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The Two Essential Rules for a Blended Family

There are two main considerations for helping both parents and kids adjust.

Bringing two families together under one roof certainly isn’t as easy as The Brady Bunch made it look. After all, the famed sitcom blended family had the luxury of resolving vexing issues in a tight 30 minute time slot. But in reality, blended families face any number of complex challenges that take some time. Kids in a blended family spend years working through the process of watching their parents fall in love, getting to know new siblings, and navigating the constant negotiations of what life looks like as a new family unit. And parents in their own transitions must do their best to help.   

What is a Blended Family?

In a blended family, at least one parent has children unrelated to their partner either biologically or through adoption. The family arrangement has been previously known as a stepfamily, but can also be referred to as a bonus family, or instafamily. But regardless of title and specific makeup, bringing multiple families together is bound to likely cause intense feelings.

The upshot is that parents who are coming together to form a new unit need to be cautious and conscientious about their children’s emotions.

Know What Kids Are Worried About in Your Blended Family

When children suddenly find themselves in new family dynamics, including an introduction of parental figures, there are bound to be questions according to Dr. Richard Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer on Education and Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology masters program at Harvard University.  “Invested questions like ‘What’s going to happen to my biological father?’ can be on a lot of kid’s minds,” he says. But that’s just one example. 

And while concerns about family transitions will kick around in a kids’ head, they may not feel like they can share those feelings with parents. If they are holding those thoughts and feelings in, angst may manifest itself in ways that are disruptive to family development.

“Your kid might worry that when a family is blended that they’re going to lose their biological parents that their biological parents can become too focused on their partner or the other kids in the family,” Dr. Weissbourd explains.

He notes that it’s often up to parents to opening the door for a child to share how they are feeling. Therefore it’s important to approach family-building as a team collaborating with a child to develop practical ways to alleviate their fears.

The instinct to immediately assuring a kid they don’t have anything to worry about is understandable. Still, it can leave them feeling unheard.

“It’s important to brainstorm strategies for dealing with the challenges and problems kids are worried about, especially with older kids,” says Weissbourd. “For example, if they’re worried about not spending enough time together, let’s make sure we do spend enough time by going for a walk three times a week. Or perhaps commit to continuing to do an activity together.”

Focus on Earning Respect

Many parents will be concerned about how to handle discipline as their blended family forms. Figuring out how to adjust family rules, communicate well with each other, and what to expect regarding consequences will all take time to establish. Weissbourd encourages parents to remain present to all children but perhaps defer most discipline situations to the primary parent until a relationship of respect is established.

“It’s important not to be categorical about this; there are certain situations where you must respond,” Weissbourd explains. “If you see your child do something that’s clearly awful to another child, for example, you’ve got to step in. But most of the time, I think it’s about who is the right person to administer this discipline, and whether or not you have the trust and authority yet to be able to be effective.”

You certainly don’t want to swing so far as to adopt a permissive or indulgent parenting style, he cautions. That will bring its own set of frictions and problems down the road. But a healthy, authoritative parenting stance that fosters compassion and independence in kids relies on consistency and trust that will take some time to build. “What’s going to be more effective in the long run is the strength of relationships,” says Dr. Weissbourd. “And that’s how you’re going to be able to exercise influence.”

In the end, parents will never know which specific challenges they will face with a changing family. But with the US Census Bureau estimating that 1 out of every 3 Americans is either a step-parent, a step-child, or is part of some other form of a blended family, it’s helpful to know it’s not a unique experience. Still finding the right balance and structure for your family will require god communication, thoughtful choices and resolve.