Hands down, bringing two households together to form a stepfamily can be hard work and the art of ‘blending’ is often more difficult than first anticipated. The impact children have on the survival of the stepfamily is great and this is only compounded when stepsiblings do not get along. This can place substantial strain on a couple’s relationship; thus, placing the stepfamily unit at risk. With stepfamilies facing the highest rate of break-up during the first 2 years it is essential for couples to approach merging their families from a systematic standpoint.
First and foremost, couples need to plan, plan, and then plan some more! Not enough can be said about the importance of planning and its function in preserving the stepfamily unit. From informing one’s own children of his/her intention to remarry to aspects of daily living in the new family unit, tensions between stepfamily members can be eased by a well-thought out plan as it provides much needed structure. It is also good for soon-to-be stepchildren to be afforded the opportunity to get to know each other before adults remarry and everyone finds himself or herself living under the same roof.
It is important to remember that for most children the forming of a stepfamily indicates the death of the first family. The remarrying of a parent to another adult also dashes children’s hopes that their biological parents will get back together. Leaving children with a sense of loss, many are confused about their new role in the blended family. For example, an older child may no longer be the eldest in the stepfamily and a single child may now be faced with sharing with stepsiblings.
Couples can help ease this transition by establishing and helping everyone understand the 3Rs: rules, roles and responsibilities. The 3Rs help create structure in the stepfamily unit. Roles and responsibilities in stepfamilies do not evolve along the natural trajectory as they do in the biological family. Given this it is important for each stepfamily member’s role and associated responsibilities to be understood. In addition, rules for the household are important. The children’s involvement in the creation and implementation of certain household rules is important as this empowers each person in the stepfamily. And while the adult couple makes final decisions, eliciting feedback and allowing influence from the stepchildren works to develop and eventually strengthen stepfamily bonds.
Another important step to helping stepchildren adjust to each other and the new family structure involves giving little tokens of appreciation. Stepfamilies are often experienced as an “instant family,” rather than a biological, or first family, which goes through the traditional motions to assemble and build the family unit. Given this, attention needs to be placed on developing these relationships and then maintaining them. Gestures that show gratitude such as saying hello and offering a smile go a long way in this endeavor. Such greetings can even be incorporated into the new family’s household rules. In addition to communicating a degree of respect, such tokens of appreciation lay the needed groundwork to slowly unite family members.
Combined, these strategies can go a long way in starting the stepfamily off on the right foot and in helping children adjust to their new step relationships. It is important to remember that relationships in a stepfamily take time and once established, need continued nurturing. Despite the effort, though, step relationships can be very rewarding.
In the beginning, one-on-one activities between stepfamily members can lesson the insider/outsider dichotomy that is heightened in ‘all together’ activities. Such gatherings should take place, but a mentality of ‘less is more’ will help ease the transition into stepfamily life. Gradually over time ‘all together’ activities will come more naturally and can be extended with greater acceptance from the stepchildren. Throughout this it will always be important for biological parent and child to spend one-on-one time together.
It is important that couples keep communication between them open, as this will help stepchildren through this transition. It will also further enable the adults to provide emotional support for their children and each other. While combining households can be a difficult process, it can be very rewarding. With more than half of American families being stepfamilies, the need for a focus on and understanding of stepfamily dynamics could not be greater. Here it is vital to remember that bumps in the road arise from the ‘step’ situation and not from anyone individual.
As Tampa Bay’s go-to stepfamily resource, Success for Steps ( http://www.successforsteps.com/ ) may be a useful resource for helping stepchildren transition into stepfamily life.