With more than 30 million children living with a stepparent, blended families now become one of the most common family structures. Unlike the easily solved problems seen on television sitcoms, blended families grapple with problems that can pull them down.
About 1300 new stepfamilies are formed every day in the United States, and it’s predicted that stepfamilies will eventually outnumber traditional families. Second marriages – and blended families — fail more frequently than first marriages because of the problems associated with the blending of families.
A look at different types of stepfamilies highlights the unique challenges each stepfamily may encounter. Here are five basic blended family models:
> No. 1: Husband with young children marries never-married, no-kids wife.
Here the first-time wife steps into the marriage ready for romance, but the second -time husband expects his new wife to assume a similar role to the former wife. Instantly becoming a wife is challenge enough; being interim Mom overwhelms some women. Women in this situation often feel frustration and disillusioned when they are handed someone else’s children (who may or may not like or her). This situation may be further complicated if the new wife wants children of her own and her husband is not interested in having more children.
In this type of family, Dad must discipline his children to prevent conflict with his new wife. He should also teach the kids to treat their stepmom with respect.
> No. 2: Wife with children marries childless husband.
Entering this marriage, Mom hands off too many responsibilities to her new husband who is unprepared for instant fatherhood. The kids rebel because they have a dad (or had one); they don’t think they need a new one. Biological parents are the ones who should handle rules and punishments, at least initially.
This couple must bond and show solidarity. The wife must not shut out her new husband in favor of her children. Inside jokes with the kids and subtle put-downs that would cause the kids to disregard their new stepfather should be avoided. The fine line between handling the discipline and devaluing the husband’s position must be observed. The children must show respect for their stepdad. Love may follow.
> No. 3: Divorced mom with kids marries divorced dad with kids.
This type of stepfamily may seem most challenging, but it has potential because Mom and Dad pull together for the kids. Kids, however, experience a loss when a parent marries someone with children because a biological parent must now be shared, not just the new spouse but also by other children. Physical space is shared with a stepparent and stepsiblings. Relocations are also common changes when families join.
Here youngsters face the end of their dream of their parents reuniting.
Conflict is common in the first two years in any stepfamily, but especially in this type of blended family. Expect conflict and extend grace. Different relationships between members of this type of stepfamily, different levels of intimacy, connection, and love among stepsiblings and between children and stepparents are common and normal.
> No. 4: Widow or widower with kids remarries.
When a family experiences the loss of a beloved spouse and parent, the new spouse and stepparent will inevitably confront the ghost of the past. On some level, grieving continues for years after the death of a spouse and parent.
This stepfamily needs to make sure it is taking steps to heal from grief in order for the new family to unite. Rather than trying to assume a parental role, the successful stepparent may become a friend and mentor.
Family members can honor the departed with photographs and memories, but shrines and veneration prevents intimacy with the new spouse and stepparent. Establishing common ground and moving forward together is difficult but possible.
>No. 5: Divorced or widowed parents of adult children marry.
Remarried couples with children still qualify as stepfamilies even if the children have left the nest. Due to a lack of daily interactions, bonding and connecting become difficult. Many relationships are strained for years or may never achieve intimacy. Stepparents and stepchildren can make an effort to connect through cards, letters, phone calls, emails and family get-togethers.
Unique issues to this stepfamily may include establishing healthy grandparent relationships and inheritance tension. Family fears can be alleviated by communication and a welcoming love. Distributing family keepsakes ahead of time or deciding the distribution of property can ease some of the tensions related to inheritance.
The television representation of a stepfamily or blended family is not very realistic, says parenting expert Ann Pleshette Murphy. Routines are changed when introducing a new person into a family, which may include any additional children. Major issues that newly blended families face include integrating discipline styles and coping with strong emotions, while at the same time building new relationships from scratch.
Whether you feel like a parent or the friend, as the adult you need to be the parent first. There will be times when you are alone with the children and the children must show respect, says New York psychologist Dr. Janet Taylor. Always come from a place of love, a nurturing perspective, and teach the children responsibility.
According to Taylor, some of the major rules of being a strong parent in a blended family include never assuming anything and understanding the child or children’s point-of-view. There will always be a transition for the child, through death or divorce, the child is missing his or her mother or father and ultimately the child will experience hurt and maybe anger. Don’t overcompensate; just nurture the child through the transition and set boundaries, Taylor said.
Taylor also recommends that parents understand the established rules set for children. The new parent can come up with at least three rules to integrate into the blended family, but only while focusing on the children and understanding the rules from the child’s perspective.
There are going to be challenges, anticipate them, Taylor added. Make a plan; this makes blending the family easier. Focus on communication; discipline but only from a point of teaching the child, don’t punish. And above all, come from a place of love and understanding.
The key, according to Taylor, in developing bonds in all families — blended or otherwise — is patience, understanding and allow the time to naturally build a relationship.