Creating a Successful Step-Family

You are thrilled about finding someone to spend your life with and you both have children.  Although this is a positive change in your life, it will have more challenges than you might recognize.  In order to minimize the stress of blending families, you will need to clarify expectations just like any newly married couple.  However, you will also need to address numerous questions before you say “I do.”   The more the two of you communicate about your expectations before the wedding, the smoother things will go AFTER the wedding.  Some of the areas that will need clarifying include:

Living arrangements:

Living arrangements have a significant impact on all family members.  Which house will we all live in?  Can we afford to sell both homes and find a new one?  Which furnishings will we use and what will we do with everything else?  If you choose to live in one of the current homes be sure to consider the impact of old marital memories, the other parent’s sense of displacement, the children’s sense of “territory” versus feeling like a guest.  Will the children lose their bedrooms or have to share?  Will all the children be required to make changes or just the “new-comers?”  If you both have daughters they may be required to share a bedroom which neither girl is used to doing.  Make sure to find a place for each child’s possessions and be sensitive to the child that is coming into the other child’s home.  It may not be possible but it will make things go much better if neither marital home is used to blend the families.

Financial Expectations:

Will you co-mingle your income and debts, will you set up “mine” “yours” and “our” accounts?  Who will pay for what?  Are you used to living on a budget?  Which purchases will you need to consult with each other or will this be based about a cut off amount?  Does one set of children remain in their schools, or do they go to private school?  Money and children are often a cause of resentment in step families so discuss and agree upon as much as possible.

Division of Household Responsibilities:

Discuss what the two of you will be responsible for around the house but don’t forget to involve the children in chores.  If one of you has primary custody and the other has standard visitation how will this impact upon the children and how you manage them? Will all the children be responsible for chores or only the children that reside primarily in the home?

Parenting Expectations:

It is vital that the two of you discuss how the children will be managed and what type of consequences you will use.  Each child should have the same expectation no matter how much time they reside in the home.  It is important that both of you share any negative feedback about parenting in private rather than in front of the children.  How often you purchase non-essentials items for your children can become a significant area for the children to cry “not fair!”  Make these changes prior to the wedding.  Do your children ask for snacks while your partner’s children feel free to get whatever they want to eat without requesting?  These differences will confuse the children and create a sense of entitlement and conflict if not ironed out.  Does your partner feed the children what they want for dinner or do they require the children eat what they are provided?  Have you allowed the children to eat in the living room or do you require they eat at the table?  Are electronics and phones banned from the table?  Will the children have open access to the internet or will all the children have a security system placed on their computers/games?

Family Values:

What are the things that are most important to each of you when you think about creating a happy and healthy family?  Is privacy high on your list or is honesty more important?  Do you expect the children to apologize even if they are not ready.  Do you view a child’s withdrawal to their room as a positive coping mechanism or a hostile move? Do you expect children to debate or just to accept your final say without discussion? Do you expect children to worship and say grace before each meal?  Do you believe in communicating directly when there is conflict or do you think children should not complain?  Do you believe that children should not swear or that there are different rules for different words?  Do you focus on shielding your child from adult material that has sexual versus violence ratings?  Do you prefer children come to an adult when they are having relationship difficulties or do you view this as squealing?  Do you believe that the majority of your time should be family time or do you value time alone with your partner and even time for outside friendships?

Family Expectations:

Together with the children, determine the expectations about how each member of the family will be treated with respect.  For example, your list might include, no name calling or put downs allowed, no walking into anyone’s space without being invited, no borrowing without permission.  Chores can be added to your list about expectations or listed separately.  Rules with consequences can also be developed with the children’s input.  When children have a clear expectation about what is acceptable behavior and what is not, the better they will do.  Limits with consequences also provide children with a more secure and predictable reaction.

Respect for Your Partner/and Former Spouse:

How will your child address your spouse?  It is important not to tell children to call your partner “mom” or “dad.”  Very young children will naturally start calling a step-parent “mom” or “dad.”  There should be no pressure on the young child.  Typically the children will continue to call the other adult by the same name they have used during the dating phase such as “Miss Sharon” or “Mr. Bill.”  Some children want to come up with a unique parenting name such as “Poppy” for the step-father or “Sharon Momma” for the step-mother.

