So, you meet some fabulous new person, fall in love, and welcome them into your life. It sounds so easy on paper, but add some kids on each side and an ex-spouse or two, and it no longer seems quite so simple.
It’s not that blended families don’t or can’t work. They most certainly can, and they can become extraordinary and fulfilling relationships. However, regardless of the love and respect you each have for the other people in the family equation, it still may be challenging to blend your family. You may need to work with exes and develop new working rhythms that somehow meet the needs of everyone involved. Here are some tips and tricks for setting a good foundation for blending your family to create the most harmonious relationships possible.
Tips and Tricks for Blending Families
It’s important to understand there are typical events that blended families experience in the first four years together before they reach the “turning point” and integrate or blend more comfortably. These include changes in household composition, conflict, crisis, setting traditions, and quality time. (1) Each of these points can potentially be positive or negative and help to contribute (or not) towards a successful blending of families. Beyond these five things, it’s also essential to focus on:
Be transparent and respectful. (2) Being empathic can be hard when big things are at stake, like visitation, finances, differences in parenting morals and values. However, in the early stages, being respectful but also transparent and setting up opportunities to get on the same “parenting page” is very important.
You don’t need to agree on everything (it’s normal not to), but hone in on your big-ticket “non-negotiables” and ensure you are all on the same wavelength. Will you all choose to focus on honesty or respect in the family? Maybe you are all about routine and structure? Whatever it is, pick your battles and focus on that, rather than sweating the small stuff.
Also, be mindful of how you talk about ex-spouses in front of your stepchildren. They will naturally be protective of their birth parent. It may be alienating or hard for them to feel comfortable with direct criticism of their parent, even if they aren’t perfect, or even if you have a solid relationship with them as their step-parent.
It’s also crucial to learn how to engage in conflict successfully. Let’s face it, at some point, there will be conflict. But it’s how you choose to handle it and bounce back after an argument or issue that defines and helps build a blended family.
A good way to feel heard but still express yourself respectfully is to use the template, “I feel (insert emotion), when you (insert the thing that’s bothered you) because (tell them why it bothers you). I would prefer if (insert a solution).” Here’s an example: I feel frustrated when you don’t drop little Timmy home on time after visits because it interferes with the rest of the day’s routine and plans. I would prefer that you let me know if you will be late or early so I can be prepared. In this kind of statement, instead of blaming, you take ownership of your feelings and also offer a solution.
Create New Traditions
Traditions tell us who we are and where we belong in the world. Having family traditions is beneficial for children because it anchors their childhood and provides them with memories or expectations around particular/special events. It also creates a sense of identity, strong relationships, a sense of predictability, self-esteem, self-acceptance, safety, and later in life, nostalgia. (1) Creating new traditions helps you set the tone for your new blended family. It helps determine what you stand for and helps create and cement memories and strong relationships as you create a narrative about who your family is and what you do together as a unit.
Blending won’t happen overnight. It takes persistence, and you need to keep in perspective that this is a long-term goal. Take your time developing fragile new relationships. Don’t rush them. Don’t be disheartened if things aren’t perfect immediately or aren’t perfect on your first attempt at being a blended family. Try, try again. And be kind and gentle with yourself while you work it out.
Be a Team
Try and develop a family motto or crest. Involve the kids in family meetings. Ask them about discipline and consequences as well as family rules. Being a blended family often means cooperation and collaboration to reach a group consensus (not everyone has to agree, but the majority is a good start). Like any good team, figure out who is good at what and work to your strengths. Are you the organized one? Is your partner the gentle and more emotionally intuitive parent? Is one of your kids a born leader and one naturally good at remembering things? Find tasks within the family to fit the person’s skills and strengths to build a sense of unity in your blended family.
Routine and Predictability
These are two things that keep kids feeling safe and secure. When they feel safe, they better explore their environment and world. They are also more open to learning and feel more confident. Although the kids might be juggled between two or more households, see if you can find some predictability with a routine that all parties can agree upon.
Maybe the bedtime routine remains the same regardless of which house they are at (bath, pajamas, story, and a cuddle before bed). Maybe your child has one bedtime story or toy they take between houses for a sense of comfort and consistency. Perhaps they have a replicated wardrobe (or a few essential items like the same shirt or favorite sweater). Or they eat the same cereal. Not everything has to be the same, as each family within the overarching blended family is different, but these things can certainly help smooth transitions and moving between homes.
Remember, there is no one right way to blend your family or go through the process of “blending.” (1) Each family and individual within the family is unique. So although these are tips that can support the process, each person will have different needs and wants. Acknowledging that is incredibly important. The bottom line is to keep working, keep trying, and give yourself and your family members grace.
Baxter, Leslie A.; Braithwaite, Dawn O.; and Nicholson, John H., “Turning Points in the Development of Blended Families” (1999). Papers in Communication Studies. 102.
Portrie, T., & Hill, N. R. (2005). Blended families: A critical review of the current research. The Family Journal, 13 (4). 445-451.