I like to think of myself as accepting, grounded and evolved. I have to be honest and say that on forming my beautiful blended family it has certainly tested my resolve. I have learned a thing or two along this journey and I have one piece of advice for those in our situation – it is hard in the beginning, messy in the middle and beautiful in the end.
A blended family or stepfamily is never Brady Bunch easy. The best of intentions at the beginning of your beautiful union with your new love is often never what we as parents expect it to be. Just because you have found each other, feel that soulmate connection and want to build a life together does not mean your children feel the same.
We as adults, have often been through a difficult time with our ex and have spent time working on ourselves, thinking about what we want going forward and then meeting someone that feels right. Then naturally at some moment in time, we decide it’s appropriate to bring your partner and the respective children together whether you have your own or not.
A child can never have too many people who love them and want to see them succeed. – Unknown.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and consider the children involved.
Firstly, more often than not our kids are still reeling from the separation of their own parent’s relationship and display a range of emotional and behavioural reactions in the months following the event. Following their parents’ separation, children may regress, display anxiety and depressive symptoms, appear more irritable, demanding and noncompliant, and experience problems in social relationships and school performance (1)
Whether the kids are younger or teenagers and battling with hormones, they are struggling to understand why their parents could not stay together. Why the two people they love cannot live under the same roof. Why they have to pack up their clothes, uniforms, school work and sometimes toiletries and move to another home. Imagine packing and unpacking for a work trip every week – most of us as adults would struggle.
Whatever your custody arrangement they are forced to pick up mid-week or at the end of their weekend and have to pack up their stuff and move homes. Each home with a different energy and different rules that they are expected to accept and ‘slot’ into seamlessly.
Simple things like remembering their favourite book, the right iPad charger, a blazer from the uniform, or missing their family pet, even the size of the home and distance to the parents bedroom becomes a trauma of sorts and one that many of our children may not be ready for yet are just expected to ‘deal with’ despite our best efforts to make the transition smooth.
Each parent in the initial stages has a myriad of issues to deal with from custody arguments and financial settlements, moving home and work changes (potentially), so they are often distracted, stressed out and trying also to make the transition as smooth as possible for the children. This is a messy stage and more often than not, the children are exposed to this stress during this phase.
For the majority of families, separation and divorce provoke a time of crisis and destabilization. Yet, research demonstrates that after an initial period of distress, most adults and children are able to adapt effectively to new family structures and dynamics. Things will eventually settle down, that is of course until a new partner comes along.
Common mistakes made during the initial separation
Part of managing the act of parenting after divorce is being able to recognise common mistakes and missteps. Once you know these twelve common mistakes, you’ll be able to spot them if they ever begin to creep into your parenting, giving you ample time to employ strategies to prevent them from becoming major issues.
What happens when a parent re-partners
One third of Australian de facto partnerships and marriages are second marriages or de facto relationships, and many of these partnerships and marriages include partners with children from a previous relationship. Starting a new life together is exciting, but it can also present challenges to a couple in their relationship as partners, parents and step-parents. (2)
Parents of blended families face plenty of challenges, but there are thing you can do to make the transition easier and help the children adjust to their new reality. Parents often feel troubled by and unprepared for their children’s reactions to a new partner. I mean, they are in love, shouldn’t the kids be excited about their new step-parent and potential siblings? What could possibly go wrong?
Chaos is inevitable in this situation, because there are so many emotions, fears + expectations tied into blended families. When you’ve been a member of the family + things are done the same way or similar ways for so long – introducing a new dynamic can make or break various relationships + ultimately the family itself. How do you weather the storms that come with blended families? What exactly can you expect?
Blended families: What to expect + How to Survive
1. Expect Resistance
With any transition or major change, there will be resistance and conflict. Change is difficult for adults, but even more so for children. Conflict can arise because the kids are still dealing with the loss of their biological parent, feel like the new parent wants to replace their biological parent or may be angry with their biological parent (your spouse) for moving on to a new relationship.
What you can do:
Be patient, remember this is a new situation, new dynamics and an entirely new family unit. Communication is key here. Talk to the children about the changes, provide time frames and keep them in the loop if there are any changes.
Don’t ever try to ‘parent’ your step children. Discuss any issues with your partner and encourage them to speak to their children about respecting the home and the adults in it. After all, your
2. Excitement of new siblings wears off
Many times the kids can be exited about their new siblings or playmates and can have an initial burst of excitement and joy. Especially in the case of only children who now have inbuilt sleep overs! But proceed with caution with this, as the goal posts often move as the relationship matures and the initial excitement wears off.
What you can do:
Take it slow and encourage the kids to do the same. It is great that they are getting along, but watch the relationship closely and don’t make the mistake of treating them like true siblings. Make sure there are always healthy boundaries between them as this will protect their relationship in the long term. Over time, the relationships will naturally evolve and ebb and flow as all relationships do.
