The look of our families is changing. Cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial diversity is changing the fabric of our modern families. Moreover, divorced and remarried families are creating a “blend” of two or more families coming together to join in creating new family units that bring a unique set of challenges. As a stepparent, I know firsthand the challenges of establishing a relationship with children who may not readily welcome this experience.
While the divorce rate sits around 45%, the blended marriage divorce rate is approximately 67% (73% for third marriages (www.SmartStepfamilies.com). What does this number tell us? It looks like blended families are not surviving the second, third, etc. time around. But this need not be the outcome. There are successful blended families in our society. From a more positive perspective blended families can beat the odds of subsequent divorce and separation if they know how to overcome the unique challenges inherent in bringing together families that were not born together.
When I met my husband, his 13 year old daughter lived with him and had been in his sole care and custody since she was 6. Who did I think I was to come into their protected relationship and “take her father away from her!” As a child psychologist, you’d think I’d know better. I just thought she would love me as I would love her and we would live happily ever after…NOT…….at least not until after much grief and working through the emotions that each family member felt. We tried counseling with our pastor which was unfortunately brief. The one thing the pastor shared that I have never forgotten is that children only need to respect the stepparent, they do not have to like you! Boy, was that an eye opener!
As such, over the next several years we figured out how to “join” as a family. It takes time. Be patient with yourself and the process. Below are key points I have learned in my journey as well as the hundreds of blended families I have worked with in my practice.
Children need to spend time getting to know the potential new stepparent, preferably before the family lives together. Often adults are motivated by their selfish needs to move on too quickly with another mate while the children are still adjusting to and grieving the loss of the family structure they were born into.
Communication is critical. Discuss the division of roles and responsibilities in the household. Who will be responsible for what? Do not assume that you the adult, will have the same role with your step children that you have with your natural born children. Particularly, discipline is a sensitive subject.
Seek help early in the “joining process”. Too often family members struggle through difficult years and attempt to resolve issues when the children reach adulthood. By this time, too much has continued unaddressed, feelings are hurt, and relationships are broken. Consult with local clergy, mental health professionals, or even successful couples and families that are making the blended family work.
Maintain the marriage as top priority. Remember there is an order in the family. Adults are in charge of children. But your first priority as partners in marriage is to the union of marriage. The children relate around the marriage. This does not mean that children do not have a voice; quite the contrary. This creates a united front when unsettled and disagreeable children attempt to “split” their parents. Both the biological and stepparents must not allow the children to manipulate them or allow their emotions to take over reasonable and sound parenting. If your marriage suffers, your children suffer…and guess what…they didn’t ask for it!
Children need to be treated equally in blended families where they are children joining from previous relationships. This will require communication between partners in decision making and strong negotiation skills.
Blended families are much more successful when children are made a part of the courtship/dating process and are considered in mate selection. Adults need to hear a child’s concerns if they have strong reservations against their mother or father choosing a partner for life. This is not to say the child controls a parent’s mate selection. However, it is critically important the child feels heard and that this becomes an area of discussion either through professional mental health counseling or through pastoral pre-marital counseling. The child’s(ren) emotional adjustment can “make or break” a relationship if the family has not adequately addressed the issue.
For more information and tips about family issues, check out Focus on the Family.