What Is a Blended Family?
Forming a blended family, also known as a stepfamily, is not always Brady Bunch easy. And yet, this is an important family unit: according to the US Census Bureau, about 15 percent of children live in blended families. For starters, stepchildren are often confused and have conflicting emotions, according to Anne Brennan Malec, a clinical psychologist, a stepmother of six, and author of Marriage in Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works. A stepchild may want their parent to be happy in a new relationship, yet they feel disloyal to the parent left behind. Without a doubt, children will find this transition to be more difficult than their newly-wedded parent will. Here are strategies that all family members can take to help a new unit flourish.
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Blending two families into one takes effort. Stepparents may feel resented. Step-siblings may feel unheard and disregarded. Various family members may feel that there is inherent bias and that certain family members are favored over others. Building new relationships can be painful. It takes time, communication, a thick skin, among other qualities to form a functional and healthy blended family.
Do not be surprised if your children are not as enthusiastic as you are about your new family. Children like their routine, and you may well be disrupting that cozy groove. They may not want to move or even give up space, physical or mental, to new family members. They may not even want to interact at all with new family members. If you want them to be actively interested in your new family, listening to them is the first place to start.
When forming a new family, instituting too many changes too soon may well instigate revolt. Ease into this relationship by getting to know all members. Get involved with their lives, and invite them into yours. Plus, growing a thick skin and not taking interactions personally always helps.
You cannot force a child to love or even like a new stepparent. But it helps if the new parent and stepchild find common likes and dislikes. Is there a movie, show, book, or music that they are all interested in? Mutual ground will help family members feel included and not like complete strangers.
This relationship is set up for discomfort. Your stepchildren will test you; they will want to know your limits. Are you a pushover? It’s a fine line because your stepchild will not accept your discipline. And why should they? You are not their parent, and do not expect them to address you as their parent. It’s better to set a foundation of respect and leave the discipline to someone else.
House rules are necessary in every home, blended or not. And the regular family meeting is a useful venue to establish and confirm these directives. Everyone should have a voice in forming house bylaws. Otherwise, the rules will not be taken seriously. Here are some common do and don’t actions to start with: do not interact disrespectfully, do not yell or interrupt, do not bash family members (social media included), do not borrow a sibling’s belongings without their consent, do not use cellphones at the dinner table.
There are huge incentives for blending two families, including financial and logistical: consolidating bills and sharing costs feel like a win-win. However, many couples put off moving in together. But before making this decision, it is important to manage and negotiate expectations on all sides. They opt to keep life consistent for their respective children. Some even wait until the youngest is off to college.
Sometimes a stepparent may feel ignored by their stepchildren. But a stepchild is handling an array of ill feelings about his new life. Most of all, there is real guilt about not being with both his parents, and he feels a certain loyalty to the parent not present. Expect them to feel sad and moody. A good relationship with a stepchild cannot be forced, you can’t make people want what you want.
While blaming children is unfair as well as unwise, the truth is that the odds are unfortunately against blended families. The divorce rate for people in their first marriage is around 41 percent, but the divorce rate for people in their second marriages is higher at 60 percent. Beyond that, the rate is even higher for those married for the third time, at 73 percent.
While kids have very little say in a parent's decision to remarry and form a new family, they do have tremendous power in breaking it up. Research studies have amply documented what most stepparents have experienced firsthand: many kids are hostile and reject their parent's new spouse, often for years, with feelings of disloyalty to their parent not present at the forefront.
Your first instinct is to be as accommodating and helpful as humanly possible. You want to be accepted, so you feel you must go above and beyond. That is why you do more than your share of the household chores—you are the cook, housekeeper, delivery boy, chauffeur, organizer. Martyrdom is not a revered state for mortals, you will only move on to victimhood. And the rest of the family will get bored.
Sometimes stepchildren oppose and continue to oppose their parent's divorce well into adulthood. As children they were hostile to the idea of having a stepparent, and as adults they feel continued resentment toward the stepparent. For adult stepchildren, matters like estate planning and inheritance add an extra layer of anxiety and discontent.
The truth is that stepmothers are resented much more than stepfathers. Kids of all ages resent a stepmother more than a stepfather, and they resent her for longer, too. Less than 20 percent of adult stepchildren said they felt close to their stepmothers. Plus, more than half of adult stepkids are happy about their moms remarrying, but less than 30 percent were happy that their dads had remarried.
According to Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, you don't have to be a “homewrecker" to be resented; regardless of how the previous union ended, a stepmother is likely to be the lightning rod for a kid’s unhappiness and anger over his parents’ divorce, in cases where divorce preceded the remarriage.
At times, it is. These negative thoughts bring guilt, confusion, and self-criticism. If you ignore these feelings, your guilt may well morph into resentment toward everyone. You may feel excluded by your stepchild, and the child may have equally complicated feelings about the stepparent. It is important to know that feeling negative is more than normal. Accepting yourself and the way you feel does not make you a bad person.