One in five Australians are part of a blended family. Statistically, 30% of the kids in your child’s school class will be part of a blended family. In fact, blended families are one of Australia’s fastest growing family types. A blended family occurs when a couple moves in together, bringing children from previous relationships into the home. It’s a time of high hopes for the new couple. Things didn’t go so well last time, but lessons are learned, changes are made, and a fresh start offers promise. Maybe they imagine that it’s going to be a lot like the Brady Bunch! Unfortunately it’s rarely (if ever!) easy. Sometimes blended families feel doomed from the start.
"The truth is no one wants to be in a blended family. Born of grief and tinged with failure, blended families are messy, and complicated, and exhausting",
according to Kate Chapman, a writer who has chronicled her own experiences with her blended family.
In addition to unwilling participants being thrust together, there’s relationship hurdles to navigate. The step-monster (sorry, step-mother) stereotype remains a thing. Recent research shows that persistent negative connotations about ‘step families’ still not only exist, but thrive. The idea of the ‘wicked stepmother’ and ‘evil stepfather’ persist, even within the blended family itself. There is no evidence to suggest that becoming a step parent automatically brings out the worst in someone. But it is true that blended families can suffer from this negativity.
How to Help Your Blended Family Thrive
Blended families mean step-parents, step-siblings, shared parenting arrangements and at least some parental separation. It means there was a breakdown in the original family that has left children without the regular companionship of at least one biological parent. It also means kids are experiencing both big and small losses – from having to switch schools to daddy not being able to make Saturday morning pancakes.
Because of this there will be emotional, behavioural and other practical problems for both the adults and the children in the new family to deal with. And it might get ugly from time to time – but this can happen in any home. You’re not alone. Having a happy household in many blended families may take more effort, patience and tears than a family unit that hasn’t experienced breakdown and remodelling, but there are a few things you can do to help the entire family manoeuvre this path more easily – to help your new family thrive, not just survive.
In a blended family, space can become a hot button issue. For one thing, there is probably less privacy and ‘my space’ than previously. Also, that space is now being shared with people your kids may not feel entirely comfortable with. They might not like their new siblings at all! Figure out ways to give every member of the new family their own space and place to find privacy. This can go a long way to diffusing tension.
Agree on rules
Discipline is a challenge in all families. But in blended families it can be difficult to impose limits. As parents, being on the same page is crucial. Agree on the rules (in consultation with your kids as much as possible). Then be consistent and back each other up. You may find it easier to leave discipline to the biological parent and, if you’re the non-biological parent, focus mostly on encouraging the kids to be their best while supporting their biological parent when times get challenging.
Set aside one-on-one time
When two disparate families come together, jealousy is inevitable. Parents are no longer focussed on just their children alone, but on the new children and new partner as well. And kids feel the loss of the special times they shared with the original family. Where it’s practical, schedule one-on-one time with each of your children. Work to stay close to them, even while you’re working to get close to your new partner and his or her children. It is a balance. But these strong relationships will build feelings of safety and security within the new family. But make sure you create positive memories with your new blended family fast. These will form the foundation of a strong family bond.
As you navigate your new family, there will be times that things get better. And, of course, you may also experience setbacks along the way. Rifts are common especially when big changes happen in your or your children’s lives. But be patient – with your partner, with your partner’s kids, with your kids and with yourself. Allow the family relationships to grow in their own time. Encourage bonding by showing an interest in the other members’ lives and accepting their feelings, even when it doesn’t feel great. No family is perfect. But families are worth investing in – no matter how they are made up.