The Perfect Blend
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do (we all) part. Blended families are increasingly common and can be a lot of work. Combining siblings, learning boundaries, forming connections and navigating co-parenting doesn’t happen instantly when you say “I do.”
By Amy Gordy
In a 2015 study released by the United States Census Bureau, Arkansas ranks No. 1—at 35 percent—in the number of adults who have married two or more times. Second and third marriages often bring children into the mix, which can make a union between households a little bit trickier.
Blending families is not something to take lightly. New siblings, new stepparents, a new living arrangement and new rules can really throw everyone out of whack. Beth McAlpine, parent education coordinator at Centers for Youth and Families, guides many parents who either come to her step-parenting class before they take the plunge into matrimony, or once they start to feel in over their heads.
“There are a lot of expectations that people don’t examine ahead of time. The class really starts with, first of all, examining where you came from. How were your parents? What are your views? What’s your parenting style? If parents are not on the same page and can’t create a united front, that’s where the sibling rivalry comes in and the family suffers. If kids feel accepted and secure they will be more likely to get along with each other,” McAlpine said.
Primary concerns she hears with blended families are problems between stepsiblings, gaining confidence in step-parenting and getting along with co-parents.
Entering a new family unit can be a difficult time for kids—no matter how happy they are about the union. Often, everyone goes in with excitement and high expectations and quickly come back to reality once they hit that first bump. Stepsiblings’ personalities may clash, there may be new competition for a biological parent’s attention or resentments toward a new stepparent.
To deter this, McAlpine stresses the importance of couples displaying a strong, respectful relationship as well as both parents providing strong leadership—not just friendship—to the kids. “Strong leadership and a united front between parents will create happier kids who tend to get along far better; more secure kids who have fewer conflicts with each other; and kids who respect you enough to stop arguing with each other when you ask. Displaying relational weakness will surely result in chronic sibling conflict,” she said.
If you are experiencing intense sibling rivalry, the first thing to do is determine what is motivating the behavior. “When you have a stepfamily situation sometimes the tension can be competition. If you’ve rearranged the birth order, kids may be jockeying for rank. You may have one who was an only child and now has siblings, and that can be stressful. You must determine the motivation in order to discover how to stop the behavior. Do they need attention? Do they need privacy? Are they angry about having to share? Are they just wanting some control? There are all kinds of reasons why,” she said.
McAlpine suggests having a family meeting to talk about expectations. “You have to have that talk with the kids and you have to tell your own biological children that you expect them to make an effort to get along. They have to be respectful of everyone in the house.”
If you feel the kids need more room and space—maybe they went from having their own room to sharing with a sibling—McAlpine suggests looking for ways to allow them to make private space for themselves. If there is a certain toy or item that is important to them that they don’t want anyone to touch while they are away at the other house, allow them to keep it in a place that’s safe.
Many blended families cringe at the thought of making kids do chores—you want them to enjoy their time at your home—but McAlpine says giving kids chores is a great way to help them feel like part of the family unit.
People feel guilty about their situation and kids having gone through the tough time of getting a divorce, and now you’re blending a family and there’s more change. This is actually a really good opportunity for kids to learn that life is like this and you have to adapt. You have the opportunity to really let the child take on a little more responsibility. Kids need chores to feel valued in the house. Kids who feel capable and confident are more likely to be compliant, and more likely to take a good risk like trying a difficult math problem or going out for a team sport.”
EFFECTIVE STEP PARENTING
The stepparent can often find themselves in situations of conflict between their spouse, stepchildren, the co-parent or their own biological children if there is no united front or parenting plan within the home. McAlpine emphasizes the importance for couples to talk ahead of time about discipline and how to handle issues that may arise so everyone is comfortable with how situations may play out.
“As a couple, you need to decide: if this happens do we do timeout, are they grounded or do they just get a talk? If the stepparent or biological parent disagrees and discipline has already happened don’t undermine the other parent in front of the kids. In private, say ‘I know this is how you handled it, I would have done it this way, what do you think?’ You can’t go back and undo it, so just learn from it,” she said.
Many stepparents hesitate to get involved in discipline at all— sometimes it’s hard enough to establish a bond with a stepchild, and being the one to put them in time-out feels like it could damage the delicate bond. While McAlpine encourages stepparents to be part of the discipline in the home, she says its OK to let a biological parent handle the big issues. “In the beginning it’s OK to defer to the biological parent for discipline, but you can’t look weak. Parents need to come up with a discipline plan. There are usually three roles parents tend to take on: dictator, consultant or doormat. It’s OK to be all of those, and couples don’t always match. If you have two dictators that would be stressful. If you have two doormats, the kids would run all over you. It’s a process and it can take a long time to find your groove.”
Besides offering strong leadership, stepparents also must work toward creating a strong bond with their stepkids. McAlpine offered these tips to help stepparents achieve that goal:
• Be able to empathize
• Don’t be defensive
• Avoid being judgmental
• Show acceptance
• Be open to change
• Have a strong sense of personal identity (don’t take behaviors personally)
• Believe in children’s abilities, and allow them to be responsible for themselves
CO-PARENTING IN HARMONY
Working to build a healthy relationship with your co-parent is vital to the harmony of your household. Things as small as simply changing your language with the co-parent can do a lot to help establish a cooperative relationship.
“No matter what, you are always going to have that biological parent present in your life and household,” McAlpine said. “Whether or not the children have a good relationship with that parent, have shared custody or don’t see them often, that parent still has a presence. You just have to say to yourselves, ‘We know this is part of our family, but we aren’t going to let that person have control over every thing we do.’ You should be prepared to make concessions sometimes, and never disparage the other parent to the children because that tells the child you don’t like who half of he or she is,” McAlpine said.
Taking yourself out of the conversation is another way to avoid conflict when communicating with a co-parent. “If you don’t agree with something the parent did, never tell the other person ‘Here’s what I would do.’ The co-parent may do the opposite if they are strong-willed. When you get divorced the focus really goes onto the kids. You have to take all the emotional stuff out. You are not tied to that person anymore. We recommend you don’t say even say ‘ex,’ they are your co-parent or the child’s father—it's all about the kids,” McAlpine said.
Some tricks you can use to ease tension and get conversation going are to offer some insight to what goes on at your house and ask the co-parent if they’ve seen the same thing and ask their opinion on how to handle it. “Saying something like ‘Here’s what the children are doing at my house, this is what I tried, what do you think?’
Ultimately, If you have feelings of anger toward your former spouse that’s going to have an affect on your new relationship and your family,” McAlpine said.