The “traditional” families we’ve always read about and seen in old movies are no longer the norm. The one mom, one dad, two kids and a dog formula is not the only kind of family we see in portraits today. These days, there are more blended families than ever—in all different kinds of combinations.
Whether it’s because of disagreement, death or divorce, many people do not have one lifetime partner. According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. For those who remarry, a blended family is often the result. In fact, the US Census Bureau reports that more than 50 percent of the nation’s 60 million children are living with one biological parent and that parent’s partner.
What Is a Blended Family?
The definition of a blended family is when two people who have children from previous marriages or relationships come together to form a new family. Sometimes the new couple have has a child (or more!) together too.
When you think about blended families, there is one famous clan that comes to mind: The Brady Bunch. Mrs. Brady and her “three very lovely girls” joined forces with Mr. Brady, “who was busy with three boys of his own.” Together, mom, dad and the six kids were a prime example of a blended family. Through The Brady Bunch, we all saw the blended family problems that can arise, as well as what it can mean to be a happy blended family.
Blended families aren’t just featured on TV Land reruns anymore. There are plenty of real-life, well-known blended families. If you can keep up with them, the Kardashians show us what it’s like to be a blended family every week. When Kris Kardashian married Caitlyn Jenner (who was then known as Bruce), she brought along her four kids from another marriage and blended them with Jenner’s children from her previous relationships. The couple later had two additional kids together.
Effects of Blended Families on Children
Just like in “traditional” families, there are always bumps in the road. According to the American Psychological Association, research shows kids ages 10 to 14 have the hardest time adjusting to stepfamilies, while those under 10 are more accepting. When it comes to children 15 and older, they may be less interested in the whole blended family component. “It’s like adding another element to a mobile. The whole system has to adjust,” says family therapist and best-selling author Alyson Schafer. “It’s reestablishing who I am in this new formulation of people.” No matter the children’s age, there are always pros and cons of blended families.
Advantages of Blended Families
While there may be difficulties that come with blended families, research shows there are positive aspects of a blended family:
- More Role Models. With a larger extended family in blended families, there are more people for children to look up to and emulate.
- Happier Parents. Parents who are remarried are generally happier than they were in their previous relationships. Happier parents give kids a more stable home and teach children that marriage can really work.
- Improved Standard of Living. If kids are going from a single-parent household to a blended family, there may be more financial stability.
Blended Family Advice
We all know blended families are not going to achieve “Brady bliss” immediately. Even after their parents say “I do” to their new marriages, some kids are still saying “I don’t.” Many blended family problems are common, and knowing how to deal with them to create a happy blended family is important.
Different Parenting Styles. Each parent has developed a different approach to parenting, and adjusting to different parenting styles in a blended family can be hard on the children (and parents!) in the beginning. In an interview with Good Morning America, psychologist Janet Taylor says, “Come from a nurturing standpoint, where you teach them responsibility, but do it from a place of love.”
Stepparent Not Getting Respect. This is a big one when blending families. Those who have been divorced say gaining the respect of their new stepchildren is difficult. The advice? While you can’t make everyone love one another, you can demand respect for one another. “Don’t take it personally,” Schafer says. “It’s an adjustment time for kids.”
Stepsibling Rivalry. Sibling rivalry is inevitable. When it happens in stepfamilies, experts advise not to take sides. Instead, listen to what all the kids have to say, then try to referee as fairly as possible.
Expecting Too Much. Even Mike and Carol Brady didn’t get the love of their stepchildren from the get-go. Don’t expect your new stepchildren to show the same affection toward you that you do toward them. Just keep on chugging along, knowing that someday it will be returned and blended family bliss is achievable.
Trying to Discipline Too Soon. You can’t act like the new sheriff in town when you’re in a blended family. Psychologists advise actually developing a parenting plan where the stepparent takes a secondary, nondisciplinary role for the first year or two. “Let the biological parent deal with the discipline,” Schafer says. This can help in adjusting to different parenting styles in a blended family.
Stepchild Resentment. If you started dating your current spouse after a split, your new stepchildren may harbor resentment toward you. Instead of getting angry, the advice here is to try to stay friendly and positive. Forming a blended family often means a move for one or both families, and that can cause further resentment. “Parents need to understand there is grief involved. There is the death of the old arrangement,” Schafer says. Schafer says it’s important for kids to know it’s okay to be sad and to cry. The key is to get kids talking, whether it’s at home or with the help of a third party like a therapist.
