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Fragile: Handle with care. Blending in process.
For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).
"Do I have to call him Dad now, too?" "Why do we have to leave our house and
move into their house?" "How can she tell me what to do when she's not my
Do these questions sound familiar? They probably do if you or someone you know is part of a blended family.
Blame it on The Brady Bunch. In that sugar-coated '60s sitcom, the blended Brady family looked alike, thought alike and worked together on problems that could be resolved in a half-hour television show.
In their "neat-o" universe, there was no such thing as step-family angst, unresolved anger, feelings of loss, issues of trust or unrealistic expectations. But those are just the sort of challenges most blended families find themselves working through.
According to the Stepfamily Association of America (SAA), the phrase blended family refers to a stepfamily household, one in which a parent marries a person who is not his or her child's other (usually biological) parent. The term "blended" is somewhat misleading, because, as the SAA points out, children are not ingredients who can be "blended" into a new mix of family members; actually, they are individuals who are still connected to the other parent. And although each stepfamily is different, teens in stepfamilies of all types report that adjusting to a new family structure requires patience and flexibility.
A stepfamily can be confusing; it even has a language all its own. Take the following example. Suppose your parents are divorced and you live with your mother ( your "residential custodian"). If she remarries, her new husband is your "stepfather," and his children (if any) become your "stepsiblings." If your mother and stepfather have a child together, the baby is a "mutual child," another term for your new "half-" brother or sister. Things can get even more complicated if your father (your "non-residential parent") remarries a woman with children of her own. Then you have TWO stepfamilies, complete with two sets of stepsiblings. And if they have a baby together . .
One out of two Western marriages ends in divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages fail, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 66% of marriages and living together situations end in break up, when children are actively involved, according to Stepfamily Foundation statistics. It is predicted that 50% of children in the US will experience their parents' divorcing before they are 18. Approximately half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. According to the Census Bureau, more Americans have been living in step families from 2000 than in nuclear families.
In his 1994 study, "The Changing Character of Stepfamilies," Professor of Sociology Larry L. Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin says his research states that about half of the 60 million children under the age of thirteen in the U.S. were then living with one biological parent and that parent's current partner. Nearly half of all women, not just mothers, are likely to live in a stepfamily relationship, when we include living-together families in our definition of the stepfamily.
If you think that life in an intact nuclear family (one where your original parents live together) is difficult, try sharing your most intimate moments with people you may hardly know. It's considered normal to fight with your own siblings, but is it OK to fight with your stepsiblings? You may get frustrated with your mother, but can you voice your opinions to your stepfather? Part of the dilemma is trying to learn where you belong within your stepfamily. Are there new rules? If so, what are they? Will anyone enforce them? Is there opportunity for compromise?
The arrival of a new adult -- often with a child or two from a previous marriage -- can turn a child's world upside down, prompting fears, conflicts and doubts about the child's role and status in the family.
Common problems described by stepchildren include feeling unwanted by a stepparent; feeling alienated within the new family; being torn by tension between biological parents; and discomfort around holidays and major family events like graduations and weddings. Some teens resent stepparents who assume the role of parent (and disciplinarian) before the family has had a chance to evolve. Others are jealous of the parent's affection for his or her new spouse or other children living in the home. The child may resent a new parent for showing love and affection for his mother or father...
It is common for these fragile family units to see instant competition between stepchildren. Our sons and daughters were not shopping around for extra brothers and sisters -- or for a new parent figure. Now there are rooms to share, and, more importantly, competition for the attention, love and affection from their parent who has given affection to another adult...
There is very little that is simple in any stepfamily, and the level of stress you feel can range from tolerable to paralyzing. Sometimes, when you think you've got it all figured out, you get hit again with a wave you never saw coming, and your feet, already treading so carefully, are knocked completely out from under you. The stress can be suffocating. You know you're under too much stress when you feel out of control. Even if we have much to face, when we have some control over certain aspects of our lives, we feel less stressful.
Children in blended families are more likely to be troubled simply because they experience conflict within the home plus conflict from interhousehold issues.
In addition, the youngsters - and often the adults - in blended families are grieving, but most often are not mature enough to explain why they are unhappy. Instead, their discontent shows up in negative actions and attitudes. (To be honest, it's hard enough for adults to verbalize their true feelings.). Most of them have lost - through death or divorce - a biological parent. They often have to move to a new dwelling away from their friends, school, neighborhood, church. They bring this grief and loss into a new situation where the stress of adjusting to new rules and expectations can sometimes be overwhelming...
