Blending Two Families © Martyn Carruthers 2008

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When parents remarry, the children are often confused and anxious.
They may feel that they have lost a parent and gained confusion.
Blending two families can lead to conflicts and obsessions.

Children After Divorce

After separation and divorce, many people marry again. If both partners have children, they form a new, blended family. Many remarrying parents hope that their children will effortlessly merge with the other children. Parental love should be enough, right?

Wrong. While the partners may experience joyful anticipation, their children may feel anxious and stressed. What about their relationship with their missing parents? What is the new parent like? Who are their new step-siblings? Who gets the good bedroom?

During a family breakup and the formation of a merged family, stressed children may become burdened with learning disabilities and other emotional problems.

Merging or Blending Families

When parents attempt to create a new family, custodial parents may hope that their children will enthusiastically agree with their choice of new partner. The parents may also expect that their children to agree with their reasons for separating.

My parents divorced when I was 12 and I stayed with my mother. I was distant to my
step-father even though he was good to me. It was years before I could respect him.
Now I see him as a very good man.

Each child is 50% of the other parent, and most children want to be loyal to both parents. Children may react as if any criticism of the other parent is rejection of themselves. (Many children hide this pain until adolescence.)

Feeling part of a family includes the feelings of connection often called love or emotional attachments or bonds. Children may feel stressed if they are told to pretend that these strangers are family. Children may be unable to make their feelings and behaviors comply with their parents’ wishes.

Most partners have different experiences and different parenting skills. People with little parenting experience may suddenly find themselves as step-parents of teenagers. Expect family stress as these parents struggle to catch up on years of parenting skills. Some step-parents try to leave all parenting to the biological parent or to the female partner … who may resent this lack of responsibility.

Letting Go of the Past

Expect conflicts over discipline and rules, and expect teenagers to complain and resist change. Children from one family may not want to accept another family. An oldest son may suddenly have an older step-brother. A child may suddenly be expected to look after younger step-siblings. Children are often stressed if they must change their places in a family hierarchy.

Before the attempted merger, each family had ways of doing things. They had rules and roles. Any changes in boundaries may seem uncomfortable and feel wrong. While children may not accept new rules and roles easily, a lack of boundaries is worse. Give children time, care and attention … and set limits.

After my parents divorced, my mother married a man with four children.
My mother and step-father decided to live in a very rural area. We were
city kids … we all left as soon as we possibly could. I was 17 …

Some children who change homes, districts and schools feel alone and abandoned. Some children leave or run away – perhaps into danger.

Possible Solutions

A new family may have different rules about things like homework, curfews, meals, religion, internet use and television. Parents are unlikely to please everyone. In some stepfamilies, each parent manages their own children, while others may combine rules from both households.

  1. Parents with emotional or behavioral problems can seek help.
  2. Do the parents have the appropriate knowledge on family development and requisite step-parenting skills … or do they need coaching, classes or books?
  3. Parents can talk to (not nag or lecture) and listen to their children. Many challenges of stepfamilies are normal adjustments. Parents can make space for all family members to talk to one another about problems, solutions, concerns, goals and plans at family meetings.
  4. Family meetings are a time when everybody can talk about goals, needs and solutions. Parents shouldn’t expect their ideas to be gratefully accepted immediately (or at all).
  5. Parents can meet privately to discuss their marriage, finances, children, parenting beliefs and other concerns.
  6. It is pointless to ask children to just accept their new reality – unless you can show the children why and how to accept it – and the consequences of rejecting it.
  7. Help children communicate their goals and needs clearly (e.g. I want a bigger bedroom; or I need quiet when I do my homework).
  8. Expect conflicts … for example, older children may want more time with friends while parents may want more family togetherness. How much time does each get? How is this decided? Who decides? How is this enforced?
  9. Listen to children carefully. Some goals can unite a family (e.g. family vacations) and help all move in the same direction. Listening and willingness to adjust help a stepfamily develop the tolerance and flexibility needed to survive.

Some parents have favorite or special children. Often a father favors the youngest daughter (Daddy’s Princess), while a mother may prefer the eldest son (Little Prince). During separation or divorce, favored or special children may react more strongly than other children – perhaps convinced that they somehow caused the parents’ problems.

  1. Build and reinforce feelings of inclusion and harmony
  2. Respect your children’s need for private space and time
  3. Consider moving to a home that neither has lived in before
  4. Dress codes – e.g. no walking around the house in underwear
  5. Establish the stepparents as substitutes rather than replacements

Learning Disabilities . Adjustment Disorders . Parental Alienation

If you are blending a family… be realistic. Children spell love T – I – M – E. Children need to time to trust and depend on new parents. Expect to invest a lot of time, energy, time, love, time and affection. And time.

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