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After going through a divorce or a breakup that leaves you a single parent, finding love again and getting engaged feels wonderful. Suddenly, the dreams of a happy family that were dashed by your divorce are alive once more, only this time, you’re not starting a family—you’re bringing a blended family together.
On TV, sitcoms like the Brady Bunch, Modern Family, or Drake and Josh make parenting a blended family seem easy. Sure, there are conflicts, but they’re comedic and resolved in a half-hour, leaving the family even closer than it was before.
In real life, of course, things are rarely that tidy. Even if children love their stepparent, they probably feel loyalty to the biological parent who’s outside the blended family unit. Stepsiblings may clash, or may feel that a parent is more lenient with their own children than with their stepchildren. The respective parenting styles of the new spouses may be very different, leading to conflict. A child may resent the loss of their parent’s undivided attention or having to share their home.
In short, there are many ways that parenting a blended family can be challenging. But when it works, it can be wonderful. Creating a successful blended family may not be easy, but it’s easier if you get off to a good start. Here are some tips to help you do that.
As with your divorce, your children have little choice regarding whether you will remarry, when, or whom. Yet those decisions profoundly affect their lives. It’s natural that they would want to exercise what little control they have. As we have said before in this space, “all behavior is communication.” If you’re frustrated with your child’s behavior, ask yourself, “What are they trying to express?” It may be fear, grief, or anxiety. With that in mind, your response will be more empathic.
You may feel ready to jump into a new marriage, but remember that you and your spouse aren’t jumping alone this time around. Your children are taking the leap with you, and since they don’t have control of when it happens, it may not feel like a joyful leap to them—it may feel like they’ve been pushed. That’s not to say that you need to let your children dictate your timetable, but their needs should influence it. Just because you can remarry quickly doesn’t mean you should.
You may want desperately to be one big, happy family, and someday, you may be. But that rarely happens overnight. Everyone, grownups and kids alike, needs time to adjust to new situations—and a blended family is a big one. Pushing kids to love each other or their new stepparent won’t accelerate (and may stall) the development of genuine affection. And, real talk here: you may need time to warm up to your stepchildren as well, especially if they’re communicating their feelings through challenging behavior.
Let everyone have their complex, messy feelings, and acknowledge how difficult this new adjustment is. That said, it’s perfectly reasonable to put boundaries around how blended family members act toward one another. Model calm, respectful behavior so your children can learn to follow suit.
If you and your new spouse have identical values and practices around parenting, that’s terrific! It’s also incredibly rare. Chances are you have somewhat different parenting styles. Now that you’re a blended family, you need a parenting plan and a unified front. If you don’t develop one, confusion and chaos may ensue. Either the children of one parent will be treated differently than those of the other, or each of you will parent all of the children in your own differing styles, which may encourage the kids to play you against each other.
Sit down with your spouse, talk about how you’d like to address various issues, such as bedtimes, screen time, homework, curfews, etc. Apply the same rules to all of your children. Those rules are going to be new to at least some of the kids, and there may be pushback. Sit down together with the kids that you’ve made rules together that you think will be best for everyone, and acknowledge that some of them may take some getting used to.
Yes, it’s your house and you make the rules. But it’s best if you let your spouse take the lead on enforcing them with their own children at first, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean you should let your stepchildren walk all over you, but for the first year or so, until they know you better, let their parent handle the discipline. Communicate with your spouse to make sure that you’re both disciplining your own children in a similar way, so the stepsiblings won’t resent unequal treatment.
It may seem like an easy way to build rapport with a stepchild by commenting favorably on their traits or behavior, but don’t compare them to your own child. If you say, “Greg, look how Marcia always does her homework without having to be told,” it’s not going to make Greg want to do his homework. It’s going to make him resent you, it’s going to make him resent Marcia, and it puts Marcia under pressure to continue being “good.” It’s great to give kids sincere compliments and encouragement, but not at another child’s expense.
Do not ever badmouth your stepchild's biological parent in your stepchild’s (or child’s) hearing. Your stepchild may already fear that you are trying to replace that parent in their life. They may resent that, or they may have conflicted feelings about it.
It’s possible that they recognize that your home is more warm, secure, fun, or stable than their biological parent’s. They may even feel guilty about preferring to be with you and your spouse, even as they feel loyalty to the biological parent who is not a part of your household. Never force a child to feel that they have to choose between you and their biological parent.
Perhaps the best way to foster blended family success is to make being together enjoyable. It can be difficult to figure out something everyone likes to do together, especially if the kids are a wide range of ages, but it’s worth trying. Make Saturday night homemade pizza night. Have a regular game night. Go sledding together and have hot chocolate afterward. Some efforts may feel corny, and kids might roll their eyes. But whether they realize it or not, they’ll appreciate that you are trying.