Make sure that you have plenty of external activities organised so all children are not in the house or together at all times. Keeping them busy and on schedule with their normal routine avoids too much down time to annoy each other.
I would not recommend getting the siblings to share rooms (even if they request it) as the desire is likely to wane and it will have to be undone at some point.
3. Expect Competition
Depending on how many children you have, what ages and what number child they are, there are another layer of issues here too. First children and even second children are often thrown in together and expected to ‘blend’ when they are used to being the first or second child and behaving as such. This can cause a myriad of issues with the two first children from each respective parent jockeying for position and control within the family unit and ultimately ending up competing.
This seems to play out far worse than sibling rivalry. A simple example could be who gets the front seat in the car. When parents divorce, naturally the older child would sit in the front seat and the younger will always get the back due to age. But if a similar aged child enters the family unit, the other now has competition and has to share their privileges. This can create problems between the children.
The other unexpected competition can be between step child and parent or visa versa. Both at different times can compete for status and attention. It is easy to feel like you are playing second fiddle or being left out all together and it can be isolating and damaging to your relationship.
Competition can also arise between the parents about the children. “My child didnt do that, it must have been yours”. It is imperative to look at the children when they are operating in the home as neutrally as you can. Children feel tension and also feel if they are being treated differently to the other kids in the home. This creates huge relationship issues between the child and step-parent involved.
What you can do:
Ideally, agree on house rules that all children have to follow. This should include not only tactical things such as: keep your room tidy, hang up your towels, but also behavioural family rules, such as respecting each other and taking turns.
Another great idea to help manage the competition is to have a draw or a system where you can keep track of who received the privilege and then alternate. Or even remove the privilege all together, and using the example above, no children sit in the front seat when the step children are together.
If there are issues between the step-parent and step-child, rather than feeling left out, try to have compassion with your partner’s role as a parent and see things from their perspective. Discuss your concerns with your partner before things escalate – let them know how you’re feeling and make suggestions for how things might be improved. Making a special 1:1 date with your partner to reconnect is a good idea here.
Understand that all children make mistakes – yours included. Kids also go through phases, in our case, there is always one challenging the system or harder work, then it changes. They all have their time in the sun. Don’t end up with egg on your face, the minute you say “my child would never…” is the minute they will. Show compassion, breathe and walk away from situations and remind yourself that you child is also not perfect.
4. Expect Jealousy
Jealousy comes in all forms and will come from all family members. It can manifest in jealousy from one step-parent to the biological child of the other parent, from child to child and even from the child to the step-parent.
The other issues can come from different socio-economic situations between the other households. For instance one side of children is in private education and the others are not, or one of the children’s parents has more money to buy them items or a car for example, and the other side does not.
There is a third issue, which thankfully has not played so much of a part in my situation, but when one child lives with the step-parent more than their own children. This is difficult for both the children and the parent involved. The step-parent may feel guilty that they are spending more time raising their step-child than their own, or the children may be jealous that the step sibling gets to spend more time with their own parent than they do.
What you can do:
The first thing I recommend and have also personally had to work on is you are the parent, the children are the children – put your big girl pants on! In most cases, the children are hurting, they are confused and they may act out in your home. The thing to remember is all kids are a work in progress, all kids do things that annoy us adults. Remember that your child is no different to your step children – be forgiving and patient.
The second piece of advice is to remember that all children deserve love. These children have been through enough, they didn’t choose this situation and they deserve to feel loved and at home in all of their houses.
If all of the kids are in the house at once, make sure you treat them all the same. Easier said than done right? Don’t worry, it is possible and can be done. You need to explain to your own child that whilst the step children are with you, then you are all treated the same. This does not make them any less special or important to you. Either steal some special moments with your biological children (when you put them to bed, or take them on a drive or walk with you) to remind them that they are important to you.
Make time for your partner. Partners are often put out or feel jealous when a child is dominating the time and attention of the other partner. This is very complex and completely normal. Making time for each other at the end of the day or in the morning before you get up and have to deal with the children is very important. Don’t let life get in the way here. You need to let your partner know how important they are to you every day and more importantly when the children are in the home.
5. Conflicting Upbringings
One of the most complex of issues is conflicting upbringings. Down to one family eats vegetables and the other doesn’t, one side is used to playing a lot of technology and gaming and the other doesn’t. These issues inevitably cause tension in the home.
This issue can affect what you do on weekends, where we spend our holidays, what activities you do as a family. For example: one side snow skis and is used to spending holidays snow skiing and the other does not – this needs to be compromised and managed delicately. It affects your lifestyle choices on fitness and activity and can begin to dilute the parenting boundaries you initially set for your children.
