by Kerry Hart
Blended families have become more prevalent within recent decades. As parents move on from previous relationships and meet new partners, power issues and loyalty conflicts can provide roadblocks on the path to merging families. When a parent meets a new partner, they may have a grand fantasy about how their own personal Brady Bunch will operate as a family. It’s important that new partners discuss parenting styles before moving in together; there are plenty of topics that this discussion should touch on.
I encourage you to avoid gender specific roles.
If both partners have children, there will need to be a blending of parenting styles. The couple will want to examine what their future family system might look like should the parenting styles blend and what kinds of challenges might arise. If both partners utilize the same parenting style there will be minimal problems; however, this tends to be more unlikely than the alternative. Despite the selected parenting style, it is generally accepted that the biological parent should be responsible for their own child’s discipline. Some women will pass discipline roles to her new husband if she feels that the male in the relationship should be the disciplinarian. I encourage you to avoid gender specific roles. Your child will be dealing with a lot of changes and it is easier for them to take direction from the parent that has been with them from day one, particularly at first.
Once the new couple moves the families in together, there might be some discomfort or tension within the home. Despite the adults having already discussed their parenting styles, the kids will have a reaction to their new living situation. The new co-parents might find their children inventing reasons for conflict, creating even more tension in the household. Perhaps one household had a bedtime of 8 p.m. and the other household had a bedtime of 8:30 p.m. While this seems minimal, any parent who has tried to put a child to bed will know that these small situations can erupt into a catastrophe. This is the type of family rule that will need to be discussed and agreed on as a family unit. As these new family members get to know each other and their roles within their new family system, there will most likely be struggles related to differences between the family members as well as the differences between the two family systems. It is important now more than ever that the couple makes a point to continually check in with each other. It is important for the adults in this situation to have open communication in order to avoid misunderstandings and causes for conflict.
Change is not easy for adults or children, but it is important to remember that the children in this situation will be reacting to decisions the adults in their lives have made. It is important for the adults to display a united front while taking the children’s feelings into account. Each parent can make a point to have one-on-one time with each of their children to check in and see how the transition has been going for them. Encourage your children to be honest about their feelings and reassure them that they are doing so in a safe space where they will not be punished for the honest revelation of their feelings. I encourage you to listen to your child, as this is their household too. Listen to any suggestions that might make the transition easier for them and discuss them with your partner. This allows the child to feel as though their opinion has value, but also solidifies the hierarchy within the family unit.
Eventually, the stepparents will become closer to their new stepchildren. Once the stability has been established, children will tend to be more open to letting in their new stepparent. It is my suggestion to allow the child to take the lead on this rather than forcing them to be in a relationship with a stepparent for which they might not be ready. Allowing the new relationship to grow on its own will help make it more authentic and reliable. Be forewarned that it can take families years to get to this step, but with the right attitude, your children will learn to embrace these changes as they grow with your new family. Be sure to normalize the challenges your child faces, or you may find that your new family will get stuck in their development, in which case, I encourage you to seek help from either a parenting expert or a family therapist.
Allowing the new relationship to grow on its own will help make it more authentic and reliable.
There are many factors that can affect family functioning. When entering into a new living situation with a new family, it is important to acknowledge the familiar; embrace family traditions that your children have enjoyed, like dinner together on weeknights, pizza Sundays, or the agreed upon bedtime routine. Change can be particularly stressful, so make a point to keep familiar traditions a priority. As the co-parents within the household, ensure you are on the same page and can provide support to your children as they go through this transition with you.
Kerry Hart, LLMFT is a family therapist located within Grand Rapids Natural Health. She specializes in the treatment of children, teens, couples, and families.