A Perfect Blend
Step-by-step co-parenting through the holidays and beyond
By Melissa Tucker Photography by Amber Utnage Photography
Navigating daily life is hard enough for nuclear families, but add stepsiblings, stepparents and co-parents to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem, which can become even more hectic around the holidays.
When things get confusing, especially for blended families, The Parent Center at the Centers for Youth and Families has a program geared towards helping parents and caregivers become better at their jobs.
Beth McAlpine, a parent education coordinator and parent educator at Centers, says good communication and establishing leadership roles is key for blended families.
“The biggest thing I see with families who are blended is, who is in charge? Who is the authority and where does that come from and the difference in expectations between the different sets of kids,” McAlpine said.
For newly blended families, she recommends the biological parent be the “default parent” and the one to discipline their own children.
“In the beginning, when that parent is the default parent, if the kid tries to go to the stepparent, they should say, ‘I have to talk to your mom about that.’ The kids feel more accountable to people who care about them and respect them, while the stepparent is supportive, observing and loving,” she said. “It’s OK to delay the consequence or the response if you don’t know the answer or if you’re not sure how your spouse is going to react.”
The “default parent” strategy was the tactic Emily Sullenger took with her husband, Patrick, when they married 18 months ago. Emily and Patrick co-parent five children together, and in the beginning, she considered herself more like “a grandparent” to her husband’s three kids.
“You love them like they’re your own, but you respect those boundaries,” Emily Sullenger said. “Because the big decisions go to the parents. You understand that you’re not the decision maker, and you have someone else to consult.”
She and Patrick took the transition slowly.
“Before we told the kids we were dating, we hung out as friends and let them get to know each other-and get to know us,” she said. “By the time we got married, everybody had been friends and had playdates and hung out in group settings, so it was as an easy transition from friends to family.”
For other families going through the same process, The Parent Center offers a stepfamilies class called “Strengthening Your Stepfamily,” which lasts four weeks and helps parents anticipate problems that might arise, so they can put a plan in place beforehand.
“When you have a blended family, often you have the co-parent of each parent and essentially have four parents, which can be confusing for the child,” McAlpine said. “The parents need to have discussions on what are the expectations for all the kids in our house and how is our household going to run? It’s a great opportunity to start some new traditions, and new habits.”
The class is held twice a year, typically in the late winter and summer, and costs $40 per family. Students will learn how to parent the “love and logic” way, McAlpine said.
“It teaches kids to be responsible for their own behavior, and it uses empathy and natural consequences,” she said. “You don’t have to get mad; you’re going to let them feel the consequence of their own bad decisions and figure out how to fix it.”
She also suggests stepparents try a tactic called “attending” to build trust, which means “noticing” positive things about the children and saying them out loud but remaining neutral in your observations.
“Say ‘I noticed,’” she suggested. “With older kids it could be, “I noticed you wearing your glasses,” but it essentially means, ‘I see you for who you are,” she said.
“It’s not a criticism, and it’s not praise, because some kids will argue with you. But you’re noticing positive things,” she said.
Parents also shouldn’t feel overly guilty about conflict in the home between stepsiblings, she said.
“They’re in a safe environment, while they’re home, learning to deal with difficult people. And it’s not something they need to feel bad about because allowing them that opportunity to figure it out is really helpful,” she said.
She also sees stepparents taking a child’s behavior personally, which is not helpful. The kids have their own internal struggles and may be going through the grieving process.
“Kids can be mean, especially the older they get. They’re insecure because of the changes happening, and most kids will harbor unrealistic hopes that their parents will eventually get back together. It doesn’t matter how dysfunctional or how long they’ve been divorced, but for a while it’s part of the stages of grieving, there’s this hope, if I undermine this new relationship enough, it’ll be back to where we were. For some kids that’s a fleeting moment and some really hang on to it.”
For the Sullenger family, helping the children bond ahead of time was key.
“Of course there are hard moments, especially when helping kids understand the dynamics and the changes,” Emily said. “But I also think it helps that they’re all really close, and they enjoy each other, and they consider each other friends first and then family.”
Holiday Survival Tips for Blended Families
From the Centers for Youth and Families:
Share the holiday. Whether it is splitting time evenly or using technology to connect with family members that may be far away, make a way for them to feel connected.
Start a new tradition. Celebrating doesn’t have to be “traditional.” Have a “non-traditional dinner” like tacos or spaghetti; pick family members names and have each child shop for someone; adopt a family in need and shop as a family. Make the celebration fun, and ask the kids for input on what they would like to do.
Embrace traditions from each family. Celebrating traditions that are familiar is comforting
Surround them with extended family. This may break up the monotony of celebrating several times; a change of dynamics also keeps the family interested in spending time together.
Negotiate and compromise, but plan ahead for all scenarios. Planning the holiday between two or more families is complicated, and unexpected events do happen, but starting the conversation about the specifics earlier rather than later helps to navigate the bumps. Remember – it is all about the kids.
Enjoy the moment. Take the time to enjoy the time you have together, even if it is not ideal. Blending families is a process.