One of my favorite tv shows while I was growing up was The Brady Bunch. Mike and Carol Brady managed each contrived family challenge with ease and contentment. That’s why the popular sitcom is definitely a better example of fiction than of blended families. Some of the most challenging cases I have seen in therapy are those with combined households. Blended families are by nature exposed to a great deal of stress. Some reasons they are particularly challenging are:
- Family structures are constantly shifting, with children coming and going. In families where both parents have children and the children spend time with both parents, they are in constant transition from one household to another. Transitions generate stress.
- Children have loyalties to both parents. Children feel stuck in the middle trying to please their biological parents. They can easily feel disloyal to a bioparent by accepting a stepparent.
- People often feel differently about their biological children than stepchildren. This isn’t how people want it to be, but the reality is that most people have an easier time empathizing with their own children.
- Children from different households have often been raised with different rules and types of discipline. This can generate arguments between the parents about how to develop and enforce rules.
- Blended families can have children in different life-cycle stages. For example, a parent with teenagers might marry someone with preschoolers, increasing the complexity of understanding and meeting the needs of all household members.
It’s important to note that blended families and step-parents have great potentiality for developing well-adjusted, secure individuals if the parents can work together and maintain amiable relationships with their former spouses. I know of many instances in which a stepparent provided the type of love and security children need to have confidence in stable relationships.
Some intentional things blended families can do are:
- Promote a discussion acknowledging losses and gains of each family member. Have an actual meeting in which you allow children to draw pictures or voice the things they miss from their biological families. Then, ask what they have gained. If children are asked about losses, they can immediately feel more validated and safer sharing their fearful and uncomfortable emotions.
- Establish a new family tradition with the blended family. Allow each family member to have input on what this might be. Don’t overthink it. Small rituals are powerful.
- Make sure stepparents spend one-on-one time with stepchildren. I’m disappointed by how many blended families miss this opportunity. Parents have former history with their biological children. They need to create new history with stepchildren.
- Think of parenting stepchildren as mentoring rather than traditional parenting. How would you mentor a niece or nephew? The stepparent relationship is different than the biological relationship. This must be acknowledged and respected. Do NOT require stepchildren to call you “Mom,” or “Dad,” but if they want to, let them.
- Reinforce the marriage. This is even more important in blended families than in biological families. The issues with children can quickly fray the marriage. Take time to date, have discussions, attend workshops, and actively implement strategies to express love and care in the couple relationship.
As a general rule, if people focused more on improving relationships than on discipline, I believe there would be far less headaches with blended families. This requires a certain level of emotional regulation on the part of the parents, who may be rejected by stepchildren. Remember, your children are not there to meet YOUR emotional needs…you are there to meet your children’s emotional needs and help them develop into functioning, healthy human beings…those of the non-fictional variety.
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