Becoming a step-parent is a process that can be considered to be both rewarding and challenging. Luckily, you fell in love with the right person, but you then discover that he or she has children. You may now be confused wondering how to approach the situation. Finding yourself in this scenario can be overwhelming, especially if you have never been blessed with children of your own.
A blended family has many challenges. Being a step-parent (or parent, for that matter) can be demanding and requires time and patience. Despite the fairy tales about how wicked and evil step-parents are, like the stepmother from Cinderella, many strategies can be used to create a conducive environment for both the parents and the children. Dealing with the emotions combined with good communication is one of the factors that can create a successful blended family.
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that since both of you have decided to spend your life together, this mean that you will inevitably enter into the new role of being a step-parent. While you and your partner may approach the reunion with great joy, this may or may not be the case with your spouse’s kids. There is a likelihood that they may feel uncertain of the new changes in their life. The children may need time to learn to cope with the new parent who is not their biological father or mother. Additionally, they may need time to learn to live with new step-siblings.
Ways of strengthening a blended family
Creating harmony in a blended family is not an easy task. It is a journey that parents and children need to take some time for before the stepfamily can establish itself fully. The emphasis here is truly on the word: JOURNEY. There may or may not be an end destination. It’s a path all of you will walk together, and there will be laughter & joy along the way, but also struggles & challenges as well. As with many journeys that start off with parties not yet thoroughly familiar with each other, things may prove a little more challenging in the beginning but with time (and effort, as well as the right strategies, mindset & skills) things get can better. Below are some steps that parents can take to help boost togetherness & harmony in a blended family:
Nurture your relationship – Maintaining a good relationship between yourself and your new spouse in a re-marriage is a key factor in building a healthy blended family. Most couples tend to have a couple childless years. At the beginning where they have the luxury to truly focus on each other and build a strong foundation. A blended family with children poses some challenges to that. Regardless of that, this foundation is still key to the family. And it would benefit all parties well if the couple do also focus attention on their own relationship alongside that with the children. How your kids perceive the happiness and stability of your romantic relationship with your spouse can truly impact their ability to cope with this change.
Solve problems together – Conflicts will always be part of the family life, but solving them appropriately brings unity in the family. Conflicts may arise between the parents, between the parents and the children, or between the children. Although it’s sometimes easy to pretend nothing happened, addressing these conflicts. And trying to look out for solutions may be rather confronting, but ends up better for the long run. For example, when listening, also ask questions without blaming and try to find out the root cause of the problem. Involve the conflicting parties when arriving at solutions.
For example, when step-children refuse to take instructions or guidelines from a step-parent, instead of “laying down the law”, ask the child what he thinks would be fair. Challenge them kindly if their proposed solution is not one you can agree to until you come to a place where all parties can agree.
Maintain the perspective – Of course you want everything to be smooth. But it’s also important accept that this is new for all parties involved. Take time to really get to know and understand each other and try to let go of the unrealistic expectation that everything should fall into place. Fantastic if it does, but if it doesn’t right way – relax – it’s all a matter of time. Research has shown that it can take anything from 2-7 years before blended families fully unite. So give yourself a break if you’re starting to feel the uphill battle.
Be a team – Seems pretty obvious, but as much as you can, try to be ONE team with your partner. Concretely, this may mean letting go of control over the little things. Not everything has to be done the way you know it. The less you disagree on, the more united you will come across as a team. If you can get your spouse on board, schedule a special time of the week, perhaps every Tuesday night for 30-60 mins after dinner, to talk about the kids together.
Stay connected – Make it a point to touch base with the kids everyday, showing them that you’re interested in their well-being, feelings & opinions. If you can’t help them with solutions, at least be a listening ear, whether they are sharing something joyful or sharing a pain. Ask them questions about theirs schooling, friends and activities. You might be met with resistance, but release expectations when asking these questions. Simply do so to stimulate connection and release expectation of elaborate answers, especially at the start.
Share with others – Know any other step-parents in your friends circle? If not, ask your friends if they know any. With today’s divorce & re-marriage statistics, someone is bound to know another step-parent or step-parent-to be. Don’t hesitate to call them up for a coffee. You’d be surprised how desperate they could be to talk to another step-parent too. Sometimes, just getting to understand more about their experiences. And can help you learn ways to handle some of the challenges that you’re encountering yourself. And if not, your simply sharing with them can already help you feel a little less alone.
Challenges that blended families face
A stepfamily does not bond overnight. It can take anything from 2-7 years for the parties to adjust to the changes. However, those who are proactive enough (like you, since you are reading this!) can address the issues and make adjustments quite smoothly. So when entering into your new role as a step-parent. Here are a few challenges you may want to keep in mind:
Parental inexperience – If you’re completely new to parenting, becoming a step-parent all of a sudden can be even more challenging. So remember to cut yourself some slack if things aren’t smooth in the beginning.
Mixed feelings concerning the step-parent – This is a common issue for the children, they get confused on how to relate with the new parent. In some cases, the kids can even tend to dislike the new parent. At the start, without even getting to know them. The reality is that they themselves are struggling to sort out their feelings. The kids may not want to open up to you yet, at the start. So encouraging this has to be done delicately. At this stage, it’s probably best to let them know that you’re approachable and it’s OK to have mixed feelings about you. Why not even acknowledge their feelings, even if negative, and tell them you understand this?
Sibling rivalry – While competition between siblings is common in all families, the potential for conflict between step-siblings might be even higher. Step-parenting will involve not just navigating dynamics between you and your step-children, but also navigating the relationship between all step-siblings. See our article on step-sibling rivalry for more information on this.
Changes in family traditions – When two families come together, you will have two different ways to do everything. From Sunday dinners to favourite family games, all the way to how Christmas is celebrated. Some toes will be stepped on for sure, but in order to really move forward, perhaps consider following some traditions of your spouse’s family & kids, then also keeping some of yours, and having fun creating new ones. Do this as a group, with all involved, so that the kids feel invested in the changes too.
Everyone needs attention – As imperfect humans, it would be impossible for us to give exactly equal attention to each and every child. Especially if there are 2 or 3 coming from each spouse! It may be a good idea to discuss with your spouse. And distribute kid duties such as caretaking, driving them to sports. Or other classes so that each parents can get some face-time with each child. Mix things up a little and have your spouse. Sometimes do duties or spend time with your kid or vice versa. But don’t forget to make sure you also get face-time with your own kids.
Step-parenting unfortunately doesn’t come with a manual (although we’re trying to put something together to help you on this site!). You may find that the children have expectations that you may not be able to fully satisfy. Maintaining a healthy step-family requires a lot of patience and dedication. Keep the communication open and bear in mind that step-parenting may need a little extra effort. With time you will have a perfectly imperfect and yet harmonious step-family!