What you can do:
Start with some house rules. Particularly around technology, fitness and diet. You and your partner fundamentally need to agree what the new family looks like. Are they allowed tech during the week or only on weekends. Expectations around healthy eating and movement. Rules for the house must be communicated with all kids and explained. Kids do get used to different rules in different homes.
Try to get everyone involved. If there is an activity that one side of the family is used to doing, then provided it is healthy and good for the family, then working with the other side to give them the experience can be one of the most rewarding things you can do. The kids learn something new, the family has a new activity or hobby they can participate in together! If this doesn’t work, then respect that and take time out with your own child so you dont stop enjoying your passions.
Don’t allow resentment to kick in. If you are finding that the difference in the children is too large, then it’s okay to take a break away to decompress. This is hard! How you feel is completely normal. You’re not the only parent to experience these frustrations. When this happens you need to seek help with a neutral party. A Kinesiologist can often help you shift stuck emotions in these situations.
6. Put your relationship first
Firstly, let me be clear, I don’t think it’s a great idea to think of anyone as coming “first” in a stepfamily or any family for that matter; it’s not a competition. The love we feel for our partners and the love we feel for our kids isn’t the same— not to mention the relationships themselves are completely different. It’s not that one relationship is better or stronger or more important. You can’t quantify love that way. Both kids and partner need dedicated attention to survive and thrive. (And you need attention from both of them too.)
You will never ever ever meet a partner who’s perfectly fine putting their own emotional needs on hold till your kids turn 18. And as parents, it’s not healthy for us to put our own emotional needs on hold till the kids move out either. Many single parents have this idea that we can somehow establish serious romantic relationships without those relationships impacting our kids whatsoever.
It’s easy to feel like an outsider when you’re in a blended family but you’re not the biological parent. You don’t want to compete with the parent/child relationship, but it’s hard to feel like you’re part of a family unit if your partner is always putting the kids before you
A new partnership will affect your kids. Neglecting your partner’s (or your own) needs in an attempt to prove to your kids (or yourself) that your love life won’t impact them isn’t sustainable. Unmet needs, over time, build up as frustration and resentment that undermine the solidity of your relationship, and this discord spreads to the entire family unit. The step parent cant be the only person making compromises.
What you can do:
Monkey See, Monkey Do. As a parent it’s your job to model good behaviours you want your children to learn from. This includes showing them what a healthy romantic relationship looks like, as well as creating a functional stepfamily dynamic.
Discern between needs and wants. Your child’s wants cannot take priority over the needs of your partner or relationship. Similarly, your partner’s wants can’t take precedence over your child’s needs. Flexibility is necessary in any family from all parties. For example, if we are enjoying a quiet night as a couple and one of the children calls from a party or the other parent crying because he/she wants to come home.. the priority is to collect the child. Neither of us are thrilled, but we understand that this happens with children. This is a need that comes before our wants. However, let’s say I am having a conversation with my husband and my child interrupts us to show us something, that is my responsibility to ask them to wait as my husbands needs come before my child’s wants.
Why your relationship comes first in your step-family
Every stepfamily starts out with their relationships “out of balance”.
The natural progression of family relationships starts with a couple who then become parents — together. The couple relationship comes first. The parental relationship is second.
In a stepfamily, that’s reversed. The parent/child relationship has more history and a deeper connection. To complicate matters, one member of each parent/child relationship is immature, lacks coping skills and has very limited life experience (rest assured, I’m talking about the child here). The idea is to re-balance your relationships so that the marriage is elevated — while at the same time preserving stability in the parent/child relationship(s). This is most often a complicated process that takes patience and intentionality.
There are so many differences between a traditional family and a step family, but one thing rings true: your relationship with your partner serves as the foundation of your family. You are not choosing who gets priority between your kids vs your partner, you are positioning your relationship as the rock of your family, a solid base on which your family can be built.
A strong and healthy marriage is the foundation of any family – even more so with a blended family. Your love for each other is what made the family in the first place and it’s what will make it successful. Putting your spouse first means considering his or her needs before making decisions that affect the entire household. While it may be difficult for everyone to grasp at first, making marriage the top priority in your life has nothing to do with levels of love.
In our case, we walked into this situation with all of the love and hope in the world and were so naieve to the many layers of complexity we were about to embark on. After years, many honest and open conversations, between each other and the children and more than a few mistakes. We have a lovely family unit, with children who get along, enjoy spending time and holidays together and contribute to a warm and loving home. Our relationship today is as loving and strong as ever and we understand the importance of prioritising each other and making decisions that are good for the family unit and not just individuals.
If you are struggling to find balance in your blended family or life in general, reach out and have a chat!
Author – Carla Kaine Kinesiologist, A Life in Progress Kinesiology.
2. Relationships – Remarriage + Repartnering. Source: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/Relationships-remarriage