Easing the Transition and other Typical Hurdles
A blended family is created when separate families are united by marriage or other circumstance. These blended families include spouses or domestic partners who both have children from another marriage. However, there are a multitude of other combinations, including widowed spouses, single parents or live-in partners who live with children from another marriage or domestic relationship.
Blended families are extremely common today. According to data collected from 1960 to 2014 by the Pew Research Center, only 46% of children were living with two parents from a first marriage in 2014, compared to 73% in 1960. The Pew Research Center states, “Today, more than four-in-ten American adults have at least one step relative in their family.” Parents need to focus on developing a positive plan for the transition.
Easing the Transition
When children must relocate and share space with new siblings and their mother’s or father’s new spouse, this frequently produces turmoil. Children might resist the change because it has left them feeling vulnerable and with a sense of instability and loss. Therefore, parents should seek professional counseling before a new marriage, partnership or relocation begins.
“Blending two families together is a complex process and successful transitions take time,” says Dana M. Manzo, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist at Beacon College in Florida. “Go slow and try to keep things as consistent for the children as possible. There are so many changes occurring that will bring up a multitude of feelings. Be patient during the adjustment.”
Importance of a Detailed Court Order
Communication is extremely important, but so are the court orders which will be the final say when disputes arise. Nicole Sodoma, a divorce attorney who is Managing Principal at Sodoma Law, a family law firm in NC, explains, “A good ‘parenting agreement’ (a.k.a. parenting schedule, custody orders, visitation schedule, etc.) is key. We try to think out-of-the-box to make the transition easier. We also include a ‘right of first refusal’ clause.” Generally speaking, right of first refusal refers to one parent’s obligation to offer the other parent the opportunity to spend time with their children before anyone else is contacted to care of the kids instead.
Discipline and Stepchildren
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW, founder of The Family Coach and author of the upcoming parenting advice book, Ignore It! (TarcherPerigee, 2017), explains, “Stepparents have a very tough role.” She adds that it depends on individual situations. “Some stepparents are just like birth or adoptive parents. They take on full responsibility of discipline. However, for other stepparents, taking on that role would be inappropriate. It’s helpful for the new couple to talk before marriage or move-in date about expectations. Each partner should make sure they are on the same page. As a general rule, stepparents should come in soft and firm up as needed. “My recommendation would be to let the biological parent of the child be the primary disciplinarian,” Manzo offers.
“Parents should not push the relationship between the new siblings,” warns Pearlman. “There are a lot of dynamics at play. Kids who feel pushed often revolt and the relationship falls further apart. It’s best to let their relationships build naturally and at their own pace.” “Make sure each child feels emotionally connected to the parents — both biological and step. One way to achieve this is to set aside alone time for each child. This can be done by spending time doing an activity of the child’s choosing.”
Your Ex’s Significant Other
“The relationship you have with your new partner’s ex is vital for your children’s adjustment to life after remarriage,” Manzo points out. “Always put the kids before any conflict you may have. Focus on the goal you have for your children. Don’t try to replace your partner’s ex. Make it clear to your stepchildren that you respect the role of their father or mother.”
“Be a calming and supportive voice for your partner,” Pearlman point out. “Don’t increase the stress or dysfunction in the relationship between the exes.” She suggests being cordial to the ex whenever together. “This is important for the kids, but also for the couple.
Blended families are dealing with more complicated schedules and this can increase frustration and stress.
“It’s a struggle no matter what kind of family you have,” Sodoma asserts. “Web-based calendars with access for all parents can help with planning and scheduling. Parents should also set up a web-based email account. This is important because all correspondence between the parents about the children will be in one space. If something were ever to end up in litigation, all the information is right there and separate from other correspondence.”
It is vital to maintain family traditions because they keep kids grounded. For blended families, there may be conflicting traditions or traditions that are uncomfortable for some family members.
“Sometimes you have to honor traditions that have never existed before,” says Sodoma. “Find creative ways to embrace having a blended family. Some of my clients celebrate holidays on a different day to accommodate varied schedules and plans. Being able to plan ahead is also crucial.”
Embrace your new blended family, but don’t set expectations too high. It takes patience and creativity, but when everyone works together, blended families can move forward and thrive.