Family structure in the United States is changing. The number of couples divorcing, remarrying, and cohabitation (living together, but not marrying) is growing, and the result is an increasing number of families that no longer fit the “traditional” mold. Today, one out of six kids lives in a blended family. Blended families have become so common that they’re even celebrated with their own holiday: Stepfamily Day.
Yet adjusting to life as a newly blended family can be challenging. To make your blended family work, it helps to prepare your children as much as possible for the upcoming changes, and to recognize and plan for dealing with potential issues that commonly occur in blended families.
What’s a Blended Family?
Blended families include children from one or both spouses’ previous marriage(s). Blended families can also be referred to as “stepfamilies,” and both terms appear in print and online when describing families that include stepparents and stepchildren.
How to Prepare Your Kids To Be Part of a Blended Family
If you expect to become part of a blended family in the near future, help your children get ready for the upcoming changes. Though blending your families may be a joyful and natural progression of your relationship with your new spouse, your children (and stepchildren) might have some reservations, or at least questions.
Tell them as far in advance as possible to let them get used to the idea. And by all means, be proactive by telling them how their lives will (and won’t) change before you and your new spouse move in together. Below are further tips to smooth the transition to a blended family.
Talk About It
Prepare children for living in a blended family by encouraging them to ask questions about anything that concerns them. Prepare yourself by thinking about your answers to typical questions. Expect questions like:
What to call their stepparent
Where they will spend the holidays
How and when will they see their “other” family members, like their other biological parent and his/her family
Where they will live
Will they have to share a room with stepsiblings
Take It Slow
Lay a strong foundation for your blended family. Don’t expect your kids to immediately adjust to this new chapter of your lives. Experts note that it may take anywhere between two and five years for a stepfamily to really establish itself.
Although you may have enjoyed several “fun” outings while dating your soon-to-be spouse, real family life isn’t just a series of trips to the amusement park, the movies or sporting events. To help prepare your children for life in a blended family, spend time together doing typical family things like grocery shopping, yard work or even just hanging out in the kitchen talking about your day. This lets children see future stepparents in a family/parenting role, instead of just “Mom’s fun boyfriend” or “Dad’s cool girlfriend.”
Create a List of Family Rules
Everyone appreciates knowing what’s expected in a new situation, so creating and communicating new “Family Rules” helps kids in blended families adjust. And when two families come together, it’s important to set out the rules of what’s acceptable—and what’s not—to head off misunderstandings and potential issues among all family members.
Your blended family rules list may include some rules from each of your previous households, as well as new rules. Areas to address could include:
Being respectful of each member of the family regardless of the type of relationship (ie. “Speak respectfully to your parent, stepparent, siblings and stepsiblings”)
Identifying each family member’s chores
Setting curfews or bedtimes
Restricting screen time and cell phone usage
Determining rules for having friends over
Develop Family Routines and Rituals
Family traditions, routines and rituals help unite members of all sorts of families, and establishing new enjoyable traditions may help smooth your children’s anxiety over the transition from being the child of a single parent to their new role as a member of a blended family. Activities can be as simple as having a big pancake breakfast each Saturday morning or as elaborate as planning an annual family weekend getaway or camping trip.
Whether you’re celebrating each family member’s birthday by serving their favorite meal or shopping for seedlings to plant in the family garden, developing family routines, rituals and traditions shows children they’re an important part of a new, stable family unit.
How to Handle Blended Family Issues
Blended families deal with many of the same issues traditional families face; yet, given the more complicated interfamily relationships involving stepparents, stepchildren and stepsiblings, these issues may escalate more quickly.
Discipline. For blended families with younger children at home on a full-time or part-time basis, disciplining kids can pose difficulties. Together with your new spouse, discuss the who, what, when, where and how of disciplining all your children before you combine your families. That way you’ll be prepared when someone misbehaves.
Finances. Another important issue that blended families, especially those with older children, often come up against is finances and inheritance. Talk to your new partner about how you’ll manage your bank accounts and bills. Update beneficiaries on insurance policies, and make arrangements to get new or updated wills. Address this early on by meeting with a lawyer to discuss your options, rights and obligations when it comes to leaving an inheritance to your children and/or stepchildren. By making legally-binding arrangements well in advance of your death, you may head off or at least minimize future legal entanglements and family arguments.
Disagreements. Not everyone in a blended family always gets along. This may be due not only to the introduction of new rules, but also to the additional relationships—the stepparent-stepchild relationship and the stepsibling relationships—your kids have to contend with. Disagreements and miscommunications may come about as each member tests his or her place in the new family unit.
Try to identify the specific issue causing the bad feelings and then talk about it at a family meeting. If an incident becomes repeated behavior, try to work out a solution. Your stepson won’t take out the garbage when you ask? Make it a standard nightly chore he’s responsible for so you don’t have to keep asking him. Your new husband “hogs” the TV every Monday night for football when your daughter’s favorite show is on? Ask that they take turns or look into getting another television. Address any problems immediately to prevent ongoing resentment. If the issues can’t be resolved within the family, consider seeking help from a professional family therapist.
Resources for Blended Families
Creating a nurturing, healthy blended family is challenging. But, like many of life’s challenges, the end result can be wonderful. Use these online resources to help your new family succeed:
Forming a blended family isn’t always smooth going, but neither is life! Even in traditional families, spouses argue, kids misbehave and siblings fight. However, when you understand the potential issues facing blended families, you can better prepare both adults and children for their new roles and how to deal with situations that may arise. That makes it easier for everyone to transition into this new chapter of life, building a strong and healthy new blended family.