A new marriage can bring much joy and happiness to a new husband and wife, especially after the pain and despair of a divorce or a death. And blending your new family by bringing your children together with your spouse’s can also be wonderful and expansive, however it is usually not without some challenges.
Whether the new family is a spouse bringing children into a household where no children currently reside, both spouses are bringing their children into the household, or the children only live part time, the challenges will still be to find a way to come together in a way that is respectful and caring towards all members.
The Child’s Or Adolescent’s Needs:
Even if the children are looking forward to the experience because they like the new spouse, it will still be an adjustment to live with new rules and new people in the household. Just as it would be tough for us to live with a few strangers in our household, the same is true for our children. And even if the relationships between new spouses and children are smooth and loving, there are likely to be uncertainties and miscommunications.
Children of any age, from toddler to teen, may experience some uncomfortable emotions during this transitional phase. From guilt over “replacing” mom or dad, to frustration with new siblings, children may voice or act out their feelings in various ways. And the dynamics of the situation might also be different if the parent is a widow or widower versus both spouses being divorced. With a death to contend with, it might be even harder for a child, adolescent or young person to see another parent as a replacement.
Often children will have a fear of not being important anymore within their family structure, and no longer feel “special” for their specific role (aka “the helper”, “the good one”, “the clown”). Children may also feel rejected, abandoned, angry, and as if the parent will love the other children more than them. Withdrawal, outbursts of anger, and refusing to be a part of family activities may result.
Even the quiet or seemingly “well-adjusted” child has a need to be heard, and it’s important to not only put attention on the child who is more verbal or acting out. The quiet child needs to be reassured that they are not getting lost in the shuffle.
As with any situation, or indeed any person, children like to feel heard, seen, and respected. Providing them with open and non-judgmental lines of communication to a biological parent in order to voice their concerns is essential. We must take care to use active listening skills in this instance, repeating back the concern to our child and ensuring that we have understood them correctly, without judging or mitigating their issue (i.e. not saying something like “Oh, I’m sure that he didn’t mean it that way, honey. You must have been mistaken.) Reassurance and validation of their feelings, and your love for them, are vital.
Also allow the child to set the pace in terms of the relationship with the new parent. Though it may be hard for a new stepmother or father to accept this, especially when time, love, and effort are so heavily committed. It’s important not to force or demand affection or expressions of love from a stepchild. This will only serve to make the child unsure of their own emotional reactions and their place in the family.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation:
The key to any successful blended family is preparation on the part of the adults. The more preparation there is in advance the more likely that the transition will go well. If you’ve met someone with children of his or her own, and are headed in the direction of marriage, then it’s helpful to already begin cultivating relationships with the other children.
Some other ideas:
- Having dialogue and spending time in advance together as a family. Ideally, the first time for extended time together would not be when we begin living together.
- Spending time with each new child on a one on one basis in a realistic setting (i.e. not always just in “fun” activities like the movies or an amusement park.) Or, have date nights with each new child. Let’s not forget date nights with our own child to solidify their importance.
- The importance of attention cannot be overlooked – even just twenty minutes of undivided attention with both your biological and stepchildren can be a game-changer.
- Setting up ground rules: what are the rules that were established in the old household? Which ones would both sides like to keep in the new household? It may help to write down the rules for the house.
- Perhaps allowing each child’s biological mom or dad to be the disciplinarian, at least until the transition phase (however you define it) is passed. This may give children a sense of safety, security and continuity.
The Parent’s Needs:
Sometimes as parents we may have guilt that the previous relationship didn’t work and that we are now experiencing happiness with a new spouse. It’s helpful to simply acknowledge this to ourselves and our partners. Also as a new mom or dad, we might be more lenient with our stepchildren than our own because we want to be liked, however if ground rules are set up in advance, then this may be less of an issue. A child or teen might go to the new parent to ask for something in order to get what they want, because they know that mom or dad might not acquiesce. This is very natural and normal, and as long as we are aware of it, it can be seen as a normal part of the transition to a blended family.
In addition, parents must also discuss with each other what the dynamics were like in the previous relationship, and what their relationship with their own children is like. Every family has different needs and different ways of doing things, and as long as the lines of communication with new spouses are open and trusting, compromises can be found.
Healthy co-parenting is even more important and complicated in a blended family, as our ex spouse’s opinion may weigh heavily in decisions about the children. Here again, maintaining open dialogues with all significant parties, in addition to honoring the child’s wishes as much as possible.
A stepmother may experience unique pressures. As the Encyclopedia of Children’s Health states “while stepmothers face some of the same issues that stepfathers face, both part-time and full-time stepmothers have a more difficult role in the stepfamily and are often expected to be more involved with their stepchild due to socialization pressures (being a mother), societal expectations, and expectations from their husband.” If this pressure becomes too much, speaking with a therapist may be helpful.
Help with blended families:
At Nassau Guidance and Counseling, we speak with many families who are already in the process of blending families, or have made the transition but want to make life even better at home. Whether there are tough problems to resolve, or you are simply seeking emotional growth and stability, our trained and licensed psychotherapists work with individuals, couples, and families to ensure that each member of the family is seen, heard, and loved.