By the time of a second marriage, it is often a child's third family unit, the first being the biological parents' marriage, the second being a separate or single family unit and the third being the new relationship which involves a stepparent. Children need parental permission and understanding to grieve these losses, before embracing the new family system. Failure to accept mourning as a natural feeling may result in angry outbursts and potential alienation.
When the inability of family members to cope with the enormous change thrust upon them supersedes the joy developing in the blended home, family members begin to feel trapped. This hopeless state opens the door for emotions to escalate or plummet out of control for everyone. Rage, jealousy, blame, substance abuse, despair, are the usual ingredients in a pretty volatile mix.
Many feel 'unwanted', uncherished, even unloved. Being unwanted is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience. Nowadays we have found medicine for leprosy, and lepers can be cured. There's treatment for TB, and consumption can be cured. But for being unwanted, unless there are willing hands to serve and there's a loving heart to love, I don't think this terrible disease can be cured.
[My wife and two adult daughters are involved in ministries to women prisoners and ex-prisoners. For the overwhelming majority of these women, the experience of abuse and/or feelings associated with being unwanted are at the root of their problems. But the abusers are mostly not in prison... There is something unjust there...].
How do you combat the stress of blending and avert disaster? By making each member feel loved and wanted. The adults should set the standard by showing a deep love and respect for one another. Then, seeing it's so easy for "blendeds" to feel unwanted, the parents have to make deliberate love choices with all the family members.
It doesn't take long to give a hug, write a card or say an encouraging word. Plan some fun into the family schedule. Children and fun go hand-in-hand.
There is a never-ending need for forgiveness in a stepfamily. Regardless of how often the forgiveness is extended to you, you can reduce your stress when you extend it to yourself and others. Don't be afraid, it won't hurt a bit.
First, is there anything you need to forgive yourself for? You can't grow when you have that kind of baggage holding you down. Today, say out loud, "I forgive myself for those mistakes. I've learned from them, and it's time to move on." Then, examine the grudges you're holding against others. This may be harder, but make a choice to forgive them, too. You don't have to speak to the people who have hurt you, and you're not justifying what they've done. Just in your heart, let it go.
Each day this week, when you get up in the morning, remember that you have chosen to forgive yourself and those around you. Imagine those hurts and mistakes as a weight upon your shoulders that you have put aside, along with the stress that you don't need complicating your life.
Parents need to look beyond behaviors and understand broken hearts. Holding family meetings, seeking occasional outside counsel, or becoming part of a blended family support group can help.
You and your spouse choose the time and place for your meeting, most likely at home, but it doesn't have to be. And the best time will be when you have plenty of time, so you won't have to rush, perhaps later in the evening or first thing Saturday morning.
Then give the kids a few days notice. They may be resistant, but if they can expect the meeting instead of having it dropped on them unannounced, they may be less uneasy about their participation. Ask them if there is anything they want addressed in the meeting, and if so, add it to your agenda.
Let the kids know that any member of the family can call a meeting anytime they need to. And if you decide on a regular schedule, let everyone know that, too.
Knowing what behavior is acceptable and what isn't will make life much easier for the children. If a child knows where the limits are, he has the freedom to go to the edge but not beyond. That knowledge is both comforting and enlightening.
Enforcing rules that are already established makes life much easier for the parents. Because discipline is different in a stepfamily, stepparents are sometimes reluctant to provide the structure and levy any punishment that stepchildren need. With the rules -- and the consequences for breaking them -- already established, the stepparent isn't overstepping any bounds at all, but merely following through with the plan.
Really work at building the relationship/s. Your new position in the home may grant you authority, but respect is something you earn. And remember relating to a new 'enforcer of rules' is hard: don't make it doubly hard by verbalizing rules and consequences more than you verbalize encouragement!
Make the step-children feel as important as your own natural children. If your stepchildren get a whiff of unfairness or bias against them, and feel you're favoring your own children against them, the hurt is doubly painful...
Remember this is your choice, not the children's. As a stepparent, you had a choice in the situation while the children did not. As the adult your responsibility must encompass an understanding that you will be expected to be concerned and involved in caring for these children and ensuring their sense of security in traveling through this transition.
One experienced counselor wrote: 'There is no such thing as instant intimacy. Respect one another and take the time to become acquainted. Let the relationship build security and caring on its own merit, without pressure to fill the fantasy of loving one another before a solid "like" has been established. On the average, two to three years is the time period for developing these bonds and stabilizing the new family.'
Although stepfamilies form as a result of loss, they also bring people together. Many teens, after getting used to the new family structure, grow to consider their stepparents as allies they can trust and confide in. When stepparents try not to assert too much parental authority right away, teens are often glad to find they have a new parent who can be friendly and impartial.
