A blended family can be challenging to manage, especially when it’s newly formed.
Blended families have different needs and goals than the nuclear family, so a different approach to parenting needs to be implemented.
There are changes in family roles. For example, an only child can gain new siblings — or the oldest child can suddenly become the youngest.
There are also different family values and expectations of appropriate behavior at home.
Additionally, parents often find that they have different discipline and parenting styles, resulting in confusion and resentment from the children. Parents also encounter more stress when reaching an agreement on how to raise the children and balance their needs as well as their partner’s.
But, there are benefits to blended families.
There may be more stability compared to the original family unit.
Children can experience the benefits of two loving parents. Having new siblings also provides an opportunity for close attachments and supportive relationships.
There may even be more emotional and financial support in a blended family.
Here are 10 expert tips on how to make a blended family work.
1. Allow relationships to develop in their own time.
Parents expect everyone to immediately get along and turn into an instant family. However, that’s not the case.
Relationships take time to form. Trust and connection are slowly created and developed through mutual experiences.
Often, new spouses are wrapped up in the excitement and romance of the new relationship that they struggle if their children do not share their enthusiasm.
So, have realistic expectations. Individual feelings around new relationships are different for every family member, and their feelings need to be respected.
2. Encourage children to spend time with all parents.
Step-parents want so much to create a close relationship with their children and new spouse that they neglect to encourage relationships with their ex-spouse.
Children need reassurance that you support their time with the other parent.
By encouraging equal time with both families, you model respect for all the people in your child’s life, even those you may not get along with.
Your child learns important life skills such as equality, respect, empathy, and understanding.
3. The primary parent should maintain a disciplinary role with their children.
Often, newly formed parents rush in with discipline, assuming that this is what they need to do.
Until a strong, caring relationship has been formed with the step-parent — which can take years, not months — the primary parent should do most of the discipline.
A parent who jumps in too quickly as the disciplinarian risks alienating the child from the step-parent, leading to resentment. Many healthy, happy blended families don’t have step-parents in a disciplinary role.
4. Work as a team.
Remember that you’re on the same side, and work together to support the whole family. It’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing the children to play “the divide and conquer” game.
Work together as a united front with the children, so that one parent does not feel alienated from the rest of the family.
5. Nurture the new couple relationship.
It’s easy to get swept up with all the demands of the new family and forget about the special couple time.
It’s very important to nurture this new relationship and share time in activities that you both enjoy, like going for a walk or cooking together.
By enjoying each other’s company, you foster mutual love and respect, shoring up your ability to manage challenges successfully as a couple in the future together.
Your love and care for each other sets a good example for your children.
6. Have realistic expectations.
Couples have fantasies about how family members will interact and get along. But, when those ideals don’t match reality, they can feel deflated and angry.
While it’s OK to have goals for how your family would get along, imposing rigid expectations on how members should interact and getting upset if they respond outside of your expectation is a formula for disaster.
An only child may struggle with step-siblings, and an older teen may not embrace younger siblings.
While these setbacks can be disappointing, having a flexible, adaptive approach will serve you well and help the family weather some of these challenges.
It takes time for all members to adjust to a new family unit. They’re also trying to figure out their new roles in the family.
So patience, understanding, and compassion will go a long way in helping children to adjust.
7. Know that your children are still grieving the loss of their original family.
Sometimes, parents move quickly into new relationships after divorce, which can be very challenging for children. Parents may be ready for a fresh start and are excited to begin anew.
But that’s rarely the case for children. They feel a deep sadness for the loss of their original family.
Just as parents need to move through the stages of grief following a divorce, so do children.
They may still have fantasies that mom and dad might get back together and may see the step-parent as getting in the way of their parent’s reunion.
It’s also normal for kids to express anger over the divorce, which is directed at step-siblings, step-parents, and even you.
Parents can help children by allowing the expression of anger in a healthy way and validating how the child is feeling.
Not allowing or severely punishing a child for being angry will ultimately backfire and cause more setbacks in building a healthy blended family.
Sometimes, outside help from a trained counselor can help them process the divorce and their anger in a healthy way.
8. Manage and discuss everyone’s roles in the new family.
Sibling rivalry and the belief that some children are getting preferential treatment is not uncommon.
Children from one family may feel that their step-parent is treating their own children better. Or, they feel that their own parent is going out of their way to make the new step-children feel comfortable.
This may lead to feelings of neglect or unequal treatment. A common refrain of, “It’s not fair!” will often be heard.
Having frequent family meetings where all members can openly express how they’re feeling without criticism will foster healthy communication and a safe, secure home.
Often, parents are unaware of how their children are feeling. Checking in regularly and facilitating family meetings can help mitigate feelings of preferential treatment of one or several family members.
9. Have one-on-one time with the children.
It’s important to nurture the relationship with the original family and not always force the new family to do activities together.
Children respond well to one-on-one time with just their mom or dad. This can create great opportunities for your child to open up and share how they’re feeling about things.
Going on a hike with mom or having a basketball-shooting challenge with dad once a week creates a special experience for kids and helps them still feel connected to their previous life.
It’s also important to encourage one-on-one time with your spouse and their children, as well. That additional time spent separately will pay off in healthier, more well-adjusted family members.
10. Create new traditions and make time for fun activities together.
It’s easy with different time-sharing schedules, that while everyone lives in the same house, they live separate lives.
Think of something special that you can do together. A family game night can be a fun way to connect your new family.
Have every family member write down one to three things that they want to do as a family, put it in a jar, and pick one activity a week to try, such as miniature golfing, cooking a dessert together, going paddle boarding.
Family members will feel that their input is valuable and that they have a chance to try something new with the family.
Plan a yearly family trip. It doesn’t need to be expensive — camping works just as well as a trip to Disneyland.
With time, the family members will start to have positive associations and look forward to the blended family traditions that have been put in place.
While blended families present their own set of unique challenges, it can also be a wonderful opportunity for a family to experience positive sibling relations and healthy parenting by two loving parents.
Keeping these tips in mind will help new parents to keep their focus on creating healthy, balanced new families where all family members can thrive.
With some effort, your new family can be off to a great start together!
Monica Ramunda, MA, LPC, LCMHC, RPT-S has worked for 19 years with families of divorce and blended families. She has worked for the courts as a child and family investigator and has held groups for children of divorce. She is the owner of Rocky Mountain Counseling Services and Lighthouse Counseling Services, and is licensed in both Colorado and North Carolina.