Remarriages aren’t uncommon these days. And it’s also not that uncommon for the would-be spouses to bring children from a previous marriage into the new, ‘blended’ one. In fact, blended families have become the fastest growing family type in the UK, with the latest estimate that one out of three families are considered such.
This major shift from the established dynamics of one or both families to an unchartered step family’s isn’t always easy. It can be quite challenging even to those who prepare for it. Growing pains and an adjustment period are inevitable.
So, it’s alright if your things don’t magically slot into place over night. Along with the commitment you made with your new spouse, you’ve also signed up to building a relationship with any children they might have—and that might take years. Studies show though, that being proactive can make everyone’s transition smoother.
Here are three of the most common challenges you’ll be facing and how to respond to them. We’ll also provide some tips on how you can foster a healthy relationship as one happy blended family.
What Are the Challenges that Blended Families Face?
Challenge: Step Sibling Rivalry
While it’s always a delight to see your kids getting along, it’s not always going to be that way. More often than not, siblings have their difficulties amongst each other regarding who they perceive is receiving more parental attention—and this only takes into account full-blood siblings who’ve had their entire lives to get to know each other.
Relationships between step siblings, people who are thrust in a completely new family situation, are tricky because they don’t even know who this new ‘rival’ is. In their eyes, they’re dealing with strangers who happen to also be vying for their parent’s attention.
What to Do: Dealing with Rivalries, Discipline, and the Need for Attention
The best way to address step sibling rivalries is to do so with your spouse. Present a united front regarding discipline and reward. Jointly decide how you plan to handle the situation. It’s up to you how you tackle your blended family’s unique growing pains, but remember to be on the same page. You must always back the other’s disciplinary decisions.
Over-praising one child, especially in comparison to another, is the other side of this potential adjustment issue. By seeming to favour one child over the other(s), or assigning labels, you create an obstacle that’ll keep step siblings from learning to get along as family. So, while it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge each child’s strengths and talents, do so in the context of making them all feel accepted and appreciated within the family—not because you’re pitting one or more children against another.
Challenge: Step-Parent Resentment and Prolonged Adjustment Periods
We’ve already touched upon how teenagers or older children might have a harder time adjusting to the new family dynamic. The length of time they need might even be longer than your patience. If you’ve ever felt like you’re at the end of your rope and about to give up, don’t. You need to dig deep and find a way to extend that patience.
Your remarriage likely came with an agreement between you and your would-be-spouse regarding how it would change both your lives, logistically, emotionally, financially, etc. Your children might see the situation differently. With so many things happening, children from both ends may not always feel like they were given a choice in the matter or had a chance to express their opinions.
They may feel slighted and resentful over the decisions you made that would in turn affect them. They might even prefer that their original family remain together and see the new spouse as an interloper who’s splitting their family apart.
What to Do: Practicing Patience, Understanding, and Compassion
Amidst the upheaval of numerous lives trying to make a new start as a blended family, you and your spouse need to remain steadfast. Grant your kids as much time as they need to settle into the changes. Show them that your love is and will continue to be an unconditional constant despite the changes in other aspects of their lives.
Your main job in this instance is the same as it always has been as a parent: to reassure your child or children that they can count on you to love and look after them despite all the changes—and there’s a bonus new parent in the form of your spouse who can offer their support to both of you!
Challenge: There Are No Strong Family Bonds Between You
As a blended family, you and your spouse want to come together and be, well, a family. The reality is that while you and your new spouse had time to go on dates and get to know each other, the same isn’t always essentially true for the rest of your families. For numerous reasons, either your spouse, their children, or both won’t have had spent enough time with your side to establish familial ties.
More often than not, the early days of remarriage feels a lot like one set of strangers trying to get used to having another set of strangers in the same space. You could even say that you’re two families uncomfortably existing in a house that you only coincidentally share.
What to Do: Start New, Enjoyable Routines and Rituals for Everyone
Bonds that matter take time and effort to take root and grow. It isn’t something that you develop overnight. So, expect your commitment to your new spouse to extend to the rest of their family. Take the time to get to know each other, make memories together, learn how you fit together, and so on.
