Making a Blended Family Work
Katie Cooper says she heard somewhere that it takes five years for two stepfamilies to really blend. While she doesn't think it took hers that long, it wasn't all smooth sailing, either. Katie and her husband, James, have been married for six years. When they married, she had three children: a 3-year-old girl and twin boys who were just 1 year old. James had a 3-year-old girl. You might think the girls would be happy to have a new sister, but it didn't quite work out that way.
"I think it was a lot harder on my dear stepdaughter, as she was used to it only being Daddy and her, and then all of a sudden she had another sister her age and two little brothers and to top it all off this strange new mommy," says the Kansas mom. "My daughter also had problems having a new sister and having to share me with her and a new daddy. They fought constantly the first six months, always blaming each other for everything. It was a nightmare."
Since then not only have Cooper and her husband had another son together, she says that now, at age 9, the girls are best friends and they truly are one big happy family. But it took faith, prayers, love and a lot of patience.
The Coopers are among the lucky ones, not only because they solved their problems, but that their marriage survived long enough for them to be solved. According to Dr. Donald T. Saposnek, a clinical child psychologist and child custody mediator, the rate of divorce in second marriages in which there are kids from a first marriage is about 85 percent in the first year and 60 percent after that. There is also growing evidence that the children actively contribute to these breakups.
"There is a documented, lifelong trend of children wanting their parents back together," says Dr. Saposnek. "In my own practice, many have told me they consciously wake up in the morning thinking about how they can get rid of their stepmom or dad, and they act in ways that create conflict. The parent is then put in the position of who do you love more – the kids or the partner? Often, the partner gives up and leaves."
When the children in blended families are in elementary school, it poses its own unique problems. Emily Bouchard, a blended family coach and counselor and author of the e-book Conquering Conflict: Techniques and Strategies for Resolving Blended Family Conflict, explains that this age group is in a delicate transition phase when their emotional self is developing.
"At this age, they have not yet developed abstract thinking and are often looking for something concrete to hang this abstract issue on," says Bouchard. "Often, they will come up with a reason that involves them, even if it's a bizarre reason. This is an age where it's common for children to blame themselves for their parents' breakup."
Although families that are planning to blend should spend as much time together as possible, even if the families get along well, problems can still occur after the marriage.
"When people first marry or get together, there's a real honeymoon period," says Bouchard. "Also, before the marriage they're being mixed in a contrived environment where the point is to have fun. It's essential for the two families to have time together and develop a friendship and rapport, not just by having a good time, but also through games or activities where you work together as a group to get from point A to point B. This can be as simple as baking cookies together. This helps everyone to learn how to operate in a family unit."
Bouchard also highly recommends premarital counseling to be sure that both adults completely understand what the other's role is going to be. She says that often a person will hear what they want to hear rather than what their partner is saying. For example, she tells of one couple she has worked with where the wife made it clear before the marriage that she did not want to be a mother to her new husband's two kids. However, the prospective husband saw what a good mother she was to her own children and assumed it would carry over to his children. When it didn't, problems arose.
There are other problems that Bouchard sees repeatedly in families after they blend. Counseling can help the adults learn to deal with these issues, some of which may stem from problems with their previous marriages.
Here are some of the most common scenarios Bouchard sees:
You can't expect your children to become best friends with your new spouse's children, but you can demand that they treat each other with respect. Bouchard says in particular it's important for all the children to learn to respect each other's property and personal space. From the parents, Bouchard emphasizes respect, communication and clear boundaries, regardless of the ages of the children.
Shared Custody Issues
Bouchard says it can be very difficult if a child spends part of a week at one parent's and part at the other if there are very different parenting styles and house rules between the former spouses. She herself had that problem with one of her stepdaughters after she and her husband were married. Her recommendation is to allow the child a buffer time to adjust when returning from the other household. Be patient for that short time if they're whiny, wound up, sarcastic or whatever, and then gently do something very concrete to bring them back into the life of the house, such as suggesting that they help set the table for dinner. It also helps, she notes, if the family has a ritual they do every single day so the child knows that it's happening whether they are there or not. It gives a feeling of stability and connection.
Differing Parenting Styles
Just as there may be different parenting styles between ex-spouses, there may be between the new spouses. For example, a parent may be very lenient with their own children and very strict with the stepchildren. Bouchard says it's very common for discipline to go out the window because of guilt over the failed relationship. She tries to help parents see the context in which they are dealing with the children and emphasizes the importance of fairness.
While those are some possible scenarios, Bouchard says the following two points are most important because they may help families avoid the above problems:
- Give the child time. Don't expect him or her to immediately like the person you have chosen to marry or to think they're OK because you chose them. After all, your judgment has already been called into question.
- Don't bad mouth your ex. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's probably the biggest problem in divorces with children. Make no mistake, regardless of what a jerk your ex is, this hurts the children terribly and can keep them from establishing healthy relationships between both houses.
"Divorce is very difficult on children and … they may not even realize why they are upset or confused," says Bouchard. "The best thing is to be patient with the children and not be afraid of their questions. Seek to understand and be curious about the child's relationship to everything that's going on. Don't avoid it or allow your guilt to keep you from being there for the child. Remember, there is a grieving process because [you] have lost a secure relationship. Respect that process."
By the Book
When Scott Schneider was about to marry for the second time, he wanted to explain what was going on to his son, then 4, and his new wife's two children, a boy, 7, and a girl, 5. Like many parents do, he visited a bookstore, only to find that there weren't really any books that addressed stepfamilies in an informative way.
"When I talked to my son, he didn't even know what the term 'step' meant because he'd never been around any blended families at all," says Schneider. "We really had to start from scratch, and I thought it would be great if there was a children's book that could help parents with this conversation."
Schneider and his new wife, Terese, went on to write Blending My New Family. It's a look at how a family successfully blended, and it addresses issues such as sharing, which Schneider acknowledges that his son, used to being an only child, had a problem with. However, it also shows how a blended family can be a positive experience, such as his son's thrill to have a couple of extra cheerleaders when he was learning to ride a bike.
"We've had our ups and downs, but overall blending our families has been a wonderful experience," says Schneider. "This book is a wonderful vehicle for opening up topics such as what do we call the new family members. It's an example of how great it is when things go well and may encourage other families to try a little harder."