Through unexpected circumstances, you’ve fallen in love with someone with their own children. Now the two of you are thinking of combining your familial units as one. Does that make you a blended family? What exactly is a blended family anyway?
A blended family is a familial unit where one or both parents have children from previous relationships. In a blended family, all members come together to act as one household. The parents in this arrangement may or may not be married. In some cases, the stepparent in a blended family will adopt their stepchildren.
In this article, we’ll go through a detailed explanation of a blended family. We’ll also talk about the most common challenges these families face, providing some solutions as well.
This article will outline how to set boundaries in a blended family. It will also provide you with ways to make your blended family as successful as possible. If you’ve recently created a blended family, then this article is sure to help you navigate this new chapter in your life well.
What Is a Blended Family?
A blended family is the unification of two families into one. Blended families are also referred to as step-families or complex families. The parents of a blended family may or may not have children with each other.
Traditionally, the parents of blended families are married to each other, but not always. Modern blended families more often feature parents who are not married. Oftentimes,these families are formed after divorce or the death of a prior spouse. Cohabitant parents who aren’t married can still both act as role models for their children.
In many blended families, the non-biological parent will adopt the other’s children. To formalize any adoption, both biological parents must approve of it. The only exceptions to this are cases of one parent’s death or their giving up parental rights. Adoption gives the new stepparent legal authority over their new stepchildren.
What Challenges Does a Blended Family Face?
Many blended families involve children thrust into a new world of step-relatives. Coming together as a step-family doesn’t always go smoothly. As you can imagine, bringing two families together under one roof and making them one can be quite a challenge.
You can’t expect your families to meld together overnight. There will be challenges and roadblocks along the way. Being proactive when it comes to potential issues can make the adjustment period much smoother. Let’s take a look at some of the most common challenges blended families can face.
New Sibling Rivalry
It can be hard enough for children to compete with siblings in a traditional nuclear family. Adding stepsiblings they aren’t comfortable around can exacerbate the problem. If the children have been living in a single-parent household, the transition can take longer. Having to “share” a parent with newcomers to the family can create tension and resentment. Sibling rivalry can become a major issue within the new family.
Have a discussion with your spouse to make sure you’re on the same page about sibling rivalry. Nothing will get better if you’re too busy blaming the other’s biological child for creating a rift. If you have different styles of discipline, you also increase the chances of problems. It doesn't matter how things were before your families came together. Make sure rewards and consequences are the same across the board.
Keep in mind your children may be more strangers to each other than stepsiblings. You can’t expect everyone to act as a happy family right away. There will be a transitional period, and it may take time to get through it. If blending families created a change in the birth order, resentments can arise. A child who was previously the oldest may now be caught in the middle. They may feel as if they’ve lost a little bit of power.
Stay away from the idea of putting labels on the children. Even labeling in a positive way can raise tension amongst family members. Don’t refer to the children by saying “she’s the star athlete” or “he’s the family musician”. Acknowledge everyone having different talent and skills which are valid. Let the children know that exploring new interests is healthy and welcome.
Making Sure Everyone Gets Attention
As two families are brought together, the number of children in the family can increase. One or more of the children may feel they aren’t getting the same kind of attention they did before. These feelings could stem from how many stepsiblings they now have or changes in the birth order, as we mentioned. Blended families may also have less time and money for extracurricular activities. Family outings could be affected due to the increase in family members.
These problems can all be solved by working together as a family. Sit everyone down and come up with a set schedule for the month. Let each child select an activity within a budget agreed upon by the parents. Make sure the children all feel like they’ve been heard and can weigh in. Make a point for both parents to attend each child’s activities. Doing so prevents anyone from feeling that one child is favored over another.
Each of the children needs individual attention as well. You could play a quick card game or video game together for a few minutes. You may want to go a little bigger and set up a once-a-month day out together. Giving both biological children and stepchildren positive attention can help strengthen family bonds.
Feeling Like Two Separate Families
Both you and your spouse want nothing more than to feel like one big happy family. You hope to create a family unit which can share, have fun, and rely on each other. The children may not be comfortable with each other, or with their stepparent. It may start to feel as though you’re two separate families who live under the same roof.
You won’t be able to forge a bond overnight, as we’ve talked about. It will take you time to gain a shared history as a family. You have to learn to figure out your new relationships and adapt to this new normal. The most important thing to understand is the process will take time. Trying to force it to happen before everyone’s ready can end up creating more problems.
Start slowly by creating some new traditions as a family. If you have younger children, try setting aside some time on a weekend morning to go to the local park. You could also read a book together every night either in the living room or master bedroom. If the children are older, a family movie night may be an option for you.