Teenager: remember that your new family will take time to develop. Everyone needs to learn to adjust to their new roles. But with patience and open communication, you may find that being a member of a stepfamily is something you can be proud of.
Now here are some bits and pieces of wisdom I found on the World Wide Web:
If you're having problems adjusting to a new stepfamily, you should know that your feelings are normal and that help is available. Many teens find it helpful to confide in a trusted neutral adult, such as a sports coach, a favorite teacher, a counselor, or a relative who isn't directly involved in the situation. Talking with a friend who has gone through a similar situation can help as well. There are also support groups for teens in stepfamilies, just as there are for stepparents. (Your school guidance counselor may be able to direct you to one)/
Ask your biological parent for regular time that you can be alone so you have the opportunity to discuss your feelings. Both you and your parent can benefit from one-on-one time together.
Keep your anger in check. If you're angry or upset, try writing down what's
bothering you rather than yelling or expressing your feelings in a hurtful
way. When you've calmed down, share what you've written with the appropriate
person. If you present your feelings in a positive way, you may be surprised
at how open your family may be to change.
From Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Question: This is our second marriage for each of us. We each have two children, all of whom are older teens except one. We seem to constantly disagree on simple child rearing issues, i.e. cleaning the room, household chores, curfew, etc. My largest complaint is that since we have blended our families, it seems my children have had to make the most adjustments while my husband's children just seem to run wild when they are here (they live with their mother most of the time). My husband is always very critical of my children and their "conformance" to house rules yet his seem to make their own rules. While I have tried to stress that no two children are reared the same, he continues to punish them for seemingly minor infractions. This is causing a great deal of distrust among all of us. Is there anything we can do to rebuild trust between us? I am beginning to question my faithfulness to someone so unwilling to compromise.
Response: Marriages with blended families tend to be very unsuccessful, one of the greatest predictors of divorce. And you have first-hand experience to see why this is the case. It is common for each spouse to put his or her own children's interests first. It is often in an effort to compensate for the trauma children experience when there is a divorce. But when the children's interests are first, the interests of the other spouse and the other spouse's children are found somewhere down the list, and that's a formula for marital disaster.
However, in cases that I have witnessed, these marriages can be saved if both spouses are willing to follow my Policy of Joint Agreement (Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). In effect, whenever you follow this policy, you put your spouse's interests first, where they should be.
Following this policy means that neither you nor your husband act to reprimand or discipline any child until you have reached an enthusiastic agreement about it. At first, you may not agree about much of anything, in which case you are not to discipline the children (they may do whatever they please). But as you practice applying the policy, you and your husband will begin to establish guidelines in child-rearing issues, and agreements will start to form. Eventually, you will agree on how to discipline your children in a way that takes each other's feelings into account, and your marriage will be saved.
Child rearing is a huge problem in blended families, but it's not the only issue in your marriage, I'm sure. Regardless of your conflicts, however, you'll find that you can resolve them all when you have learned to negotiate with the Policy of Joint Agreement.
Here are a few guidelines that will help you negotiate an enthusiastic agreement:
Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe: a) try to be pleasant and cheerful through your discussion of the issue, b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your husband. Be able to state the other spouse's position before you go on to find a solution.
Brainstorm solutions with abandon. Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like. You'll have a chance to do that later.
Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you. And if your brainstorming has not given you an answer that you can enthusiastically agree upon, go back to brainstorming. The reason you argue is that you are incompatible -- you have not learned how to act in the interest of both of you at the same time. But if you follow the Policy of Joint Agreement and use the guidelines for negotiation that I have just described, you will find yourselves in greater and greater agreement. Eventually, your marriage will turn out better than you could have ever hoped.
If you don't follow this policy, however, you will eventually make each other so miserable that you will lose your love for each other and divorce, like most marriages with blended families. This process has already begun. Stop it before it goes any further.
Step 1. Recognize that the stepfamily will not and can not function as does a natural family. It has its own special state of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, these behaviors can become predictable and positive. Do not try to overlay the expectations and dynamics of the intact or natural family onto the stepfamily.
Step 2. Recognize the hard fact that the children are not yours and they never will be. We are stepparents, not replacement parents. Mother and father (no matter how AWFUL the natural parents) are sacred words and feelings. We are stepparents, a step removed, yet in this position can still play a significant role in the development of the child.
Step 3. Super stepparenting doesn't work. Go slow. Don't come on too strong.
Step 4. Discipline styles must be sorted out by the couple. The couple, ideally with the help of a Stepfamily Foundation trained professional, needs to immediately and specifically work out what the children's duties and responsibilities are. What is acceptable behavior and what are the consequences when children misbehave? Generally, in the beginning, we suggest that the biological parent does the disciplining as much as is feasible. The couple together specifically works out jobs, expected behaviors and family etiquette.
