Building the Blended Family

According to the American Psychological Association, the so-called “blended family” is no longer an aberration in American society; it is the norm. Yet a remarriage – one that brings with it children from a previous marriage – presents many challenges. Theirs is the hope of a fresh start and a new beginning. A stepfamily plan that works for the blended family is not the same as a parenting plan for a traditional family. Blended families (“yours, mine, and ours”) face many large and small challenges that traditional families escape or postpone. Here are considerations for those giving the roulette wheel of romance a second spin:

Forming a stepfamily with young children may be easier than forming one with adolescent children due to the differing developmental stages.

Forming a stepfamily with young children may be easier than forming one with adolescent children due to the differing developmental stages.

Financial and living arrangements. The spouses must agree about where they set up housekeeping and how they share their money. For example, for partners embarking on a second marriage, setting up a new residence, rather than one of the partner’s prior residences, is advantageous because the new environment becomes “their home” – fewer bad memories. Couples also should decide whether they want to keep their money separate or share it. Couples who have used the “one-pot” method generally report higher family satisfaction than those who keep their money separate. Money is the most common cause of marital discord.

Emotional debris from the previous marriage. For both the spouses and the children, a second trip down the aisle may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurt about the previous failed marriage. For young children, for example, remarriage means they must abandon all hope that Mom and Dad will reunite.

Anticipating parenting changes and decisions. Couples should discuss the role the stepparent plays in raising their new spouse’s children as well as changes in household rules that may have to be made to accommodate new members. The children are likely to respond to the stepparent differently after remarriage because he or she now has an official parental role, even if the couple lived together before marriage.

Marriage quality. Stepcouples should make priority time for each other, by either making regular dates or taking trips without the children. Unlike childless newlywed couples, couples with children are often more consumed with the demands of their kids. Childless newlyweds use the first months of marriage to build on their relationship; second timers do not have this luxury. Young children, for example, may feel abandonment or competition as their parent devotes more time and energy to the new spouse. Adolescents are sensitive to expressions of affection and sexuality and may be disturbed by an active romance in their family.

Parenting in stepfamilies. Parenting is the most difficult facet of stepfamily life. Forming a stepfamily with young children may be easier than forming one with adolescent children due to the differing developmental stages. Young adolescents, who are forming their own identities, tend to be a bit more difficult to deal with; older adolescents, however, would rather separate from the family as they form their own identities. Younger adolescents (age 10-14) may have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. Older adolescents (age 15 and older) need less parenting and may have less investment in stepfamily life. Younger children (under age 10) are usually more accepting of a new adult in the family, particularly when the adult is a positive influence.

Stepparents should first establish a relationship with the children that is more akin to a friend or “camp counselor,” rather than a disciplinarian. The custodial parent can remain primarily responsible for control and discipline until the stepparent and children develop a solid bond. Stepparents can simply monitor the children’s behavior and activities and keep their spouses informed. Families might want to develop a list of household rules. These may include, for example, “We agree to respect each family member” or “Every family member agrees to clean up after him or herself.”

Stepparent-child relations. Stepparents should consider the child’s emotional status and gender first before jumping in to establish a close relationship with stepchildren. Stepchildren report that they prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, such as hugs and kisses. Girls especially say they’re uncomfortable with physical shows of affection from their stepfather. Overall, boys appear to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.

Nonresidential parent issues. After a divorce, children usually adjust better to their new lives when the other parent visits consistently and maintains a good relationship with them. However, once parents remarry, they often decrease or maintain low levels of contact with their children. Fathers appear to be the worst perpetrators: On average, dads drop their visits to their children by half within the first year of remarriage. The less a parent visits, the more a child feels abandoned. Parents should reconnect by developing special activities that involve only the children and parent. Parents should not badmouth former spouses in front of the child because it undermines the child’s self-esteem and may even put the child in a position of defending a parent.

Under the best conditions, it may take two to four years for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together.

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