With this in mind, slowly introduce new routines and rituals in the context of your blended family. It can be as simple as setting aside a specific day, perhaps on the weekend, to enjoy a leisurely breakfast together, or trying out a fun new activity with them. It can be anything that would suit your family members. As long as you don’t leave them out and make the effort to welcome them, then you’re already doing great.
Additionally, while you may be excited to start anew with your blended family, keep in mind that your new spouse’s children (and even your own), may still cling exclusively to the rituals of their original family. As you introduce new rituals into your new home, so should you remember and honour the ones that the children may be leaving behind.
Make the changes gradually. If your new spouse shares custody of their children with their ex, then learn how to work together as the adults in the relationship and coordinate your schedules. If the kids move from house to house, you could include a fun little ritual at the end of their time with you to cap off the visit.
It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. In fact, keeping it simple is best. Let it be a simple reminder that while the routines and rituals from before might be ending, they can still look forward to new ones that could ground them.
Facing These Challenges as a Family
There are different ways to tackle bonding as a newly blended family. What’s vital to its success is that everyone pitches in and does their part—with you and your spouse acting as the driving force that steers your children and step children in a positive direction. Here are some ideas you can incorporate into your plans:
For You: Parent Together and Work as a Team
Although this should be a given for all married or long-term co-habiting partners, it bears repeating. It’s just good advice to be proactive about staying deeply connected with your spouse. Make sure to check in with each other daily if you can, engage with and support your partner’s hobbies and interests, and take time for yourselves to go on dates.
By making open communication part of your couple routine, you’ll find it easier to stay unified in matters like long-term goals and sharing your dreams for your blended family’s future.
For Them: Keep Your (or Your Spouse’s) Ex in the Loop
When you tie the knot with someone who has already been previously married with kids from that relationship, you’re not only gaining a new spouse; you’re gaining an entire slice of a family with its own history. And, unless there are some extenuating circumstances, you’re most likely going to have to interact with your spouse’s ex more frequently.
This could be a tall order, especially when the ex displays negative or hostile behaviour towards you. So why do you have to deal with them? You married your spouse and not the ex, after all!
Try your best to keep things civil at the very least if friendly isn’t on the table. Your spouse’s ex may only be lashing out because they haven’t fully processed their feelings over their ex’s divorce and remarriage. It’s possible that your perseverance may pay off in the future and the ex may learn to accept the circumstances as they are and begin to thaw towards you.
Even if it can’t be managed, it’s still a good idea to keep things as respectful as you can. Not because you want to chase a pipe dream, but because you want to be a positive role model for you kids and step kids. By keeping on good terms with your spouse’s ex, you show your step children that you value having a good relationship with their other parent and lessen the chances of souring your relationship even before it can grow.
For the Kids: Provide Structure but Stay Flexible
As one half of the co-parent unit of a blended family, it’s your responsibility to be the constant in your shared children’s lives. That means it’s up to you to provide structure. However, you’ll learn quickly that families don’t function like clockwork, set in a certain way and predictable.
This means that you’ll have to balance the structure you bring to the family—those important rituals and routines in your new home—with a certain amount of flexibility. Take parenting styles, for example. You and your spouse may have been parenting in your ways for years now. What happens when the two styles differ or don’t complement each other?
Will you share the role of being the disciplinarian? Or will the biological parent take the lead with the step parent acting in a supportive capacity?
For the wellbeing of your children, you’ll have to work out a compromise. Discuss this in depth with your spouse beforehand and put the children’s needs first so you don’t give them mixed signals when you start living together. The way you prepare for this is a key step to providing structure within the home.
Another instance of being flexible even while staying constant could be applied with your ex (and your spouse’s ex, if ever). If your ex(es) have differing preferences about custody agreements, you’ll have to accept that not everyone can get what they want. The parents—step and biological—must set aside their individual wants and think about what would be the best decision for the children.
Doing right by your children takes work and it might not always be easy, but learning to communicate properly with one another certainly helps a lot. If you want solid advice on how to make the transition as smooth as possible or just need someone to help you untangle your thoughts, get in touch with a relationship coach from Daftein. We’re happy to help your blended family thrive.