Step 5. Establish clear job descriptions between the parent, stepparent and respective children. What specifically is the job of each one of us in this household? We need to be as detailed as we are in business.
Step 6. Know that unrealistic expectations beget rejections and resentments. There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild and invariably cruel stepmother of fairy tales. Note the absence of myth around the stepfather. It is vital for the survival of the stepfather to be able to see and delineate expectations for each member of the family, especially the primary issues of upset in step: e.g., money, discipline, the prior spouse, visitation, authority, emotional support, territory and custody.
Step 7. There are no ex-parents . . . only ex-spouses. Begin to get information on how to best handle the prior spouse.
Step 8. Be prepared for conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship. In the intact family, the couple comes together to have a child. The child is part of both parents, generally pulling the parents' energy together for the well-being of the child. In step, blood and sexual ties can polarize a family in opposite energies and directions.
Step 9. The conflict of loyalties must be recognized right from the beginning. The conflict is particular to step and is a round robin of confused emotions. Often, just as the child in step begins to have warm feelings toward the stepparent, the child will pull away and negatively act out. He/she feels something like this: "If I love you, that means I do not love my real parent." The feelings are normal and must be dealt with. The pulls of "Who am I loyal to first?" go all the way around in the stepfamily.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it. The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don't know whether to laugh or to cry. Try humor.
"Loss and unresolved grief is the underlying issue that parents encounter when raising children in blended families"
Published in "The Family News", May, 2001
By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical, Medical & Family Psychologist More Information: www.CrisisCounseling.Com
Nationally, nearly three out of five families are raising children from another parent, different marriages and different families. Blended families include adopted children, divorced families raising children together and children from other marriages or relationships. An increasing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren. And foster parents are raising their own children with the children of other parents. Parenting in a blended family is a challenge with unique problems.
Separation or Divorce. The first problem of raising children in a blended family is a direct result of parental separation or divorce. From the moment of birth children form emotional bonds with their parents. Children who have two parents in their life become confused and experience emotional turmoil when their parents separate. A young boy I worked with made the issue very clear to me when he said, "How do I know my parents won't leave me? How can people stop loving each other?" Parent counseling or education can help you deal with this.
There are impacts on children even when a separation or divorce is entirely understandable, necessary and in the best interest of a child. For instance, if parents become hateful during a relationship or marriage, then children will struggle and experience emotional conflicts. Children end up learning that love and relationships are not something they can count on. But in all fairness to parents, there are circumstances where separation or divorce can help. Keeping a destructive or violent marriage together can be even more damaging than a separation or divorce.
Adoption, Abandonment or Death. The second problem happens when a child is adopted, a parent abandons their child or a parent dies. The loss of a parent or both parents creates a void in a child's life. Children naturally have questions, and the answers to these questions will take time for a child to understand and accept. Counseling and educating parents to handle this can help.
Children have feelings about missing parents or any void in their life. Typical feelings include loss, guilt, feeling empty inside and especially grief. But adoption and taking on the responsibility of a parent can be a very positive and rewarding act. Providing a stable and loving home for a child is tremendously important and can help heal a child. It can help prepare them to get on with their life.
Parenting under these circumstance is not necessarily more difficult than parenting in general, but it does present unique challenges. Loss and unresolved grief are the underlying emotional issues that parents encounter when raising children in a blended family. This can look like fear, anger, depression and other insecurities in a child's behavior. In many cases, children will seek out and discover ways to avoid or "cover-up" their feelings. Arguments, blaming, defiance and acting like a victim are the most common ways that children try to take control of their life or to avoid even the reminder that their life is not necessarily secure and predictable.
The psychological and emotional needs of children raised in blended families present unique challenges. Many parents do not feel equipped to raise children who are not theirs, nor parent children they did not raise since infancy. But there are some useful guidelines if you are "blending" a family or parenting children in a family that is already blended. The following are only guidelines because children cope with and adjust in ways that are very individual.
Dating and Co-habitation. Single parents should minimize dating, and couples should not live together for at least 6 months following a divorce, separation or the end of a parental relationship. Children are usually vulnerable and emotionally unstable for at least three months. In most cases children need a stable relationship with a primary parent and they don't respond well to competition with another adult who is an outsider. Many children are ready to move on with their life somewhere between three and six months. Six months is a good time for a parent to take small steps and begin raising the possibility to their child that life goes on.
Marriage and Committed Relationships. Parents should avoid getting engaged, living with a fiancée or getting married for at least one year after a traumatic loss or breakup in a family. How long you wait really depends on the child, but one year is a good estimate.
