Blended family situations have become the fastest growing family demographic in the last decade. Despite this, there isn’t a definitive guide on how to make the bits and pieces of different families become a harmonious unit. Every blended family, after all, is made up of unique circumstances; every one of them is a little different from the last one.
So, Daftein doesn’t try to impose a single way to foster relationships between the members of your growing family. Instead, we provide some guidelines that you could adapt for your family’s needs and particular circumstances. Only by tailoring your behaviour and methods as a step parent or a parent in a blended family can you make this work.
Where do you start, then?
The first thing you need to keep in mind is what your blended family ISN’T. Don’t expect your blended family to be either of these two things:
- A Replica of a Past Marriage
- A Better (or Idealized) Version of an Old Marriage
For the first, you shouldn’t enter your blended family thinking that you could somehow fit this new family into the mould of a past marriage. As we’ve already mentioned, each family is unique. Thinking that your new family will be a perfect replacement for another family you had before is setting yourself up for failure.
It’s not worth the heartache you’ll be causing yourself and your new family if you insist on trying to copy-paste the past into the present. The best gift you could give to your blended family at the start of your new lives together is to be present, in mind and body, for them.
The second type of thinking is as toxic as the first, if a little different. While trying to replicate an old marriage traps you and your new family in the past, trying to make your blended family into your idealized version of marriage and family forces them to aim for the impossible.
No family is perfect. That’s a fact.
There are times where you’ll struggle and rub each other wrong. But getting through it together is what strengthens your familial bonds. Instead of being the perfect model of a family, you can be perfect for each other in all the ways that do matter to all of you. Expecting everything to be clear skies and smooth sailing all the time puts unimaginable and unnecessary pressure on you and your family members.
Now that we’ve established what you shouldn’t expect, let’s move on. We’ve been talking a lot about how blended families face unique challenges as a unit. What are they and how can you support each other through them? As a parent or step parent in a blended family situation, how do you prepare yourself for what lies ahead so that you can whether storms with as much grace as you can? We’ll be giving you our top examples and offering tips on how to act or react so you can apply them to your own situations.
The Death of a Parent
The circumstances surrounding your blended family don’t always come from a divorce. Sometimes, it’s because you or your spouse was widowed and decided to remarry. There’s no timeline on how to grieve and when to end the grieving period.
But if a parent decides to move on before their child or children come to terms with the death of their other biological parent, then there’s a high chance that you’re facing extra difficulties and stress. Nonetheless, you’ll have to accept that the children will need time to adjust to their altered situation.
Make room for them to grieve and make sure that they know you’re always available to talk. Don’t force them, however, when they are not ready. In these cases, it’s always best for the child to decide when they’re ready to move on. What you can do is provide the support they need to process the potentially overwhelming emotions they’re experiencing in a healthy way.
Try taking them on walks, introducing them to an art project that will keep their hands and minds busy, keeping quiet company, etc. The small showings of solidarity do matter. While they might be young, they still have the right to grieve with dignity—and you have the honour of giving them that opportunity.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a new blended family won’t have the relationship ties that a traditional family has spent an entire lifetime developing. What do you do then, if life has led you down the path towards blended family-hood? You play catch up with your new family of course!
Gather them and try to enjoy simple little activities like taking walks as a family, which has several benefits to your physical health as well as to the environment. You can do this early in the day to wake you up or in the evening to build up an appetite for supper. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a meal after a nice walk while surrounded by family.
And this leads us to another simple way you and your blended family to get started on bonding: sharing meals together.
Eating in the company of each other may seem like a mundane thing to do. But the simple act of sharing food and stories of your day helps make the members of your new family more familiar with each other. It’s a way to get them to relax in each other’s presence and lower walls.
So, ask your family over a hot meal how their day went or if they had anything interesting to share—what you ask is up to you as long as you show everyone that you’re interested in what they’re interested in and that you want to share your own thoughts and experiences with them.
Another activity you can enjoy as a family is game or movie night. It doesn’t have to be expensive or a very organised affair like dressing up to see a show or going to the cinema to see the latest movie—in fact, in some cases, it might be better and more intimate to enjoy your movie from the comfort of home. This way, there are less distractions and everyone can pay better attention to one another in a controlled environment.
Playing games on game night can also awaken the competitive spirit in each of your family’s members and give them the opportunity to “team up” with and learn more about each other. Games are a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to step siblings and step parents how one member reacts to certain things as the game goes on.
Game and movie nights are certified enjoyable ways to bond with your family—even when it isn’t the blended type!
If you finances permit it, another way you can bond with your new family is by taking them out regularly on family dates to special places or going on fun family vacations to places none of you have ever been. Nothing creates beautiful and lasting memories like experiencing a new place, new food, or new culture for the first time together.