Co-Parenting Boundaries:

If you are divorced rather than widowed, you should discuss how your new spouse will be supportive of the other biological parent and how they can be supportive to you in the difficult times.  It is important that they do not fuel the conflict between you and your co-parent.  Discuss- expectations such as communicating between homes and clarify what parenting responsibilities are better left to the other biological parent.

Traditions

Traditions and rituals are important to both families.  However, there is no way that all the traditions that your children know and expect can continue exactly as they have always happened.  This will be a lost for the children even if they end up enjoying or even preferring the new tradition.  Try to keep as many old traditions as you can.  For example if the tooth fairy puts money under the pillow for one family but they leave the money next to the bed in the other family, this can continue as per usual.  Where you spend Thanksgiving may change significantly and opening gifts on Christmas Eve in one home and on Christmas morning for the other family will need to be negotiated to avoid too many losses. All of these important expectations should be addressed with all family members with or without professional assistance.  Expect resistance, tears and challenges but reassure the children that you will learn as you go or alternate your traditions.  When possible try to come up with your own “new” traditions with the children’s input such as a game night together.

Other Considerations

Discipline:

Each biological parent should take the primary role of disciplining their own child.  The only time the step-parent should implement a consequence (never corporal punishment) is when they are left alone with the children and must manage misbehavior. The other time is when the child has been disrespectful directly to the step-parent.  The ideal is that the biological parent would provide all the discipline.  This guideline will allow the step parent to be viewed as a supportive adult and it will help avoid potential problems with the child’s other biological parent.  This may seem unnatural but it will pay off in the long run with run.  Make sure the two of you discuss discipline and can come to agreement regarding parental expectations.  If you have very different expectations or significantly different consequences this will create resentment and impair the step sibling relationships.  Seek therapy for this as it can destroy a relationship over time.

Your Child’s Position in the Household:

Recognize that the blending of your families may change your child’s position in the new family.  Your “oldest” child may suddenly be placed as the middle child losing a sense of authority.  The “only child” will be significantly impacted having to share adult attention.  Their position may change to oldest, youngest, or middle child.  Make sure both sets of children have a sense of belonging and a place to call their own.  Each child should have their own drawers and a safe place to leave their possessions when they are with their other parent.   Even if one of the children resides in the home two weekends per month, it is very important not to put them into the “guest room.”  Instead convert a guest room into their bedroom especially since they are not there as often, it is even more important to make them feel this is their home too.  Find ways for each child to feel that their space is respected even if they are sharing a bedroom.  If you have to move into one parent’s home remember the imbalance the other children will likely feel.  Does Marcus’ trampoline now belong to all the children?    Do they have to ask Marcus to play on it or not?  How will the parenting plan schedules coordinate and can this be changed to afford you both a weekend off?

Age Differences

If the ages of the children are significantly different, you will need to give the older child more room to be separate.  Discuss what areas they will be expected to participate in such as family dinners or going to church on Sundays.  Finding ways to address the needs of children of varying ages can be a real challenge.  There may be times when “dad/step-dad” will take the boys to a different movie in the same theatre as the girls and “mom/step- mom.”  There may be times when alternating selection of activities will be the only way around the division.  Other options may include allowing the resistant child to bring along another child their same age.  All of the children should have some say in how to plan family time.

One-on-One Time

No matter what, make sure each of you provides each child at least 10 minutes per day of one-on-one time with no interruptions, ideally this would be separate from their bedtime ritual.  Your children will need to feel safe and secure after the marriage.  Consider they may have fears about getting lost in the new family, not getting enough attention or even the risk of another loss by divorce.

Last but most important, make your marriage a priority with one-on-one time.  Step-families require attention to so many more people than the young newlyweds without children have.  You will need to make sure to keep “dating” each other and find adult time every day.  Between work, family, children and home responsibilities it is easy to run out of energy and time for each other.  Do not let this happen or you will end up at risk.  Step-family divorce rates are far higher than first time marriages.  So love each other and watch the balance of attention to all members of the family making your relationship the first priority.

Susan Boyan, LMFT

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