The coronation and surrounding news stories about trouble in the royal family are a sobering reminder that many of us go through ‘blending’ families together. Modern families are often comprised of a mix of stepchildren, new partners, ex partners, and in-laws. How can we navigate what constitutes a modern ‘blended’ family and encourage harmony between everyone in it?
Gone is the nuclear family unit!
The typical family set up of yesteryear- a married mum and dad and their kids living under one roof- now only makes up 35% of households. The definition of ‘family’ in the modern day is something looser and more fluid- children might live with a single parent or grandparent, or between separated parents in two houses, often with step siblings thrown into the mix.
One reason for the changes in family types over the years is likely to be the ever-increasing number of divorces- 33% of marriages now end in divorce. The numbers of couples who marry per year has nearly halved since the 70s, also.
The challenges faced in blended families
While no families are straight-forward, mixing children with stepchildren and new partners can be a rocky ride. ‘Children who have been through divorce/bereavement have already been hurt by the people they trust,’ says Nicola Baldwin, Parenting Lead at Spurgeons, ‘so spend time with them individually and get to know one another. Shared activities can help grow a bond. Ask how they are feeling and really listen to them – show them that they are important. Also, give them praise and encouragement.’
Helping kids adjust to change is one key way to encourage harmony. You can approach this in a number of ways, including:
- A plan for the week pinned up on the fridge- Monday spent at Mum’s, football club on Tuesday etc
- Allow kids to play a part in decorating their bedrooms at both homes, so they feel included and can make the space their own
- Set house rules, which you can sit down and write together. This might include rules about respecting one another and everyone’s space, and having dinner together.
Some children will be excited about having new siblings, while others will find the transition anxiety-inducing and difficult. Ensure you spend lots of time engaging with your kids and listening to their feelings about their new family life, and bonding with them 1-1. Try to understand how destabilising this new blended family must feel for them and take the transition slowly.
Bonding with new step children
If you have new stepchildren in your life, bonding with them can seem a daunting task. If you already have your own children, you may also be wondering how to navigate these choppy waters without alienating them.
The key lies in not rushing the process. As with any new relationship in life, while it can be tempting to rush in all guns blazing, taking it slow will yield the best results.
Remember that your new step child won’t have asked for, or wanted, this new situation in their lives. What they will be craving (whether they recognise it or not) is stability. Ensure your actions don’t threaten the existing relationships they have with their parents (i.e. you’re not trying to take the place of their dad).
Spend a little 1-1 time getting to know them. Be yourself- kids (particularly teens!) will easily sniff out inauthenticity. Show interest in their day and what they’ve been up to, and approach these interactions gently.
It’s useful to note the power imbalance in your dynamic: they, as the child are likely to feel nervous and even defensive about this new situation. This is why getting to know them gently and without agenda is important. Lastly, don’t beat yourself up if you feel like they don’t love you right away; step relationships are notoriously difficult for kids to get their heads around and they can feel threatened.
Get on the same page as your partner
You might be blending your families, but do you have the same approaches to parenting? To avoid clashes and arguments, it can be helpful to discuss the existing house rules you have and what kinds of punishments have been dolled out before- you don’t want one child having their phone taken away while the other one faces no punishment for the same thing.
‘Adults have been parented in different ways and maybe parented their children differently in the past,’ says Nicola. ‘Spend some time working out what your values are in the new relationship. What sort of partners and parents do you want to be together? Be kind to one another as you take time to get to know the individuals within the new family group and take time to bond.’
For all families, blended or nuclear, knowledge of boundaries and consequences is important, and creates a happy, healthy home.
It can be tempting for new step parents to immediately start being the one to tell off or discipline their stepkids, but during the getting-to-know-you time it’s best to not dive in too heavily. Make sure both you and your partner agree on what is suitable behaviour/ language and that children know they must be respectful, but may also share how they are feeling. Don’t underestimate how hard merging with new step-siblings and step-parents can be for children- even teenagers.
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