By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
Although increasingly common, stepfamilies (or “blended” families) are often misunderstood. Old-fashioned types may see them as abnormal. Well-meaning “progressives” erroneously assume that blended families are the same as first-marriage families “once the dust settles.” Research and experience demonstrate, however, that “the idea that the stepfamily must match the original family is flawed. A stepfamily is an alternate, not an aberration.” (Browning, 2014)*
I am a member of two different stepfamilies: my father remarried after my mother’s death and my wife has a son from a previous marriage. In my experience blended families have all of the struggles of a “first-marriage family” as well as challenges unique to their situation. They’re also capable of great unity, affection, and joy. The following are some keys for happy stepfamilies that, while perhaps not applicable to every situation, have helped enough stepfamilies to be worth considering.
KEYS FOR SUCCESSFUL STEPFAMILIES
Don’t rush it. Blended families are usually formed after a painful event (e.g. divorce, death). Don’t rush the healing process or hurry family members to act like everything’s okay. Pushing them to embrace a new lifestyle and new family members may lead them to do the opposite. Allow as much time as necessary for the transition to happen naturally. Of course, disrespectful behavior needn’t be tolerated, but acknowledge that it’s okay for them to experience complex emotions as a stepfamily is forming.
Don’t abolish the original families. Dr. Scott Browning, a leader in stepfamily research, explains that there is “no need to destroy one family to build a new one. Multiple families can exist within the greater umbrella of the stepfamily. In fact, accepting that often eases tension.” It’s healthy for each family to retain some of their traditions and to spend time with just each other once in a while.
The biological parent should be the primary disciplinarian, at least in the beginning. The step-parent often has their work cut out for them trying to gain the acceptance of the children. Expecting him or her to be the primary enforcer of consequences will merely increase the children’s resentment. The biological parent must step up to the plate and the children should be made to understand that the step-parent has authority because they’ve been “deputized” by Mom or Dad.
Define new “house rules” together, ideally in a step-family meeting. Rules from the “first-marriage” family are often revised or dropped from the remarried family, which leads to confusion and feelings of instability. Deciding together what rules to keep, drop, and change helps to bring clarity and to unify blended families.
Establish co-parenting expectations with exes. Almost anyone who’s co-parented with an ex can tell you that chaos ensues when children have wildly different expectations and rules from house to house. Coming to an agreement is necessary. Depending on the relationship dynamics, some former couples can do this easily, while others cannot. In the case of the latter, a skilled family therapist can help establish co-parenting expectations and boundaries, with the clear understanding that therapy will be focused on agreeing on what is best for the children, not “airing dirty laundry.”
Let the kids decide whether or not to use “step” labels. Some children resent having to call an unrelated person their mother, father, sister, or brother, while others embrace it. Don’t dictate to them what labels to use; they’ve got enough going on that’s outside of their control that this one should be their call. For example, when our first daughter was going to be born, I asked my stepson if he wanted to start calling me “Daddy” like she would, or if he wanted to keep calling me Jono (my nickname). He's got a great relationship with his biological father, so it was no surprise to me when he responded “No, I want my daddy to by my daddy and my Jono to be my Jono.”