Dr. Cristina Davis
Navigating the ins and outs of blended families can be tough work. Every individual that joins a blended family comes with their own thoughts and feelings and may or may not be ready to openly discuss these. Some kids adjust well while others may struggle with frustration and/or confusion about the new union and subsequential changes.Depending on the circumstances in which the union began, there may be particularly hard and/or difficult feelings to navigate. Jealousy for a parent’s attention, protectiveness over a parent that is not a part of the new family system, and awkwardness about roles or where one fits in within the new family system are all normal feelings.
Divorce does not just impact the two adults within the union, it also impacts the children conceived or cared for within that union. While parents may be ready to move on, kids may feel blindsided by the news of separation or divorce and/or the new union.
In addition, it is important to recognize that the child may experience grief and loss resulting from the divorce, difficulty with adjustment to their family post-divorce, and adjustment when their parents begin dating or plan to remarry.
The loss of their family as they knew it will take time to accept. Change is hard no matter what and watching the two people that they rely on the most divorce and the subsequent changes to the family structure, dynamics within the family, communication patterns, etc. are changes that will take time to adjust to and accept. Once one or both the parents begin pursuing other romantic relationships, this will be another adjustment the child has to endure.
Youth may not be ready to see their parents dating or behaving romantically with someone who is not their other primary parent even if the divorce was several years ago. Kids and teens may fantasize about their divorced parents coming back together again, and as the new union develops, the finality of the divorce or dissolution of the relationship may set in for kids.
Just because some kids adjust well, doesn’t mean that there were no “ups and downs” along the way. It is often said that children are resilient, and while that may be true, it would be a mistake to disregard the fact that what impacts their parents will very likely impact them as well.
How to address concerns in blended families?
Feelings are normal and ok, but disrespectful behavior is not. Children and teens, particularly, can be especially prone to frustration or confusion about blended families, but may not have the words to verbalize how they are feeling or may not feel comfortable openly expressing their feelings with words. At times, they may push boundaries with the stepparent and deliberately defy them.
It’s important that the parents in blended families approach these issues together, and it is even better if the other primary parent is on the same page and can approach the concerns with a similar tone and with the same goal. This allows the child to feel heard and understood and helps them develop a sense of stability (all the adults are on the same page and working together for the child’s interest).
Ideally, the parents from the previous union will have a stable relationship. It is helpful if both parents are on the same page about how to address issues as they arise. For instance, no bad-mouthing, side-eyeing, or sabotaging the other parent or stepparent. Issues between the adults need to be addressed between the adults.
However, when the child comes to one primary parent frustrated with their other parent or stepparent, allow them to express themselves, but guide them in how they talk about the issues and how they plan to talk to their parent and stepparent about their frustrations, reinforcing the idea of addressing their concerns respectfully.
Prioritize dinner time. Parents should practice open communication and lead by example by eating dinner regularly as a family and discussing issues as they arise. It may be uncomfortable at first, but by practicing and modeling, it will become habitual.
Phones need to be put away and attention needs to be on eating and spending time with each other. Of course, if schedules are unconventional, choose another time of day, but be consistent and intentional about eating a meal together as a family and checking in with one another.
Prioritize family time in blended families.
Be purposeful about family time in blended families. There should be regularly scheduled family game nights (twice/month is ideal, but once a month is fine if it is consistent). The rules and expectations during this time are that there is no use of cell phones, including by the parents. Phones should be put away as this is an important time to focus specifically on the goal of bonding as a family. Eye contact, laughter, and talking are encouraged.
The stepparent and the child(ren) will develop their own relationship. They may not refer to their stepparents as “Mom” or “Dad,” and that is ok, but they will develop a relationship over time. Provide opportunities for the stepparent to develop a relationship with the child. The child will open up when they are ready.
Perhaps the stepparent can drive the child or teen to school once a week and stop for coffee or breakfast along the way. During the drive, the stepparent can make the effort to develop a rapport with the kid or teen. They can bond with the kid or teen over the music they listen to on their way to drop them off at school.
The stepparent can lead by taking an interest in the child by asking questions about school, friends, sports or extracurricular activities, favorite food, places to eat, hobbies, etc. Tips to develop rapport include using humor, knowing your boundaries, being prepared to set boundaries, and modeling respectful behavior.
Prioritize the child’s needs.
If a cordial and respectful relationship remains between the parents from the initial union, perhaps consider celebrating the child’s birthday as a family (all adults together, cordially, and respectfully for the best interest of the children). Another option is to prioritize a portion of important holidays together as a family such as Christmas morning (open gifts, breakfast, etc.) and/or Easter Sunday (Easter egg hunt and other festivities).
This may be uncomfortable for the adults at first, but over time, this will become easier. Parents, this does not mean that you must like each other. It just means that you are willing to yield the ill or awkward feelings you may have toward one another for the benefit of your children. The more the children see the adults in their lives sacrificing for their benefit by working together, the better.
Parents, consider allowing the child to have as much time with both parents as possible. Ideally, if the families live within a close distance, allow the child to choose which parent’s house they want to be at (there is no pressure to stay at one parent’s house or the other) or consider a 50/50 split between both households.
However, for this to be an effective method, consequences will need to be administered across households regardless of which home the child chooses to be at as this decreases the likelihood of the child attempting to escape consequences. Of course, depending on the child’s school schedule and location, arrangements will need to be made which will be the primary responsibility of the parent that they are staying with (drive to school, take the school bus, etc.).
As much as possible, the adults must prioritize the children’s ability to integrate into both households, present a united front when addressing issues, allow the children to see the parents of each household interacting respectfully, and ensure that children do not have to sacrifice or feel pressured to spend special events or holidays with one household over the other, but get to spend it with all of the parental figures that care deeply for them.
Note: this article does not apply to situations of domestic violence or abusive relationships. Please ask your family therapist or mental health provider about appropriate interventions specific to these situations.
“Cuddles from Mommy”, Courtesy of Jordan Whitt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “On a Drive”, Courtesy of William Bout, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Easter Eggs”, Courtesy of Gabe Pierce, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fried Food”, Courtesy of Tyson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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