Even the happiest of families have their fair share of drama. But when you add unrelated children from two separate households into the mix, things can get complicated. We asked Ron Deal, family therapist and coauthor of Building Love Together in Blended Families, for his advice about how to make a blended family, well, blend.
But first, what is a blended family?
A blended family forms when two people who have children from their previous relationships come together to make a new family. Sometimes this new couple will have more children together too. This process of “blending families” is by no means unusual. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 50 percent of the country’s 60 million children under the age of 13 are living with one biological parent and that parent’s partner. But just because it’s commonplace doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s how to navigate this challenging (but highly rewarding) experience.
1. Give It Five Years
Becoming a brand-new happy family isn’t going to happen overnight. But you knew that one already, right? What you might not be prepared for is that the process is likely going to take years. “Most research confirms that it takes the average blended family five to seven years to integrate sufficiently to experience intimacy and authenticity in step relationships,” Deal tells us. Wowza. But the silver lining here is that parents who are in the throes of “blending” and feeling stressed out should know there’s hope. “You’re normal if you struggle in finding parental unity and if your relationship with your stepchildren feels fragile. You’re normal if you feel a little guilty that your marriage has brought more transition to your children’s lives or if you experience family togetherness one day and disconnection the next,” says Deal. “This is the path of blending, and there’s hope as long as you don’t give up on the process.” In other words, try to be patient and remember that it’s OK not to feel like one big happy family just yet.
2. Meet Kids Where They Are
“In first families, love between insiders (i.e., biological family members) is unmistakably defined and permanent, set in the concrete of DNA, family history and identity. However, love between new stepfamily members lacks clarity and history, is tentative and often feels fragile, especially to the most highly motivated person. This can leave stepparents desperate to be welcomed in but finding the door closed,” Deal explains. Sound familiar? While there’s no easy fix here, what you can do is lower your expectations for the stepparent-stepchild relationship. Instead of imposing closeness, Deal recommends having the stepparent start with behaviors the child can receive. For example, giving a stepchild a hug might be too awkward and uncomfortable. A fist bump, on the other hand, might be easier to accept. Rest assured that as the relationship grows over time, so will the expressions of love. “But it’s important to let the child determine when and under what circumstances the stepparent can enter their heart.”
3. Let the Biological Parent Be the Primary Behavior Manager
Your stepchild was supposed to take out the trash last night and yet there it is in the kitchen this morning. It’s tough, but resist the urge to step in, Deal advises.
“Behind closed doors, the parent and stepparent can talk about how to manage the home, make decisions and decide on consequences, but it needs to be the biological parent—in the first couple of years—who takes the lead in communicating those decisions.” Not only does that make it more likely that the child will actually listen but it also allows the stepparent time to bond with the child and establish their place in the home. Over time, the stepparent can become increasingly involved in disciplinary moments. One more tip: If possible, try to discuss discipline beforehand (although according to Deal, less than half of couples getting married and forming a blended family have agreed on how they’ll parent their children after the wedding). “Getting on the same page, knowing how to work together and what to expect from each’s role in the family is crucial to building love together.”
4. Expect Kindness, Not Affection
Of course, you want your stepchildren to get along. But you can’t force relationships between stepsiblings any more than you can force a stepchild to love a stepparent. What you can demand, however, is that the children are kind, fair and considerate. “There is a clear distinction here: You are not expecting familial type love or affection, but you are asking them to treat one another in the manner they would like to be treated,” says Deal. And when personalities clash or viewpoints differ, this expectation will teach the kids how to disagree without being disagreeable. Some good first steps to create a culture of kindness are encouraging stepsiblings to do things together, like organize a family cheering squad at your stepson’s next basketball game, or take everyone out for dinner at the local burger joint.
5. Create New Traditions
In the beginning, blended families don’t have family traditions. But forming your own traditions over time is super important, Deal tells us. Why? Because it helps bring definition to the family and draws people into the importance of the moment. You can do this in many different ways, but one idea is to celebrate accomplishments or birthdays as a family. “Celebrating someone’s birthday with a special tradition communicates love, value and the importance of the person—and invites stepsiblings to do the same.” Tip: Bowling, pizza and ice cream cake is never a bad idea.
6. Cook with a Crock-Pot (and Not a Blender)
A key concept from Deal’s series of books on stepparenting includes thinking about how you would cook a stepfamily. Confused? Let’s break it down: “Like cooking food in a Crock-Pot, the process of bonding in a blended family often takes a lot of time. In the stepfamily Crock-Pot, for example, someone cannot make another person love them or be open to their love. Each ingredient softens their heart and warms up to other ingredients in their own timing. Patience and gentle persistence is a must.” Conversely, using a blender is a bad idea. “That’s when someone tries to force the blend between family members by pressuring them to ‘cook.’” Parents often do this because they’re eager to see their new family come together. Here’s an example: When a mom says to her kids, “I know he’s not your dad, but call him Dad anyway,” she is trying to force a blend. This tactic will usually backfire and result in anger, resistance and resentment. The more you push, the less likely a blended family bond is going to happen. Your best bet? Try cooking with a Crock-Pot instead.