Children grieve, let go and move on in different ways and over different time frames. Blending a family may be necessary for practical and financial reasons, but doing so can be stressful and will raise many uncertainties for children. Life goes on, but ignoring stress when blending a family can produce emotional and behavioral problems. Children tend to act out their feelings when they are under a lot of stress. Family counseling or advice may be helpful and even necessary if children are having difficulty with an early transition into a blended family.
Disagreements, conflicts and inconsistent discipline methods between separated or divorced parents can cause emotional and behavioral problems. Children should not be exposed to parental conflicts. Children begin to think they can do whatever they want when parents argue and disagree in front of their child. More than any other issue, the tension between divorced parents can be the surest way to create problems for kids. Children feel the tension between parents and they suffer when parents create problems, emotional distress and don't get along. Over time, children begin to resent feeling that way, get angry or they take their anger out on others. If not, they end up believing the problem is their fault and their life will always be this way.
Primary responsibility for parenting should be left to the biological or responsible parent. Children who have lost one parent don't want to lose another. Children will naturally seek the support and help of a responsible adult. But they don't want to share a parent with another adult. A couple should begin to co-parent equally when they formalize their relationship and make a commitment to each other and members of the family. This commitment, when accepted by a child and supported by other family members, will provide a helpful structure. Over time this will enhance a child's emotional and psychological well being.
Co-parenting requires cooperation between the responsible parents and it requires consistent discipline. Blending a family is not easy. Some children will test the relationship between a man and woman. They will break the rules, ask for exceptions and challenge parents to make a choice between them and the other parent. Children need guidance, instruction, training, choices, consequences and supervision. These are roles that any caring and responsible adult can provide. Regardless of the approach to parenting, couples should never threaten the bonds between a parent and their child.
A somewhat frightening endeavor, especially if you're adding a child or two yourself, thus making a his-and-hers blended family. The most important part of becoming a stepparent is the prior planning you and the biological parent do before the wedding.
First and foremost, the adults need to agree in advance about discipline. Who, what, when, where, and how is a good place to start with your discipline plan.
Then agree on rules for your home. In fact, agree on all acceptable behavior and the consequences of behavior that is not acceptable. After the adults have agreed, it is time for the children to have the new regime and the new rules explained to them.
The second most important aspect of a blended family is that each adult support the other. No giving in or allowing children to manipulate the rules. Manipulation and inconsistency guarantee that you will have a "blender" family instead of a "blended" family.
Parents should discuss upcoming changes with their children in detail appropriate to their age. But it should be clear from the beginning that the adults are deciding which changes will be made.
The best stepparent in the world is probably not going to saunter into an immediate loving and grateful situation. However, the biological parent should explain to the children, that although love is not necessary for the stepparent, respect and cooperation are mandatory. Make it clear to your children that you expect your new spouse to be treated in a civil manner.
If you are the biological parent, explain that this is your new husband or wife, not a potential father or mother. Tell them also that if love happens, that will be wonderful and make you and your new husband/wife very happy. But in the meantime, respect is the order of the day.
Every blended family has its ups and downs. From sullen teen-agers to former spouses who would never dream of cooperating with anyone, you'll find life in a blended family is challenging.
Go slow. You will not be a family in one day or possibly even in one year. Many experts say it can take three years or longer!
Persistence is the key. Stepfamilies are a long-term commitment.
If you cultivate patience, concentrate on the positive, and keep your sense of humor, you, too, can become an effective and loving stepmom or stepdad. But setting the ground rules first will go a long way to making your new family successful. http://www.cyberparent.com/step/newstep.htm
I don't know of any construction company that would start a construction project without a blue print. They wouldn't even pour a foundation. Why is it that most of us start other long-term projects, like building a family, without so much as a plan scratched out on a paper napkin? In this article, we'll discuss what my husband and I discovered about developing a blue print for our family.
When a custom builder is going to design a house for you, the first thing they want to know is what type of house do you want? They would ask questions like how you live, how many rooms do you need, how many people will be living there, what style do you like?
If we apply this analogy to building a family, we want to know what do you want the family to look like. How many people will we be blending, what backgrounds do they have, what are their interests? What are our family's goals-short-term and long? What's important to our family, where do we want to focus our cumulative energies, and where do we want to spend our finances?
After we became engaged, one of the first things Evan and I discussed was what our family priorities should be. We came up with two biggies: (1) buy a house, and (2) combine our family-fragments into a blended family.
First and foremost, we wanted to create a stable environment for the children. After being shaken and uprooted by the divorces, we knew they desperately needed some normalcy-some stability-in their lives. When we were discussing our plans, Cathy and James were going to be living full time with their Mom. That left Luke as the only child under our roof full time. James and Cathy would visit every other weekend.
