Blended families are increasingly being formed, as over half of U.S. families are remarried or recoupled. While conflict happens in all types of clans, blended families face many unique challenges. Common problems with blended families are often unanticipated, and they manifest after the new family is formed. Knowing what to expect can help you address issues before they spiral out of control, or with some planning, you may be able to avoid these problems altogether.
Common Issues in Blended Families
Although blended families can pose some difficult challenges, there are many options when it comes to finding an appropriate solution that works best for your family.
Children Have a Difficult Time Sharing Parents
Blended families may have more children than nuclear families. Two children who are accustomed to sharing their mother's love between them may find their mother's attention and time suddenly divided among five children. In addition to this reduction in time from the birth parent, children may feel that their biological parent should spend more time with them than with non-biological children.
Resolving this common issue takes a lot of time and patience, but it can be done.
- First, start the discussion before everyone is living under one roof in order to prepare your children for the change.
- Second, encourage your kids to talk openly about their feelings, empathize with them, and verbally acknowledge that having less of your time must be very hard for them.
- Third, you can make the time you spend with them of even higher quality by engaging with your kids in activities they enjoy, and connecting with them during the daily routine. For instance, talk about their school day in the car on the way to soccer practice, without the radio on. On the way back, talk about how practice went, and verbally acknowledge and reinforce their efforts.
When a blended family forms, competition between the kids can increase and become more complicated. While competition among siblings exists in all families, rivalry with non-biological siblings can be especially bitter.
To proactively deal with this, first, expect more frequent fighting. Next, encourage the children to compete against their own personal best instead of their siblings. Additionally, do not compare the kids to each other by saying things like, "why can't you be more like your sister?" And lastly, do not encourage rivalry but rather, praise and reinforce kindness between the kids.
Several aspects of forming a new family can create family identity issues for young children. One example is that if their mom and stepdad are now the primary caregivers, children could become more attached to their stepdad than their biological dad, which can be confusing for them. Another example is that if the mother changes her last name to that of her new husband while her kids keep their last name, this might cause confusion and a sense of detachment from mom.
To deal with such potential identity issues, start to have the conversation about such changes early, ideally before the blended family is officially formed. Alerting the kids to how things might change, and allowing them to express their feelings about it can help them to better adjust. In addition, if you or your partner do plan to change your last names, be prepared to talk with your kid about it before making the change; know what your rationale is for the change and plan how you will communicate it to your kids.
Mixed Feelings About a Stepparent
Another common issue is for children to feel confused about their relationship with their stepparent. While many kids might dislike the new spouse or partner at the start, positive feelings can develop fairly quickly. While this may seem like a positive thing, according to Dr. Jeanette Lofas of the Stepfamily Foundation, it can cause difficulties for children in sorting out their feelings for their biological father versus the father they live with daily.
You can preemptively address this issue by speaking with your child about how their feelings might change toward their stepparent, and that it is okay because one will not replace the other. Emphasize that it is certainly okay to love both their biological parent and their stepparent, that love is not something that comes in limited quantities. It can also be an opportunity to share with your kid that having a stepparent will increase their support system.
Two families becoming one can add to the legal issues that arose when each original family separated. In a divorce, one partner may get the family house, but when a new partner comes into the picture, the legal agreements related to the house may need to be changed. Financial difficulties can also arise from ongoing legal disputes or mediation fees.
Again, you can be proactive and plan for increased expenses before creating your new blended family. Consult with your lawyer to get an estimate and make adjustments to your budget. Also, keep the kids out of legal disputes.
Blended families often have large numbers of children, and costs for supporting a family increase. Moreover, money may be scarce because of legal fees. You can take active steps to get your family started on the right financial foot. Ideally, you could seek a financial advisor, or seek advice or ideas from friends or family. Consult a lawyer if you think you are not receiving enough child support or alimony, or if you think you are paying too much.
Children in blended families may have difficulties with one another's turf. If one half of the new family moves into the home of the other half, expect considerable amounts of fights and tears in the first few months. The children whose home it was originally may feel threatened by others taking over parts of their space; the children moving into the home may not be happy either because they may feel like the place is not "theirs" and they are not welcome.
If you can't move into a new home together as a family, try the following tips to reduce territorial issues:
- Start from square one on bedrooms: everybody swaps, even the parents.
- If there are not enough bedrooms, see if you can add another by finishing the basement or turning the den into one.
- If children must share rooms, make sure the kids have an active voice in dividing the room and decorating it.
- Clear out all drawers and closets in family spaces (supply drawers, a closet full of games) and start from scratch putting away all family members' belongings.
- Keep each family member's allotted space as equal as possible.
Remember that territory will include items as well as space. Create schedules for who may use shared family items and for how long. Encourage the children to share and provide praise or rewards when they do so.
Feeble Family Bonds
When two families combine, the new family can be disjointed at the beginning. This is especially the case when children are older since stepfamily members have not had time to grow together or develop close emotional relationships. Though disconnectedness can cause some rockiness initially, you can certainly work toward cohesion.
One way of doing this is to do pre-blended family counseling to help bring family members together before moving in together. Another way is to create family traditions unique to the new family. The traditions should be based on something everyone has in common. For instance, if you all enjoy board games, decide that Friday night will be pizza and game night. You can also, for example, have a family fantasy basketball game every year during playoffs if everyone is a basketball fan. Yet another example is to have a Christmas tree ornament for each family member that is similar in type or color, and paint the person's name on each one.
Forming and strengthening bonds in your new, blended family is important but can be difficult to do when all children also need time with their non-custodial parents. Some things you can consider doing include:
- Have all of the kids visit their non-custodial parents on the same weekend each month. This can help foster bonds with everyone in your new family rather than having the risk of forming subgroups within the blended family.
- Have all of the children go to their other parents on alternate weekends so that you have time to devote to your biological kids.
- Being organized and using a calendar (perhaps on a large whiteboard) that shows everyone's schedule. Color code them by assigning each family member a specific color.
Adjusting to a New Routine
Different families will all have their own unique routines. Blended families may face the challenge of combining two routines that don't necessarily work well together. Therefore, you want to create your own routine for your new family. This can include:
- Establishing rules and consequences for breaking them, and displaying a list of them in a common area.
Creating new curfews that work fairly for all the children. This doesn't necessarily mean they need to be the same time, but they should be similar based on age to minimize bickering.
Adjusting to new holiday needs and customs.
- Meeting periodically to discuss how the structure is working, and if adjustments need to be made.
Solving Blended Family Problems
Blended families have their own set of unique issues that may come up. While blended families may experience some challenges, these problems can be addressed with a little patience, a lot of love, and good communication.