Not all blended families are alike. Some have young children; others, teenagers or young adults. Some are the result of divorce, while others come after the death of a spouse. However, there is one thing every stepfamily has in common: family members have a history that involved at least one other parent and spouse. Memories of the past may be pleasant or painful, but those memories do influence attitudes and emotions.
Challenges for blended families include:
- Achieving marital intimacy after being hurt
- Parenting and step-parenting roles and rules
- Questions of spiritual integrity and church involvement
- How to integrate the members of a stepfamily over time
- Dealing with ex-spouses and co-parenting issues
- Helping children emotionally and spiritually
- Handling sexual pressures between step-siblings
- Issues of money management and financial autonomy
Parent – Child Discussion IdeasListening to teens is particularly important when rules are changing, or unwanted transitions in the family are taking place. Adolescents need to know they are being heard and that their opinions are being considered. Especially when their thoughts are not changing your mind or the circumstances, take the time to hear and show them you understand their feelings.
- What losses has he or she experienced?
- How do the other members of our stepfamily treat this person? How do I treat him or her?
- What is it like for each child to live in the other home?
- What challenges does he or she face in trying to belong?
- What responsibilities, roles, relationships, etc., does he or she have that I don’t have to deal with?
- What is his or her favorite part of this family?
- What part does he or she care for the least?
It can take two to three years for a blended family to begin to think and act like a family. It takes the average stepfamily around five to seven years to integrate sufficiently to experience intimacy and authenticity in step-relationships.
Understand each person’s individual journey
Here are some helpful questions to promote conversation and discussion amongst family members:
- After death: What is one really good memory of your deceased parent? Share one way your life changed after they died.
- After divorce: What were the good and bad of your parents’ divorce for you? How did your life change after that?
- What have you lost that hasn’t been regained?
- What do you think has changed for others?
- During the single-parent years, what was good or okay for you? What was painful? How was life different for you?
- As much as you can remember, what were your daily schedule and responsibilities when we were a single-parent family?
- Share a first impression of you future stepparent/stepchildren.
- When we were dating, what did you grow to look forward to? What concerned you?
- How did life with your mom/dad/children change once the remarriage occurred?
- What hopes or dreams did you have for this stepfamily that have already been fulfilled? Which ones haven’t come about yet?
- What painful emotions have you been feeling lately?
- What fears do you have about this stepfamily or yourself?
With older children and teens, describe insider and outsider positions in the family. First, ask everyone to share with whom they are an insider and outsider and how it feels in that position. Then discuss what it would be like to be in the other’s (insider/outsider) shoes.
Discuss the common myth of instant love and share how you envision love developing between stepfamily members.
End your journey session in prayer.
Eventually, biological parents must make choices that elevate the status of the stepparent, and more important, the couple as a unit. It’s the biological parent who ultimately has the responsibility to elevate the status of the stepparent and the marriage in the family.
The answer to the parent-child allegiance barrier to marital oneness is unity. Stress in a stepfamily generally divides people along biological lines. When push comes to shove, the allegiance (or loyalty) between parents and children often wins out over the marriage unless the couple can form a unified position of leadership. If they cannot govern the family as a team, the household is headed for anger, jealousy, and rejection.
Unity within the couple’s relationship bridges the emotional gap between the stepparent and stepchildren and positions both adults to lead the family. If the biological parent is not willing to build such a bridge with the stepparent, the children will receive an unhealthy amount of power in the home. All they have to do is cry “unfair” and their parent protects them from the “mean, nasty” stepparent. This almost always results in marital tension, conflict, resentment, and isolation.
What does a healthy co-parent relationship look like?
The following material is derived from the book, Indicators of Healthy Co-Parenting by Tammy Daughtry, MMFT, Co-Parenting International
Rate your co-parenting relationship on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following:
1 = Not at all, 2 = Rarely, 3 = Occasionally, 4 = Often, 5 = Always
______ We give our children the freedom to love both parents.
______ I believe my child’s well-being is directly affected by the quality of relationship I have with their other parent.
______ The transition between our homes is smooth and positive.
______ We discuss and deal with financial matters in a rational way.
______ We intentionally plan out the details of Christmas and other holidays to minimize the stress.
______ We make it possible for our children to love and maintain ties with both extended families.
______ We enjoy being at our children’s functions and are there to enhance our children’s happiness.
______ I think the more functional my relationship is with my ex, the less likely it is that our children will engage in high-risk behaviors.