Even though we would only have one child full time, Evan and I felt it was very important for each of the kids to have their own room. We reasoned each of the children would need a safe harbor; a place they could call their own and that wouldn't be invaded by anyone else. There are unpleasant moments in any family situation and we wanted to ensure everyone had some guaranteed private "space" if needed. Also, we wanted all three kids to feel they were equal members of this family.
Because Evan and I weren't making very much money, we looked for quite some time for the right house. Our criteria for a house was 4 bedrooms, at least 2 bathrooms, and close to a bus line. Our budget was so small in fact that our real estate agent laughed when we told him what we wanted to spend. Since the agent was a family friend, we kept him on, but we began looking for houses ourselves. At last we found the perfect house; a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) home that needed a lot of work but it met our three criteria. We won the bid, despite our laughable finances. Evan moved in the summer before our wedding so he could start working on the house before the rest of us moved in.
After buying the house, our first priority was to have everyone choose their bedroom. Then, we let everyone choose their paint and we started our repair/redecorating phase. (By the way, with our house, the repair phase has never stopped.) Because finances were so tight, we bought all of our furniture at garage sales and thrift shops. Within just a few months, everyone had a room to call their own, no matter how often they were actually living in it.
Circumstances changed and within a year of our wedding, both Cathy and James came to live with us full time. We were all really happy that we had bought a house with so many rooms, especially the bedrooms and bathrooms.
You may be wondering where you can get ideas for a family blue print. The logical place to start is in your house of faith; your church. Search your church publications for articles on families. Ask a pastor for some advice. Find a family that you admire-someone who seems to be doing things "right"-and ask the parents for some ideas. Pursue a mentor relationship with those folks.
Another source of ideas would be your family members. Do you have an aunt, uncle, brother, or sister you can talk to about their experiences? How about your parents? They've certainly been through the experience of raising a child. Grandparents are a wonderful source of parenting tips and advice. They know so much, but we often forget to ask.
The main thing you need to do is open a dialogue with your spouse (or fiancée, if you're not married yet). Figure out what is important to you and your family and write those priorities down on paper. You now have a blue print. Remember to involve the children in this decision making process. The ideal time to design a blue print is before you begin building, however, in the case of building a blended family, today is not too late to start.
We established a few house rules early on at a family meeting. Everyone was encouraged to participate and discuss the rules. Evan and I insisted we have less than 10 rules. More than that would have been too cumbersome (and I, for one, would not have been able to remember them all). One of those rules was that everyone's room was their haven. If I went to my room and shut the door, another family member must ask for (and receive) my permission to enter my room. This rule has come in handy several times during confrontations. Of course, the rule could be overridden by a parent, if absolutely necessary. (I can only remember two times when an override was necessary.)
In the previous article, we discussed the necessity of drafting a blue print. This blue print defines what is important to your family and helps you figure out in which direction to head. The second Building a Blended Family fundamental is to define who "you" are. At first glance, this definition might seem obvious, but it is an issue with which our family has struggled.
When you come into any marriage, most of us know you are not only marrying your spouse; you are marrying their parents and their siblings. With a second marriage you get a large familial bonus. Not only do you get to marry your fiancé and his or her immediate family, you are also marrying your fiancé's children, ex-spouse, ex-in-laws, ex-spouse's new spouse.you get the picture. All of these people have an historical influence in your new spouse's life and they continue to have a direct influence on your new step-children. And, if you think that influence stops at the altar, you are very mistaken.
Defining who we are comes easily in some cases.like "parent". That seems like an easy one. When you really look at it, though, parent could mean a birth parent, a step-parent, an adoptive-parent, or a "never been a parent before" parent.
When defining who we were, one of the things we did was to count how many people actually lived under our roof; daily and every other weekend. That was the "who" of our family unit: Evan and I and our three children (James, Luke, and Cathy). We tried not to make a distinction between step-this and step-that. For instance, if one of the kids was ill and I called in to the school, I would say I was their mom; not their step-mom. When we introduced the kids, it was "This is my daughter, Cathy," not "This is my step-daughter."
A part of defining who you are is making sure everybody understands his or her role within the family. Also, they need to understand how the other people in their lives fit into the picture. If your children (both step and birth) are old enough to participate in the conversation, consider spending some time with them discussing everyone's roles in their lives. One of Cathy's and James' worries when they came to live with us was that I was going to try to take their birth mom's place. It took me a while to figure out what the problem was, but I finally did. I talked to them both and let them know I had no intention of trying to replace their birth mother. There was no way I could-or would want to-replace her. I was an additional parental figure in their lives, not a substitute.
