Even in the best of circumstances, parenting is a challenging job. Step-parenting is often even harder. The reason for this is that blended families have to manage a number of unique issues that don’t typically occur in nuclear families. Listed below are some of the most common challenges faced by step-parents.
- Co-parenting with Spouses Ex – Blended families frequently must deal with the challenges of co-parenting with their spouse’s ex-wife or ex-husband. This can become particularly difficult if there are unresolved resentments from their spouse’s previous relationships.
- Divided loyalties – Children typically have loyalties to both biological parents. When children are brought into conflicts between biological parents, they are caught in a no-win scenario. If they side with dad, they often feel disloyal to mom and if they side with mom, they are being disloyal to dad. Kids can also feel disloyal if they get close to or express affection for a step-parent.
- Negotiation of parenting roles – Blended families must find ways of blending parenting styles and defining parenting roles. Strategies that worked prior to combining families may have to be changed to reflect the altered family structure.
- Respect and power issues – Blended families often struggle to find the right balance of respect, power, and control. Kids may resist having a new adult giving them directions and consequences which often leads to control battles and conflicts around respect.
- Parenting without assumption of love – In general, when a child is in a biological family, there is an assumption of love. Parents each assume that their partner loves their child and that their child loves them. In blended families, this assumption of love is not necessarily present. Just because you love your new spouse, it doesn’t mean that your children will love them or that your new partner will love your children. This can lead to mistrust and conflict if not handled effectively.
- Kids experience loss of control – Even in the best of circumstances, kids often struggle to adjust to the changes that naturally occur when families are blended. Routines change, rules change, expectations change, etc. It is not unusual for a child or teenager to say to a step-parent that: “Everything has changed since you came into the house. I wish it was like it was before.”
- Less time for the couple to bond or spend time together – Whenever you start a new relationship with existing kids, there is less time for the couple to spend time alone. It is hard to feel close to each other if you don’t spend much time as a couple.
- Whose side do you take, your kids or your spouse? – Whenever there is a conflict between the biological children and their new step-parent, the biological parent often feels caught in the middle. They may feel like they are always trying to defend one side or the other and may begin to resent their spouse for not “understanding” their child or teenager.
- Competition between new siblings – When step-siblings are brought together, there may be added competition or a struggle to redefine roles.
- Are things fair? – Are the rules and expectations the same for all kids? How is this decided? Do your teenagers or children agree? These are questions that all blended families must resolve.
- How is money spent? – A common issue in blended families is how money is spent. A common question is “Can I spend what I want on my kids without being questioned or criticized.”
- Boundary issues – Blended families must redefine boundaries. For example, what if you have teenagers who don’t respect each other’s boundaries or who have “romantic” feelings for each other?
- Defiance – A common phrase spoken by many teenagers is “You aren’t my mom (or dad) so you can’t tell me what to do. ”How the parents handle this type of issue is important to the overall well-being of the family.
- Increased awareness of sexuality – Most children don’t think of their parents as sexual beings, but this often changes when families become blended. This can lead to an increase in their own sexuality.
It is helpful to remember that the issues listed above are normal challenges that can be overcome. Listed below are some things that parents can do to make the blending of families more healthy, happy, and productive.
- Start in a new house or apartment instead of moving into someone else’s territory. – When possible, it is often helpful to start off together in a new home or apartment. This minimizes the inevitable power struggles when new people move into someone else’s space.
- Make sure that you spend time together as a couple. – The foundation of the family is the couple’s relationship. Children and teenagers feel safer when their parents are in healthy happy relationships. Make sure that you nurture your new relationship. The family will benefit from it.
- Allow time for relationships to develop. – It takes time for blended families to get to know each other. Allow time for these new relationships to develop.
- Take time with each kid in addition to time together as a family. – Each child needs individual time with both their biological parent and their step-parent. This is how relationships begin to develop.
- Don’t expect “instant love” between kids and step-parents. – There is no guarantee that your spouse will ever love your kids or that your kids will ever love your spouse. This may occur naturally over time, but it rarely happens quickly.
- Work to keep kids out of the middle of old and new conflicts. – It is important to help manage the divided loyalties. When conflicts occur between biological parents, it is important to handle these conflicts without involving the kids. The more they are pulled into the conflicts, the worse they tend to feel, which often leads to more misbehavior or conflicts at home.
- Be respectful and expect respect. – The best way to teach respect is to be respectful. Give your children respect and don’t tolerate them being disrespectful to others within the family.
- Become unified about what you are trying to teach your kids. – While parents may not always agree on the best strategy, most parents are able to agree on the things that they most want their children to learn. The clearer that you are as parents about the skills and values that you want to teach your children, the easier it is to develop strategies that work.
- Create a new family contract. – Creating a clear set of expectations, rules, and consequences allows kids to adjust more quickly. Kids will adapt if they know what to expect.
- Be willing to negotiate and be flexible. – The more you involve everyone in creating the rules and expectations, the easier it is to get buy-in. This may require you to negotiate and adapt to the changing needs of the new family.
- Remember, the biological parent has veto rights. – This rule seems obvious, but it is often unspoken. As a step-parent, you already know that the ultimate “veto” is your spouse leaving the relationship and taking their children with them. You can avoid this scenario by having realistic discussions about the roles that each parent will play and the expectations that you have of each other.
- Find ways of welcoming “visiting children”. – When a child lives primarily with another parent, they may not feel like they are a part of the family. Give them their own space in your house, so they can claim it as their own. If they can’t have their own room, you can give them their own desk, dresser, or designated space.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. – You can never communicate too much. Remember, that your children learn by watching how you handle conflict. Actively seek to resolve disagreements and spend time listening to each other.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.