With one in three couples getting divorced and the majority of divorced couples remarrying, blended families are becoming increasingly common. Our expert clinical psychologist, Dr Victoria Samuel, advises on how to make the best of your new grouping.
A blended family is formed when a couple moves in together, bringing children from previous relationships into one home. Not surprisingly, the path to a happy household in many blended families is steep with considerable obstacles to navigate on route.
Here are six top tips for avoiding common blended family pitfalls.
Be prepared for intense feelings
For a new blended family to be formed, a breakdown of an original family must happen, so it’s normal for children to experience intense and sometimes overwhelming feelings: anger, disappointment, sadness, grief, guilt, worry and insecurity. When parents remarry or move in with a new partner who has children from a pre-existing marriage, a child faces further threats to his sense of stability.
Although it can be upsetting to see your child miserable about the relationship which makes you happy, bear in mind that dismissing their feelings is likely to make their insecurities grow, not disappear. Feelings are real - no matter how inappropriate, extreme or frustrating you find the emotional tidal wave you are facing, your child needs to have their feelings accepted and supported.
Paraphrase what your child says - “Hmm, it sounds like you’re finding all the changes unsettling” and indicate that what they are feeling is normal - “that’s understandable”. If your child is reluctant to talk, try guessing at their underlying emotions with tentative, gentle questions: “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that we don’t get as much time together anymore?” or “I imagine it must be really tough not having your own room anymore?” Listen to their responses without judgement or suggesting immediate solutions, and convey an acceptance of their experiences with concern and empathy.
Bear in mind that children aged 10 to 15 (particularly girls) may find the adjustments of blended families especially challenging. To reduce resistance, it may be helpful if your partner avoids stepping into the disciplining role before having spent time developing a relationship with your older child. Also, it’s tactful to avoid overt physical demonstrations of affection as children in middle childhood and early adolescence will find this unsettling (or, in their words, “gross”).
Just because you adore your partner, it doesn’t mean your children will. Your child did not choose to form a new family, and may have little invested in trying to make it work.
Even if you’re starting to notice you’re getting along better, expect setbacks along the way. Rifts are common around life transitions or events, such as changing school or ill health, which drain your coping resources and leave children feeling more vulnerable than normal. Celebrations such as Christmas and birthdays also tend to be particularly fraught - they have high emotional significance and, as landmarks in the year, may trigger feelings of sadness about how things used to be.
You might also find that just when you’re starting to get on well with your partner’s child, they suddenly become cold and distant. It’s possible that this is triggered by confusing feelings of guilt; an unsettling sense of being disloyal to the natural parent they no longer live with.
Finally, don’t expect to instinctively love your partner’s child in the same way as you love your own children. Allow time for the relationship to evolve and grow and encourage a bond by showing an interest in your partner’s child’s life and hobbies, accepting their feelings and putting aside time to spend together doing fun things.
Respect space and privacy
In blended families, trouble with territory can frequently cause simmering tension and full-scale battles. When children who previously had their own rooms are forced to share, this can be especially problematic. If there isn’t enough space for each child to have their own room, ensure there is an allocated area of the room just for them. Create dividers in a shared bedroom with curtains or inventive re-arrangements of the furniture. Also provide them with somewhere to put their special belongings – a box or drawer that is respected by other family members as a private no-go zone.
Agree rules and roles
All children test boundaries, and discipline is a challenge for parents at the best of times, but in blended families imposing limits can be especially tricky. It’s absolutely crucial to show a united front. The younger family members need to know that rules will be consistently and fairly applied, by both adults, to all children in the family.
To help encourage a consistent approach, take time to openly discuss your parenting values with your new partner. Talk about those taken-for-granted beliefs you have about family life: what behaviour you expect and what you won’t tolerate. Highlight any areas in which you and your partner share different beliefs and try to compromise on some clear family rules which you agree with all family members.
Although these rules need to be consistent, they should also be flexible; review them from time to time and adjust them as children get older. Remember that a peak of difficult behaviour is normal when blended families initially set up a home together. Be patient and things will gradually improve.
Set Aside Quality One to One Time
Children crave individual attention, and regular time alone with your child is crucial if you are to maintain a close and open relationship with them and help support them through the changes they are facing. When families merge, it’s almost inevitable that children feel jealous and pushed out - envious both of the closeness between you and your new partner as well as the relationships you are forming with your partners’ children. They’re also likely to feel sad about the loss of the special times they had with just you before the two families merged.
Make sure that you and your partner schedule in regular time alone with each of your own children. One to one time doesn’t have to involve a flashy activity or expensive trip out. A walk or drive in the car can be great for catching up and reconnecting.
Time alone with your partner is also crucial. When couples move in together they normally spend a lot of time building their relationship. However, for couples with children, this often gets overlooked. Don’t feel guilty about spending time alone without the children; a strong and solid relationship between you and your partner is vital if you are to build a stable, secure family home together.
Encourage a Problem-Solving Approach
It’s inevitable that you will encounter difficulties as you settle into a new way of life. There will be clashes of opinion, hurt feelings, frustrations and bickering. A great way of avoiding simmering resentment is to arrange regular family meetings. Take it in turns to chair the meeting and avoid interruptions and shouting with the pass the stone technique: to be allowed to talk at the meeting, the "stone" (a pen or apple or whatever you have to hand!) has to be in the speaker’s hands. There is only one stone, so only one person talks at once. Be sure to let everyone have their turn and listen carefully and attentively to each family member’s opinion.
Try to adopt a solution-focused approach in which the aim is to identify practical strategies for avoiding problems in the future. Encourage your children to think of ideas – you will be surprised at the creativity and maturity children show when given the chance to solve their own problems.
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