Challenges for Blended Families
A senior emergency room doctor we know used to assign challenging cases to interns with the introduction, “I have an opportunity for you to excel.” He wasn’t being sarcastic; he wanted to positively reframe a task that might have seemed daunting or unpleasant. After all, the patients were in pain and in need, and they deserved caretakers who were committed to rising to the challenge. It occurs to us that creating blended families after divorce deserves the same kind of encouragement. There are certainly challenges, some pain, and occasional chaos, but also the opportunity for healing and growth. And, as with caring for patients in a busy emergency department, a positive (but realistic) attitude helps a lot.
Developing strong stepparent-stepchild relationships may not be as easy as the Brady Bunch made it look. But if you’re prepared for some of the challenges that lie ahead, it can be wonderful for everyone involved.
Dealing with Discipline
All children need discipline from the adults in their lives. But it can be difficult, when your blended family is new, to discipline your spouse’s child. Yes, it’s your house, and yes, as an adult, you should get to make the rules. But, at least initially, it’s probably best for each parent to take the lead in disciplining their own children. If one of you has to discipline the other’s child, it’s important to back each other up.
It’s common for parents to come into blended families with different parenting styles. That can be a problem for children who are used to one style and are suddenly confronted with another. And if one parent is more lenient with their own children than the other parent is, it can foster resentment between step-siblings.
Anticipating that there will be discipline issues, you and your new spouse should sit down privately and work out a plan for how you want to handle certain situations, and do so consistently with your own children. As each spouse’s kids get used to having the other adult as a loving presence in the home, they will be more willing to accept discipline from their stepparent.
Letting People Have Their Feelings
You love your spouse. They love you. You both desperately want to have a happy blended family. But remember that your kids may not have had much say in the process, and they may not be as fully on board with being “one big (new) happy family” yet. Maybe they were used to being their parent’s sidekick and resent the intrusion of a new adult. Maybe they were secretly hoping their parents would get back together, and this new marriage represents the death of that dream. Maybe they find themselves really liking their new stepparent—and feel guilty about being disloyal to their other parent.
Two things are for sure: you can’t force people not to have the feelings they’re feeling, and if you try, those feelings are going to find some way to come out anyway. It’s perfectly appropriate to require kids to act respectfully toward others, but not to police their feelings. You and your new spouse needed time to get to know each other. You and your new stepchildren need time too. Don’t try to force feelings; they’ll develop in time. In the meantime, let the rule be that everyone, including parents, should be respectful and kind.
Dealing With Your Children’s Other Household (and Parent)
Chances are that you and your spouse have to deal with your exes on a regular basis since you share children together. The frustrations that existed when you were partnered with your ex don’t automatically go away now that you’re with someone new. In fact, they may be exacerbated. In addition, you may have to deal with hostility or unreliability from your spouse’s ex.
No matter how justified your anger, avoid venting your frustration within earshot of the children, and especially not directly to them. Even if your stepchild secretly agrees with you, criticizing their parent puts them in a position to have to choose between you. That’s unfair, and it may cause your stepchild to resent you. (Venting in front of your own child is a bad idea, too, it should go without saying.)
Creating New Traditions
Stability is important to children, and family traditions help build that stability. When parents divorce, one of the many things their children grieve are the loss of family traditions, whether small (Dad making pancakes on Saturday morning) or large (annual trips to Disneyland). The new, blended family unit is a reminder of those lost traditions.
Eventually, your blended family will create its own traditions, but they, like feelings, can’t be forced and take time to develop. Try to build the opportunity to have fun into your daily lives together: game nights, going sledding, making cookies together. Those simple events, repeated over time, may become some of your new family’s most treasured memories.
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