Managing and Thriving in Step-Family Relationships
It’s not easy to be separated in the first place. Add onto that creating and maintaining a step-family or blended-family can be even more difficult. There’s not only the intimate partner relationship to manage, but also the children and their settling into their new household dynamics. I hope my Top 5 Tips in this blog will help your step-family or blended-family to thrive!
Tip #1 – Take your Time
It will take time to build the relationship between a parent and their new partner, who will eventually become a step-parent to your children. If you feel ready to introduce the children to your new partner, go really slowly.
You’ll want to wait until you’ve been dating for quite some time before introducing the children. In fact, many co-parents will even set out terms in their separation agreement regarding re-partnering, and the agreed-upon plan for when it’s appropriate to introduce the children to a new relationship, and on what terms.
While there’s the bond between the parent and their new partner that may already be solid, the bond between the new partner and the children can take a long time to develop. Even once the introduction has occurred, a step-parent should go slow in developing that bond. How quickly or slowly the relationship develops will of course be family-specific; there’s no magic formula.
Picking up on cues from the children, giving them time to adapt is key.
Tip #2 – Communicate Openly in your Relationship
Truly integrating as a step-family is hard work – it can be far more difficult in many ways than the original family was in terms of bonding as a family.
Even before any introductions to the children happen, as a new couple you’ll want to have many discussions about parenting, and really try to get a good sense of each other in your role as a parent.
Once the introductions happen, the really hard stuff is likely to begin. There may be resistance by the children, or trying to get accustomed to how each other runs their household, or how each of you parent. Then let’s layer on top of that the possibility that both of you have biological children that you may be trying to integrate into one home, so then we have step-siblings to integrate with each other.
If you are truly committed to making your stepfamily work, then it’s important to be able to communicate openly with your partner so that you can work through all these tough issues that your family may experience as you settle into your new family life.
Tip #3 – Support the Children
It’s important to support the children both in their relationships and in their transitions.
First, in their relationships – The children will maintain a bond with their family in both mom’s house and dad’s house. It’s important to encourage this bond to continue to be strengthened and nurtured.
When kids talk openly in the home about the other parent’s home, irrespective of your opinion as a step-parent about that other parent, it’s important to be positive and supportive of that relationship. Kids need to know that it’s ok to talk openly about their other parent’s home, without worry that there will be a negative reaction from the step-parent. Of course, never speak negatively about the children’s other parent.
Second, in their transitions – One of the most difficult times for children who live in a two-home family is the actual exchange or transition time between the homes.
In each home the children will experience differing routines and expectations, and often it will take them time to adjust into each home after the exchange occurs. I always encourage parents to try to create as much consistency and routine as possible between the homes, but inevitably there will typically be differences even if subtle.
In this way, it’s important to have extra patience and sometimes even give space for children when they are settling in – this will help to ease any tension in the household which can result from behavioural issues surrounding the exchanges.
Tip #4 – Defer to the biological parent on discipline of the children
This tip will depend on what stage of your step-family relationship you’re in. The ability for the step-parent to deal with the children’s behavioural issues will increase with time.
Irrespective of the length of the relationship, where possible, it’s typically best to allow the biological parent of the children to deal with any disciplinary issues.
However, there will be times where the step-parent is alone, and it’s also important for the children to be accustomed to knowing that they have to listen to and follow their step-parent’s parenting.
Tip #5 – Carve out Adult Time
The children will take time to settle into their new step-family, and especially at the start the focus for the family will be on the children and their adaptation to their new reality.
Despite this, it’s important to remember to focus on your adult relationship as spouses, not just your relationship as parent / step-parent. The research shows that the divorce rate for 2nd marriages is far higher than for 1st marriages. It must be nurtured for it to stick for the long haul.
You may consider getting a babysitter for a few hours, or taking the opportunities that come with the children being away at their other biological parent’s home. Doing things like date-night, or going for walks, or even just carving out time to have long talks is so important to balance the often stressful family-life that can come along with a step-family.