Child Feels Overwhelmed. A new home and a new family are a lot for anyone to take in at once, let alone new stepchildren or stepsiblings. Doctors advise nurturing existing family relationships. Set aside some one-on-one time with your own children before bringing your partner’s children fully into the picture.
Squash the Need to Compete. If you feel the need to compete with your stepchild’s biological parent to gain love and respect, squash it like a bug. The advice here is to uphold the biological parent and just be the best “you” you can be.
Connecting With a Stepchild. After you’ve formed a blended family, there is a need to connect with the new children in your life. Sometimes making that connection is difficult. One piece of blended family advice is discovering your stepchildren’s interests and building a friendship first, then growing that relationship into a more parental role. “Find activities you can do together. As the relationship improves in time, the rudeness quotient will decrease,” Schafer says. “The No. 1 job is to create a relationship with that child.”
Establish a Family Meeting. Family meetings are a helpful way to coexist as a blended family. “Family meetings help to cocreate the rules as well as the consequences for breaking those rules,” Schafer says. Since everyone has talked about it ahead of time, this can also help with discipline.
Finding happiness as a blended family is a work in progress. Don’t give up!
Blended Family Personal Story
For more inspiration, read Kim and Jason’s story below about how this couple from Linden, New Jersey, navigated the challenges and reaped the benefits of their blended family.
“My name is Kim, and my husband is Jason. We are a blended family of three with one on the way. My husband was married before me and had a daughter with his ex-wife. Caitlin was a little over a year old when we got together (she will be 7 this August). She took to me right away, which I think was a huge advantage, since she doesn’t really know life without me in it. She was a baby, so I never really got the whole “I don't have to listen to you, you’re not my mom” bit; I’m her “bonus mom”I take care of her when her mom isn’t around. When she was younger, people would say Mommy and Daddy around her, referring to my husband and me, and she always found the need to correct them. As she got older, we explained that people who don’t know our situation will probably say that, and it’s okay, we know where Mommy really is.
Coparenting took a little while for me to adjust to, since I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, first as the girlfriend and then the wife. My husband had always said that he wanted Caitlin to see me as a parent and a figure of authority, and that it was okay for me to tell her “no” and discipline her for her actions, like hitting or biting when she was 2 through being disrespectful and talking back now at 6 1/2. The plus side is that she’s truly a great kid and usually doesn’t need to be disciplined.
I think the reason for that is how we all coparent. Caitlin’s mom is in a relationship, and her boyfriend lives with them. The four of us take care of Caitlin together. A lot of it has to do with communication with how to handle different situations, both between her parents and their significant others. Each home has a different routine when it comes to homework or chores, but Caitlin knows what is expected of her in each of our homes. If something comes up at either house, usually the communication is between her mother and father with how to handle it, but if her dad is away on military, I step in and have the conversation with her mother. By no means did this happen overnight. There was a lot of trial and error with each parent’s expectations of Caitlin and how to attain them, even if her parents didn’t always agree. My husband and I have been together almost six years and the last two have really been the best. We go to Caitlin’s events together, have celebrated her birthday as a group and can consider one another friends. It’s okay to have different expectations of Caitlin, as long as the goal of success and respect for others is the same.
With our new baby on the way, Caitlin is super-excited. She has been asking for a baby brother or sister for years. When we went through fertility treatments, we kept Caitlin informed for the most part. She would ask why I was always getting blood work done or needing to give myself shots; she thought I was sick. That’s when we decided to explain to her that it was all for having a baby so she could be the big sister she wants to be. My husband and I told her pretty early on in the pregnancy, and she could have run to the moon and back with her excitement. Her mother is happy for us as well, since we kept her informed of the process. Caitlin did express to us at one point that she was worried we wouldn’t have time for her and that we’d be too busy with the baby to help her with her homework. We told her that would never be the case and that the baby isn’t any more important than she is, but that there might be times the baby needed one of us at that moment but she could help with whatever that was. We never want her to feel left out. From the start of our relationship, Jason had Caitlin calling my parents Grandma and Grandpa in Portuguese since that’s what our children will call them. We’ve wanted Caitlin involved in this pregnancy from the start, giving her visual and tactile ways of knowing how her little brother is growing in my belly. At my baby shower she willingly began to feel my belly for his movements or to talk to him (she thought it was weird until then). We know she will be a great big sister once baby brother arrives in August. Who knows, maybe it will be her birthday present.”
Published June 2017