On the subject to taking the family somewhere special, why not let it coincide with a special occasion? A great way to build bonds with your blended family is by celebrating each other’s special days and achievements. Make sure that you don’t leave anybody’s celebration out though! It’s as important to mark each member’s important dates equally.
Lastly, you could add some altruism to your next family activity. After all, who says that bonding as a family has to be an exclusive event? You could build familial bonds while serving the community as well as bonding on your own! So, try to get your blended family to volunteer as a group.
Volunteering your time at a soup kitchen or food bank not only makes meaningful memories as a family but helps fill the bellies of those who need some help. Alternatively, if you want to connect more with nature, you can volunteer at an animal shelter or take part in a beach cleaning program. There are endless ways to serve your community, and doing it as a family only makes the work you put in more meaningful and impactful.
We’ve been discussing your blended family as if you already have parenting experience from a past marriage. But what if you don’t? What if it’s your first time in the role of a parent? Or perhaps you weren’t very involved in the upbringing of your children from a past marriage and your new spouse or you yourself want to take a more active role as a step parent?
Where do you start when you weren’t there at the start and now find that you have to build a relationship with a child who’s already got their own thoughts and experiences that you don’t know about or can relate to?
Step parent insecurities are very common and they stem from various different sources. If you’re feeling the pressure to do well or feel like a headless chicken trying to figure out how to do things, then at least you know you’re not alone. Even biological parents experience this type of insecurity, in fact.
This could be a good sign. So take it as that. It means you want to do well by your step children and have taken the time to think about what it means for you and for them. Well, if you’re in need of advice, then the best advice we can give you is to learn from your step child.
That is to say, each child is different. Observe and get to know your step child or children and be the judge of what they need.
For instance, all children need a certain amount of structure and stability in their lives. If you’re step child hasn’t always had the certainty of that need from their past family or is used to a very closely monitored and stifling environment, then you’ll want to pay particular attention to that. Try to work out routines for the day or week that they can rely on and try not to break promises to do something or be somewhere by over promising or not taking the time to explain your reasons for deviating from a routine you’ve been building with them.
Actively listening to your step child is the key to assuaging most of your anxiety as a new parent/step parent. The more you get to know them, the more confident you’ll be that the decisions you make for them will be in their best interests.
Of course, it’s not a full proof plan. There’ll be times when you won’t connect quite right. But as you build up your bond with each other, your step child will know that they can still trust you to be there for them even if you do go through a rough patch; they’ll still trust that you’re invested enough to mend fences and do better after.
Age Differences between Siblings
Some traditional families have children with large age gaps between siblings, but it’s not always the norm. And on the occasion it does happen, the family usually has time to prepare and get used to the idea. Blended families aren’t afforded the luxury—and they’re the demographic most likely to have step siblings with wide age gaps. In some instances, it could even extend to a generational gap.
There are various reasons why step children’s ages may not match: One of the spouses had children late or early, remarried spouses decided to have a baby when the children from their previous families are already or nearly grown, adoption, the new spouses themselves have a significant age gap between them, and more. But there’s usually just one likely outcome from a wide spread of sibling ages: Friction.
In situations like these, step and half siblings not getting along is a legitimate concern that can’t really be helped. When the sets of siblings have different life experiences or are at different stages in their development and life, it’s naturally going to be hard to find things that they can share and bond over.
You could make this work by striking a balance between the physical and emotional needs of your children, no matter how old they might be at the time. For older teens and adult children, this may mean that they will be less involved in step family life as they are branching out on their own. Don’t take it personally, it’s perfectly normal.
Emphasize that you’d like to still have them in your lives by inviting them to occasions, no matter how small or casual, without making it a strict obligation. These sorts of relaxed family gatherings allow them to interact with their younger step siblings without the full weight of being responsible for them on their back. Such an unstressful atmosphere will go a long way in getting them to accept their younger step and half siblings into their lives.
Children and step children who are still under your roof have more chances at bonding with a much younger sibling. If this applies to your circumstances, then you can encourage a bond by having the older sibling be responsible for some things about their younger sibling, like perhaps reading to them or showing them how to play their favourite sport.
Mind you, just like with an adult sibling to a step or half sibling who still lives with you, these responsibilities should be light—it’s still up to you to be the provider and protector of your young children. Passing on the pressures of caretaking a child onto another, albeit older, child creates nothing but tension and resentment for you, the younger sibling, or both.
Ultimately, you are the one with the power to create an environment stable and safe enough for children of yours of any age so that they can focus on making memories with each other and fostering lifelong family bonds. So learn from your step children, actively listen to them, and never let pride or impatience get in the way of the gift that you’ve been given in the form of your new blended family.
Building meaningful and lasting bonds with your blended family members is an ongoing process—you’re never done, because you have to keep those bonds strong and healthy in the long-term. If you need more specific advice on how to foster strong ties with your blended family members based on your situation, ask a relationship coach for help today.