That conversation helped, but trust in that statement only came with time. I earned their trust with the little, day-to-day things. For instance, when birth mom called on the phone and asked to speak with one of the kids, I started calling them to the phone saying "Mom's on the phone for you" instead of "Carlina is on the phone." Subtle changes like that went a long way toward proving to the kids (and to Carlina) that I accepted and respected her place in their lives.
Every family situation is different. Luke's dad dropped out of our (Luke's and my) lives as soon as the divorce was final. From the time Luke was 18 months old, he never saw his dad. To this day we don't know where he is. In a way, his absence made things easier for me since Luke's dad and I didn' t have the constant struggle about support payments or about differing child-rearing philosophies. On the other hand, Luke missed out on the experience of having a father until Evan came into his life. As a father figure substitute, I made sure Luke was involved in a church youth group that had strong male influences, as well as being involved in Cub Scouts. But, those activities were a poor second to having a relationship with his birth father. Since we've been married, Evan has adopted Luke; figuratively and literally.
Defining who you are and clarifying everyone's role in the "family" can make blending seem more like preparing a favorite recipe and less like a science experiment (one that could blow at any moment).
When building a blended family, it helps to expect the unexpected. Flexibility can be a great virtue, and-luckily for me-it is also an attitude that can be learned. I am a very focused person who carefully considers a path before I go down it. At that point, I'm like a tank; not a lot of maneuverability, but great at knocking down obstacles. My tenacity, however, makes me seem inflexible. Because our lives are constantly effected by influences and schedules beyond our control, I have had to learn to be flexible. Take it from the voice of experience, in any marriage you need to be flexible. A second marriage only adds to the number of situations in which flexibility is advisable, if not necessary. If you remain flexible, the road will be smoother for you and your family; kids, spouses, ex-spouses, and new spouses included.
Have you ever made homemade gravy? When my mother was teaching me to cook, she told me if you didn't want lumps in the gravy (and lumps were considered a very bad thing), you couldn't just dump thickener into the hot liquid already in the pan. Instead, you put a little bit of that hot liquid from the pan in a cup and carefully blend the thickener into it using a whisk. Once the blended thickener in the cup was smooth and free of lumps, you slowly pour the thickener into the rest of the liquid that was in the pan, and voila - no lumps.
Even when I was first learning to cook, I realized that this gravy-making process was an art that would take patience and lots of practice to learn to do well. Blending families is also an art that takes patience and practice.
The purpose of blending anything is to combine the separate parts into an integrated whole. Our blended family started out as a bunch of "people-parts": mom, dad, step-dad, step-mom, step-sons, step-daughter, grandparents, step-grandparents. Everyone had their own identity, their own interests, their own needs and wants. My husband and I knew that we had to somehow blend our disjointed parts into one whole family. We also knew that parents have the most critical role in this blending process, since they have the whisk and get to stir!
One of our successes was making a conscious effort to identify everyone's strengths - what they were really good at already or things they had a propensity for. Once we had that knowledge, we asked that person to use their skill for the benefit of the whole family. For instance, our eldest son James has always been very artistic. Whenever the family needed a sign drawn or a picture made, we asked James for his help. Not only did James enjoy being the resident artistic expert, Evan (my husband) and I appreciated the fact that we could delegate those artistic projects to someone else.
Probably the lumpiest part of our blending experience has been Evan's and my differing parenting styles. We both had prior parenting experiences with different spouses, so we had different parenting behavior patterns. Plus, we each learned different parenting techniques from our own mothers and fathers while we were growing up. It took us quite a bit of time to figure out what we were going to do. All the while, we knew it was critical to the health of our blended family to show a united front.
Eventually we came to an agreement, but not without many, many discussions. In fact, these discussions still happen all the time. The difference now is the discussions happen out of habit instead of a conscious decision to confer.
If the answer to an issue is not obvious, we excuse ourselves from the family so our conversation stays private. We believe it is essential the children see us as a unit, not as two separate individuals who disagree. We discuss the issues and come to a consensus. When we make our decision, we find the appropriate child (or children) and tell them the decision.
Don't get me wrong - the children do have lots of leeway to plead their case when appropriate. My point is we don't let them in on the content of our parenting conversations. We want to leave them no room to "divide and conquer," playing one parent off the other. In our opinion, the children don't need to know who was for or against a proposition. They just need to know what father and mother decided.
Okay, so how do you blend a family? Just like you make homemade gravy: patience, practice, and a really big whisk!