______ We recognize the developmental stages of our children and let them enjoy their childhood.
______ We take care of responsibilities as adults and do not put pressure on the children to do our jobs.
______ We allow and encourage our children to take specific clothing, toys, and electronic devices between their homes.
______ We encourage our children to have photos of their other parent (and family) in their bedroom.
______ We tell our children it is okay to talk about how much they miss the other parent.
______ I discuss specific parenting strategies with my ex.
______ We speak highly of the other parent to our children, with at least three specific compliments.
______ We prioritize our time with the children and are fully engaged with them and focus on them.
______ We communicate regularly with our co-parent at predesignated meetings or telephone calls.
______ I do not get upset when our child seeks out the other parent after a game or event.
______ We do not allow or utilize the children as messengers or “go-betweens” on anything.
______ We incorporate other friends and activities into our lives to enhance our self-care and happiness.
______ When we are both present at the same event we do not use the opportunity to discuss family business.
______ We are working with our co-parent and stepparents to raise healthy and well-adjusted children.
______ I can see a positive difference in my children as a result of our co-parenting efforts.
______ I know why co-parenting is so vitally important to the well-being of my children and stepchildren.
______ It makes sense to me that the well-being of my children/stepchildren is dependent on the relationship with the other parents(s) involved.
Interpretive Guide to Above Results:
Thriving Children – 96-125 Points.
Struggling Children – 71-95 Points.
Distressed Children – 0-70 Points.
The Parental Unity Rules
- Be proactive. Don’t wait until problems occur to discuss behavioral expectations, preferred methods of punishment and consequences to be enforced, and the values you wish to instill in the children.
- When in doubt, call a parental pow wow. Don’t act before you are in agreement.
- If the biological parent doesn’t appreciate how the stepparent handled a given situation, have a private discussion.
- Make changes. Pow wow in order to find unity in the new expectations. In general, communicate changes in rules or expectations to the children together. Let the biological parent take the lead. There may be times when the biological parent would want to privately discuss the changes with a child. It is not a time for the child to negotiate changes, but a time to express an opinion, or to get privacy for a matter best handled by the biological parent.
Evolving Parenting and Stepparenting Roles
Time with Stepchildren
- This model of parent-stepparent roles seems to work for most stepfamilies. There is no universal way to work out your parent-stepparent roles. Be sure you are unified in evaluating your approach and step carefully together.
- Early on, biological parents need to remain primary caregivers and disciplinarians. Handing off the children to the new stepparent often sabotages his or her ability to build a relationship.
- Early on, parents should empower stepparents by communicating to the children their expectation of obedience. Later, even if you disagree with what the stepparent has done in our absence, support their position with the children. Then take your disagreement behind closed doors and work out a unified plan and consequences for the next offense.
- Stepparents need to grow into their relationship with stepchildren. Be friendly and support the house rules. Seek to be adaptable to your stepchildren and enjoy the relationship you have.
- Encourage and insist that children maintain regular, consistent contact with the parent living in the other home. Do your best to have a functional co-parent relationship.
- Let children set the pace for their relationship with the stepparent. Consider each child individually. Give and expect affection, nurturing, and emotional sharing only to the degree children appear open to it.
- Parents should consider stepparents’ input into child rearing. It is easy for parents who are used to having complete control over their children to discount the stepparents’ perspective. Keep in mind that, as outsiders, stepparents can see things your blind spots prevent you from seeing. Listen and consider their input.
- Stepparents need to learn to be a nonjudgmental sounding board for parents. When parents get frustrated with their own children, they may confide in the stepparent. However, stepparents who begin to agree and add their own frustration may find their spouse reversing position to defend the child. The parent-child bond is indeed a protective one. Stepparents would do well to listen and affirm without criticizing the child.
- Finally, but more importantly, effective parent-stepparent teams begin with healthy marriages. Take time to nurture your relationship, date on a regular basis, learn to communicate and resolve conflict, and enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. Make your marriage a priority!
“Crosswalk,” courtesy of Christin Hume, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Gap,” courtesy of Anton Darius Sollers, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Kiss,” courtesy of taoheed_kasumu, pixabay.com, CC0 License