From “The Brady Bunch” to “Modern Family,” blended families have long been portrayed with hijinks and humor in popular culture. But for the millions of real-life divorced moms and dads who have seriously coupled up again or remarried — and statistics from the U.S. Census say that 75 percent do — forging a life with a new partner and their respective kids doesn’t come with a laugh track.
Learning to navigate familial relationships in a newly formed household is tricky. Movement to and from the homes of other biological parents and grandparents becomes more complicated. Ironing out where and how children will spend birthdays, holidays and other special occasions can make for tense moments and hurt feelings. Coordinating parent-teacher conferences and other school-related events turns into an even more delicate dance.
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Couples naturally view a new marriage as the beginning of something fresh and wonderful, but when that marriage is also bringing together previously self-contained family units, settling into happily ever after isn’t so simple.
Be sensitive — and sympathetic
Integrating two households places children on a roller coaster ride of emotions. The increased structure of a two-parent home, for example, can be jarring to a child who had more freedom when they were living with a single parent. Sharing a home with more people can mean a loss of privacy, battles over which TV show to watch and “weird” foods in the refrigerator. And moving from a city to the suburbs, or vice versa, can be a huge culture shock. Your kids are being subjected to a host of changes; be extra sensitive to that, and their resulting feelings. Be aware, too, that younger adolescents — typically in the throes of forming their own identity — may have the toughest time adjusting.
Have answers at the ready
Maintaining a sense of security and belonging takes a lot more effort when the dynamics of a new marriage are upending a child’s day-to-day, from the mundane to the critical. Kids will have lots of questions and concerns, such as potentially moving to a new home, neighborhood or school; sharing a room, toys or clothing; having to follow a new set of rules that aren’t anything like what they’re used to; and missing out on some of the one-on-one time they previously enjoyed with their parent. To ease their fears, hold frequent family meetings where all of these things can be discussed. Let your children know what’s changing and what will remain the same, and encourage them to voice every worry so that you and your partner can address each one.
Defining a new normal is crucial in cementing the bonds of your family. Tackling chores, running errands and cooking dinner together (while taking turns preparing everyone’s favorite meal) can foster camaraderie and establish routine. Make time to attend a stepchild’s basketball game, school play or science fair – with or without your spouse – to show them you have a genuine interest in what interests them. For the holidays, institute a “Secret Santa” challenge that’ll inspire everyone to get to know each other better in order to come up with the perfect gift. And be sure to initiate a few new traditions that are exclusive to your blended household, rather than attempt to recreate old ones. You’ll make the holidays newly significant and set a tone for inclusion.
Read up and reach out
Books such as “Remarried with Children,” “The Smart Stepfamily” and “Who’s Who in My Family,” the latter written for young children, are excellent ways to examine and address the challenges faced by blended families. Rudy, a curious 3-year-old monster who lives on “Sesame Street,” was created to help preschoolers explore stories about siblings, blended families and conflict resolution. Online support organizations like the Step Family Foundation (stepfamily.org) and the National Stepfamily Resource Center (stepfamilies.info) also offer resources, tips and advice.
Combining separate households is a difficult task, but the sense of cohesion and kinship you’ll ultimately develop is well worth the work.
K. Lori Hanson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and chief of research, evaluation and strategic planning at The Children’s Trust, has more than 20 years’ experience assessing critical data and community research regarding the needs of children and families. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.