. Children caught in intense loyalty conflicts sometimes appreciate a neutral therapist. Stepfamily living occasionally exposes very painful old "bruises." A good therapist can help resolve some of the old hurts and make living in the present easier.
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