Increased divorce rates have substantially changed the face of the American family. The once accurate stereotype of the nuclear family as a family with two biological parents and their children is no longer the prevailing reality. And with high rates of remarriage, blended families or stepfamilies are a growing reflection of the American family.
Yet when we search out resources for how to parent or how to establish a strong family, most of the models are often designed for the first-time family. The stepfamily is different. It is very complex and has many unique challenges. Using a first-family model for a blended family can create expectations that can’t be met. And since expectations affect our attitude and behavior, unmet expectations can cause disappointment or discouragement.
How realistic are your expectations regarding stepfamilies? Answer the following questions to find out.
True or false?
- Stepfamilies blend quickly.
- Everyone in my stepfamily will love one another.
- Doing everything as a family is the best way to create closeness.
- Being a stepparent means biting my tongue a lot.
- Children adjust better to a new stepfamily if you encourage them to avoid talking about negative feelings.
- Stepparents must get close to their stepchildren quickly or a close relationship will not be possible.
- False, it generally takes 5 years.
- False, some members of the family may not even like each other.
- False, biological parents and children need one-on-one time. Not allowing for this can cause resentment.
- True, there are many things that are best left to the biological parent to handle.
- False, children need to be encouraged to talk about their feelings.
- False, stepparents need to build relationships slowly.
Building a connected stepfamily involves consideration of all family members, mutual respect, cooperation, flexibility, and group effort in working toward common goals. Integrating the following aspects of connectedness can help you strengthen your family.
- Security and Belonging. A sense of belonging and a feeling security are basic human needs.
- Personal Space. Everybody needs some space of their own.
- Flexibility and Creativity. The unique complexities of stepfamilies require creative thinking. Think outside the box! If one thing doesn’t work try something else.
- Cooperation and Teamwork. Shared goals can create an atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation.
- Family Meetings. Family meetings are a good way for stepfamilies to develop and maintain good communication.
- Rituals. Rituals create family continuity and good memories. They provide a sense of familiarity, which is one aspect of connectedness. Friday night pizza, family movies, scheduled bedtimes, and after school routines are examples of rituals.
- Traditions. Traditions are important because they express a family’s identity. According to stepfamily expert, Elizabeth Einstein, LMFT, one of the most important ways in which stepfamilies build bonds and form a solid identity is by establishing their own unique traditions.
- Holidays. Holidays can be very difficult for stepfamilies as loyalty conflicts, and issues of loss, can be obstacles to joyful celebrations. Parents need to be sensitive and plan carefully, as well as be flexible, creative, and open to discussing options.
Think of the process of strengthening your blended family as a journey. It will be filled with beautiful places, stretches with potholes, and of course, construction zones. As you wonder how long it will take “till you get there,” remind yourself to live in the present moment, look for the good things sprinkled along the way, and use these tools for the trip.
Tools for the journey
- Anticipate challenges and accept them as part of the package. Every family has conflict and challenges. Stepfamilies are complex and this complexity brings unique challenges.
- Don’t try to replace a biological parent. Loyalty to biological parents is normal. Encouraging a positive relationship with both biological parents is beneficial to everyone involved. When children have permission to love all the adults in their lives, their lives can be enriched by the variety and special attributes that each person possesses.
- Let the child set the pace for connecting. Don’t force it. Some children are quiet and reserved while others are outgoing and more open to new relationships. Age plays a part too.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself. Biological parents want their children to like their new spouse and to build a close relationship. Stepparents often feel pressure to become close with their stepkids. Often the children aren’t looking for a close relationship, especially older kids.
- Pray. Pray about your concerns. Ask God for wisdom, guidance and strength. Pray for your spouse and your children and stepchildren. Pray with your spouse and as a family. There is power in prayer.
- Allow for differences. In getting to know one another, differences in background and personal preferences will surface. Be willing to accept differences and look for common ground.
- Learn what makes your stepchildren unique. Get to know who they are and what they have already experienced in life. Are they an introvert or extrovert, serious or silly, a leader or follower, athletic, intellectual, musical, etc.?
- Practice patience and love. These attributes are essential to building a strong family. 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.”