Let's say you or your spouse have joint custody of your biological children. Come up with ways to smooth out the transition of going from house to house. When you pick them up from their other parent’s house, make a stop for ice cream. This small tradition can be a signal to the children that they’re moving to a different routine, but in a fun way.
Make sure to give children time to grieve if necessary. A new marriage is in many ways a happy time. It also marks the end of the previous family unit. This can be difficult for children grappling with their biological parents’ divorce. They may also be upset about no longer being the only child getting all the attention.
A blended family is still a family. There may be growing pains and squabbles. In time, everyone will start to adjust to the new situation. Mistakes will be made by the adults and the children. Learning from those mistakes will help the household feel like one solid family unit.
How Do You Set the Rules and Boundaries of a Blended Family?
At one time, a biological parent’s girlfriend or boyfriend was a friend and someone to have fun with. Now you find yourself as an authority figure within the new blended family. This change in roles can cause problems within the household if it isn’t addressed.
The first step in understanding the family boundaries is creating your household rules. You and your spouse should take notes and write down the rules as you come up with them. Make sure the rules are clearly outlined as well as the consequences of breaking them.
You may be in a situation where both of you have children from previous relationships. If so, chances are you each have somewhat different household rules. It’s vital to sit down together and create one set of rules for everyone. This will prevent everyone from feeling like you’re living as two separate families. Talk to your spouse about how you’ll discipline the kids and what consequences are on the table. It’s important to come to a common ground and present a unified front on discipline in your home.
In some cases, one parent wants to be known as the “fun one”. Other parents hope the new stepparent in the family can lay down the law with the children fast. Coming together as a blended family requires both parents work together as one unit. The kids will learn quickly which parent is the “easy target”. They can use one parent to get their way and end up pitting the adults against each other.
After you’ve settled on a set of household rules, a family meeting is in order. Call everyone to the dining room table. Go over the rules as a family with the notes you took earlier. The children may have thoughts they want heard. Let them speak and answer any questions they ask. Writing the rules down means everyone knows the what these rules are. The whole family will also clearly understand the consequences of breaking the rules.
Explain to the children that both adults can discipline any of the kids. Make it known that you expect the children will obey their stepparent the same way they would with you. Initially, stepparents should focus more on building a bond with stepchildren. If a healthy relationship isn’t established, then discipline won’t have any effect. This is especially true for older children and teenagers.
How Do You Make a Blended Family Work?
Developing a harmonious relationship in any family can be difficult. Blending two families together into one creates even more challenges. It can take a long for a stepfamily to find a comfortable groove. The earlier you are in the process, the more challenging it can be for everyone. New couples are still developing their own relationship. Now there are children and stepchildren to nurture as well.
Sometimes the stresses of step-parenting can push you to the edge. You may be concerned about arguments your new spouse is having with your children. Their kids may be frustrating you. As a result, you start to question your parenting skills. What steps can you take to make your blended family work and build healthy relationships?
Take a look at a few strategies for successfully blending your new family below.
Remain Civil with Your Former Spouse
Don’t think of your relationship with your former spouse as having ended. As a couple, your relationship was an emotional, intimate connection. Now it’s held together by shared goals for your children. The idea of joining up with your ex may not seem easy or palatable. You have to put the scars of hurt feelings aside and leave behind past dysfunction. Doing so can end up providing amazing gifts to your children. Being cold, hurtful, or sabotaging your former spouse in some ways is doing the same to your kids.
It’s important to have a serious discussion with your current spouse about this topic. They need to understand you still prioritize your relationship. Explain to them that your united front with your former spouse is for your children and nothing more. If your current spouse has children with their ex, it may be helpful to encourage them to do the same. This can help you to be on a united front with your new blended family.
Acknowledge the Challenges Your Family Faces
Above all else, you hope for everyone in your new household to get along. Combining two formerly separate families into one is no small feat. It will take time and work to figure out just how your new family will handle different things. Finances, discipline, and a host of other issues will need to be discussed. It can feel like a steep uphill climb in the beginning. Once you have a plan firmly in place, the transition period becomes more manageable.
There are things which may be viewed as “deal-breakers” for either you or your new spouse. Your new partner may have stated they’re not willing to co-parent or be accepting of your children in your new home. Things like this cannot be okay with you under any circumstances. As a parent, it’s your job to stand up for your children when necessary. You are a source of leadership. Your children look to you to work toward solutions to issues.
