It takes a lot of courage to blend a family. Each blended family is unique and has varying challenges but every blended family requires a lot of adjusting for everyone involved. Often divorced parents feel guilty about what the divorce has done to their children, and they feel their guilt magnified by putting their children through adjusting to a blended family.
Blending families really amounts to meeting and learning to live with new people. Blending families isn't putting your kids to work in factories and coal mines when they are children. Blending families asks the kids to learn to play well with others. This is a challenge. But challenges are good for children. Few people with intact families would suggest that the right way to raise children is to coddle them and make them feel like the center of the universe. That is the way to raise a generation of narcissists. So, challenging our children to integrate their family with step siblings, cooperate, share, and learn to love each other can really prepare them to adjust to mission companions, college roommates, and ultimately spouses in their own future families.
While every blended family is a little different, here are some considerations that will make blending a family easier.
1. The step parent should ease in to the parental role very slowly. Allow the children to call their step-parent by their first name if they choose. Leave most of the discipline to the natural parent who has raised the child to that point. Encourage the children to bond with their step-parent more like a friend at first. Delay heavy-handed discipline by the step-parent until the children thoroughly love and trust him or her. We have personally experienced this working in our own family. We have never had one of the children say, "you're not my dad." Often we are anxious to be a "real" family and we try to force it. Remember that "this stew takes a long time to cook." A family is built and marinated in love, not in roles or positions that must be reinforced by force or manipulation. Your family is unique and it will evolve how it was meant to with lots of love and attention, and a culture that honors agency.
2. Consider family cultures. Each family develops its own culture as it is established and grows. Some families are more permissive and others more strict and structured. No two families are exactly alike, and blending them together can present unique opportunities. You might decide to simply let each set of children live by the rules they are used to. However, how is that going to work when one set of children gets to stay out late on the weekends and the other has to come home early? How does that work when one set of children are not used to doing household chores and the other is? Consider holding a family meeting (or possibly many meetings) about blending cultures and family rules, and be very intentional about getting buy-in from all of the children regarding family rules. Of your family rules and culture evolved informally and you may not even be conscious of all of them. So you may need periodic meetings as you establish your family and moving forward to resolve the issues that arise. A step family situation presents a unique opportunity to be intentional about both your written and unwritten family norms and rules.
3. Both families must be flexible. Blended families are complicated. The children from both prior families are each getting used to a step parent and step siblings. Sometimes some of the children will be with their other parent while other children are home. It might be rare to have the entire family together for Sunday dinner based on custody schedules. It is important to maintain a level of flexibility to roll with the changing family arrangements and dynamics depending on who is home at any given time. It can be tricky helping children not to feel left out if certain family activities occur when they are with their other parent. Family members will also need to learn to be flexible with each other's preferences, which they had not been required to consider before. Learned flexibility will help your family bend but not break under the pressure of these new circumstances. That skill will serve them well in roommate or mission companionship situations, in the workplace and, ultimately, in their future marriages. Let it be a positive thing instead of something you resent or worry about.
4. Give yourself time to love your step kids. If you don't feel the same love and affection for your step kids as for your natural children at first, welcome to the human race. You have spent years caring for and bonding with your own children. A wedding does not automatically bond you to your stepchildren. We have experienced our love for our stepchildren growing into the same love we feel for our biological children. But it takes time. Your own children will want you to be more loyal to them than to your stepchildren. That can be a difficult tightrope to walk. Your own children need to be reassured of your love, without you taking on the role of the wicked stepmother who treats her her own children with obvious preference to her step kids. (All of those fairy tales aren't based in nothing.) That is one reason it is important to leave the "tough love" moments of parenting to the parent who has raised the child until there is a bond of love and trust with the step parent. Jeff takes Cathy's kids out on outings to spend one-on-one time with them regularly. They still look forward to this even though they are both teenagers. This kind of interaction has helped the kids know they're important to him and not just as an appendage to their mom. Cathy's kids were not really like Jeff's kids in the beginning. They were marinated in a different family culture. In such a situation, give yourself and your step kids some grace. Don't expect it to happen overnight. Simple and consistent effort to be loving over years matters more than grand gestures. Remember, a relationship is something you build more than something you create with a wedding ceremony.
5. Create a family identity. In a blended family, you are creating a family by choice rather than by blood. Sometimes it takes us a while to really feel like a family. Be intentional about creating family rituals. Figure out your own way to celebrate Christmas that might be a little different from the way you celebrated it in either previous family. How are you going to celebrate birthdays? What are your family themes going to be? We know a traditional family where the parents were concerned about not raising their kids on a farm with a prodigious work ethic and all of the problem solving skills you can learn from farm work. So they replaced their farm with things like violin lessons and homework time. One of their family themes is "grit." They want their children to grow up to be strong, resilient problem solvers. All of the children are growing up with that message ringing in their ears. What will your family theme be? Talk about it together and with your children and start to build a family identity around it. That kind of shared thinking will help you come together in common purposes.
Underlying these suggestions and considerations, the most important thing is to provide both sets of children with a loving and united front as a couple. You have an opportunity to show your children and your stepchildren what a loving and respectful marriage looks like. Be ready to have that kind of marriage and give them that gift. Just like the parents of intact families with one set of children, what every family needs is a mom and dad who love each other and love all their children. It is no different with blended families, it just looks a little different. A blended family can be the most beautiful blessing of your life if you are brave, flexible, innovative, and intentional.
LILY Pod Interview: Blending Families with Brittney Phillips
LILY Short: Codependency in Marriage
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