A blended family is where one or both of the new partners have children from a previous relationship, and have combined to form another family unit.
Every day it is more common to see this type of family, where both partners bring children of similar or different ages to the new family unit, and they may also have children together as well.
Blending is a process that takes both time and effort. While accepting a partner into your family is challenging, accepting their children also could become even more so. Either your stepchild is younger than your children or only few years younger than yourself. Hours of communication are involved, also love, compassion and understanding. In any situation in life, blending becomes easier when we are willing to respect and care for each other.
The journey of blending two families is an exciting opportunity, but it can also be a challenge, as it comes with changes, loss and grief.
For example, children may:
- feel excited by having new siblings, but also wondering what would happen if they don't get along
- depending on the age, they may fear that their parent will love the other children more
- be struggling to accept that their parents relationship is "really over"
- feel anxious about moving houses, changing school, leaving friends behind
- be wondering how are they going to get along with the step-parent.
We need to remember that blended families have some aspects that make them unique:
- they are born after a loss: two different relationships are over and those processes may come with different degrees of grief
- everyone may be at different stages in life: children at different ages, partners with different status (for example, one is a widow and the other was single), different lifestyles, etc. Trying to compromise to make it work can be difficult
- parent-child relationship usually comes before partner's relationship: there may be loyalty issues if problems arise
- there are always other parents that will be part of the equation: either because the children may go to the other parent's house regularly, they may not have contact with the other parent or because there is a memory of a parent who has passed
- depending on the status of the new family, legal issues may become a source of conflict too: who is the legal guardian of who?
How to make it work?
These tips may help you and your family make a smooth transition into the new life:
- decide where you are going to live: the adults should be the ones making this decision. Of course, you can discuss this with the children, asking for their feedback and ideas, trying to find middle ground that could hopefully suit everyone. However, you need to be clear and manage their expectations as some compromise and good will from them will be necessary, to make it work. Research shows that in most cases, it is really positive to move in to a new place if possible, (if is not possible, renewing or repainting and getting new furniture could help too), making sure the family is comfortable and the new house is suitable for everyone. This would become the first step in building the "new us" and it will strengthen the whānau's identity
- decide how are you going to manage your new family income: is each partner going to provide for their own children? Is everything going into a fund that covers everyone's expenses? Who should pay for what? It is important to discuss and agree what is the best way for you. In cases when there are other ex-partners contributing towards supporting the children, this conversation might be particularly relevant
- what is going to be the new partner's role in your children's life? When there is a problem that involves your children, who can decide what the consequences are going to be? Let's say you allow your children to watch TV, but your partner has young children and TV is not allowed - what can you do? It is useful to have this discussion beforehand and have some clarity around boundaries and shared parenting but keeping in mind that things may change as time goes on
- discuss together, children included, what the new rules are going to be. We might want to keep some of each family's previous agreements, but we are a new family unit and we have the chance to change a few things.
How to support your children during this time?
Respect their timing: Some children may jump easily into bonding with your partner and they may feel somewhat guilty for loving them, especially, if there is another parent in their life as they may feel they are betraying their loyalty. Reassure them that having a positive relationship with their step parent is OK.
Other children may take some time before they feel a meaningful connection with your partner. Don't force them to bond if they don't want to, or don't feel prepared to. Give them clear guidelines of what is expected, such as being respectful with the step parent, not shouting or yelling, and participating in family activities. Trust that they will find their own adjustment and will be able to have a nice relationship in their own way.
Keep some "just us" time: A weekly walk on the beach, book reading at night time or grabbing something to eat together, can be good ways of having some private space for you and your child to share and preserve the parent/child relationship you had before you decided to blend the two families. It will also provide them with the opportunity to tell you how they are feeling, or discuss the expectations or concerns they may have, finding ways together to solving any problems.
Maintain clear boundaries: Adult's problems are not their fault, try to keep them away from any problems that there may be in your relationship with your ex-partner, or the relationship with your partner's ex, or the relationship between your current partner and your ex-partner. Shelter them from conflicts, it is inappropriate for them to be asked to take sides, or to be put in the middle of an unhealthy situation.
Provide stability and routines: And stick to them as much as possible! Regaining a sense of stability will help children to adjust more easily to their new life. You can invite them to participate and contribute their ideas, such as sharing a fun meal with game night every fortnight or going for a walk every Sunday. This could be another cornerstone of the new family's identity.
Pay attention to their behaviour: Depending on how old they are, children will express their emotional stress in some specific ways. In most cases, the behaviour will settle by itself with time and support, but in other cases you might find it helpful to seek professional support, to facilitate their adjustment.
For example, in little children you can see tantrums, nightmares, some degree of defiance. In teenagers you can find they rebel to the new situation, acting out, shutting down or not talking to their new family, etc.
When to worry: A transition such as this one is usually more challenging for the children than for the adults. It would be recommended to talk to your child and seek support if:
- they have strong feelings of being alone and dealing with their loses, torn between two households, excluded and isolated by feelings of guilt and anger
- they start taking drugs or alcohol, at a frequency and degree that is concerning to you and goes beyond to what you would consider appropriate to their age
- skips school or their performance at school changes considerably
- seems depressed or shows signs of suicidal behaviour (please see other links in the section to know more)
- the children fight constantly and you and your partner cannot find ways of solving the conflict.
With proper communication, children can be flexible and be more tolerant to others. They can build new friendships and communicate with people who have different views. Remember this might take time but it is a natural process.