Create a Family Plan with Your Spouse
When two families merge into one, there are a few topics that should be discussed early on. These include the following.
- Parenting roles: The way both of you parent the children should be one of the first things you discuss. Define both of your roles in facilitating the kids’ development. Come up with household rules and make sure you work as a team to put those rules in place.
- Division of labor: Split up the household workload as evenly as possible. When is laundry day going to be? Who can drive this child to band practice? What are the children’s chores going to be? Talk to your spouse about what they think is important and come up with a plan.
- Time without the children: Decide how much time you and your spouse will have alone together. As a family, your primary concern should be raising and nurturing your children. It’s still important to set time aside for each other to have an occasional date night. Keeping the romance alive between you will also make the family dynamic positive.
- Extended family: Agree on how much time your extended family will spend with the children. You may also need to have this discussion with your former spouse, depending on the situation.
- Finances and long-term goals: This is a fresh start in a lot of ways for both yourself and your spouse. Talk about what your long-term goals are for your family. Ask your spouse what their goals are. Compare, contrast, and compromise to find a middle ground on the biggest issues. Makes sure your financial goals are similar so you both can provide for your family.
Talk to Your Spouse Outside of Arguments
If the bulk of your communication is happening in the context of an argument, you need to stop. Set aside some time to talk more rationally and calmly. This is important for you and your spouse as you work toward resolving your problems. At the same time, it can be even more important for your children and stepchildren. The kids may have witnessed a divorce unfold before. They could have internalized a great deal of parental conflict and may still be shaken by it. Don’t do anything to make it worse.
Arguing in front of your children changes who they are. For both you and your spouse, the argument is over when it’s over. It may not have an end in the eyes of your kids. They don’t get to see you two make up. They don’t have any participation in the healing process. The children end up going to bed at night thinking you’re fighting because of them.
Have a Support System Outside of Household
Parenting a blended family can present you with a great deal of stress. The children may be roughhousing especially hard with each other. Saying goodbye to your kids as they go off with your former spouse might tug hard at your emotions. Your current spouse may just be getting on your nerves. Talking about the stresses of daily life is an essential survival tool.
Find someone outside your family unit to be your support system. It could be a neighbor, a friend, or another parent from your children’s school. Think of it as having someone who can listen to you without offering up too much advice. Give each person ten minutes to talk, laugh, or cry about their stepfamily.
Use the time to talk about what drives you crazy about your children or stepchildren. Tell the person listening everything you wouldn’t say to your kids or your partner. It’s important to get these things off your chest. Letting out your emotions this way can be refreshing for you. Expressing the frustration helps you let it go and will help you enjoy your family more and more.
Support Your Spouse’s Individual Relationship(s) with Their Children
Never put your spouse in a position where they feel they have to choose between you and their children. Your spouse being close with their kids won’t cause your relationship to suffer. Everyone has many sources of love we draw from. One source is your children, who have an infinite amount of love to give. Your spouse acts a completely separate source of love available to you.
Don't try to compete with your spouse’s biological children. Help their relationship grow stronger instead. Ask your spouse what you can do to aid them in nurturing their relationship. Be there as a support system and help them maintain the bond.
See Things from the Children’s Perspective
It isn’t always easy to see through another person’s eyes if you haven’t walked in their shoes. Both your children and stepchildren are along for the ride on this journey. They didn’t get a choice in wanting new family members. You and your spouse need to take care and have patience with them adapting to this new arrangement.
You should have frequent conversations with the kids. Ask them how it’s going. Find out what the experience is like from a smaller point of view. With good intentions and a loving heart, things will work out. Open communication is key.
Forge Personal Relationships with Your Stepchildren
Commit to developing and fostering a strong relationship with your stepchildren. This relationship can be independent of your spouse. Take some time out from your day to interact with the kids. Get to know them. Ask questions. Show an interest in who they are and what they want from life. Train yourself to stop thinking of you stepchildren as “her kid” or “his kid”. As part of a blended family, you are an important figure in that child’s life. Think of them as you would your own children.
What percentage of families are considered blended families? About 40 percent of new marriages include at least one person who has been married prior. This is according to a Pew Research Center study from 2013. The same study finds that in roughly 20 percent of weddings, both participants were previously married.
How many children live in a blended family? The US Census Bureau reports 30 million children under age 13 live in some form of blended family. This amounts to 50 percent of children in that age bracket.
Nicole Malczan is a content marketing writer and freelancer. She's applied her knowledge of marketing and SEO to many clients over the years, ranging from food service to facilities management and currency exchange. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, baking, and music.