In our introduction, we mentioned that both Evan and I brought emotional baggage with us into our new marriage. The kind of baggage we're referring to leads to what we refer to as "emotional landmines". As anyone who has experience with landmines will tell you, they are extremely dangerous. One of their most lethal aspects is they are difficult to see because they are hidden just below the surface.
The first line of defense against a landmine is to expose it before it can explode. That is exactly what we hope to accomplish in this article. By exposing the emotional landmines that may be lurking just under your family' s emotional surface, you might be able to take action and disarm the landmine before it explodes.
There are several emotional landmines we have discovered that we'd like to expose for you.
When blending a new family, you must learn to speak the same language. The biggest hint I can offer you - one parent to another - is to not be overly sensitive about what other family members say. I learned this one the hard way. At the beginning of the blending process, there will be misunderstandings. Make sure you ask your children and your new spouse clarifying questions: When you say this, what exactly do you mean? Most times, you will find that hurt feelings are caused by misunderstandings, rather than someone purposely being mean or spiteful. Make sure you keep the lines of communication open.
When Evan and I were dating, we reacted automatically to certain phrases or attitudes. For instance, something that Evan and I have recently discovered is that he looks for hidden meaning in what other people say. (That's probably a hold-over from his earlier training.) Anyway, I am a very up front kind of gal. There is little hidden meaning in anything I do or say because I do and say what I mean. Evan was always trying to drill down beneath the surface of what I said to see what I really meant. When he couldn't find anything, he would get frustrated. All the time I was oblivious that there was a problem. We've pretty much resolved the issue now, but it is still an automatic reaction that Evan has to be aware of.
Something else we discovered in our blended family experience was parents are not the only ones bringing emotional baggage to a new family. In fact, the children are usually less able to handle this type of automatic reaction than adults. The best thing to do is to help your children understand a new family means you have to find a new place in that family. Circumstances and relationships aren't the same as they were. Make them feel as secure in your love as possible. That security goes a long way toward creating a calm household.
A big landmine to watch for in your children is the "it's my fault" syndrome. In many divorces, the children feel their parent's break-up is their fault. They accept the guilt themselves. Watch out for this one and, again, reinforce your love.
One thing that I told Luke about my divorce is that my first husband and I did not love one another any more. When Luke was older, he asked "Will you fall out of love with me too Mommy?" That question tore my heart apart, but it had to be answered. I explained that a parent's love for their child is a different kind of love from a marriage. My advice: prepare yourself for that question and formulate your answer now, before that landmine blows up.
Another emotional landmine: sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry, however, is only one of several rivalries happening in your blended household. There will be rivalries for attention from parents, grandparents, friends, and ex-spouses. Each parent's birth children will also compete with the new spouse for attention.
We've exposed some of the landmines we discovered in our blended family experience. The most important thing is being aware landmines exist and preparing your responses and reactions before these landmines can damage your blended family.
Example #1: Evan is a rough and tumble kind of dad. He likes to tease the kids, which included bouts of tickling and rolling around on the floor. When we were first married, Evan tried to treat Luke in the same way he treated James and Cathy. Luke would get his feelings hurt or be offended because of Evan's rough-housing. Instead of barging in and stopping the play (which was my first inclination, by the way), I spoke privately with Evan and asked him to talk with Luke about the "play" time. After Luke understood that Evan was only playing, Luke began to really enjoy their play times together. In fact, most bouts then turned into a three (the kids) against one (dad) event.
Example #2: While folding laundry near our downstairs play room, I overheard an argument between the boys. Cathy was in the room too. I almost barged into the room to declare a truce, but something in my heart held me in check. After a minute, Cathy chimed in and very effectively negotiated a solution. By not stepping in to their dialogue, the three children were able to solidify their relationships with one another.
There is no quicker solution for those having a problem with someone else than to pray for that person. I have found once I start praying, God changes my heart toward that other person. Because of those prayers and my changed heart, He gives me a renewed relationship with that person.
The step-mother relationship is one of the trickiest there is.
Expect resentment from the kids. Paula, a new step-mother, knows that the children resent her, because she has "replaced" their mother in their father's eyes. Because Paula is younger than their mother Heather (as is often the case), the kids continue to feel betrayed on behalf of Heather. However, if the children want their father, Scott, to be happy, and if they think Paula is a good person who will make him happy, then they may end up welcoming her.
Don't try to replace their mother. Paula knows well enough not to attempt to replace Heather, the children's mother. She does not compete with Heather, speaks well of Heather, and cooperates with Heather as much as she possibly can. The children appreciate those things.
Challenges of parenting. For a younger child, Paula sometimes finds herself in the role of having to be a parent. The children are visiting, Scott is working, and Paula is preparing meals or supervising homework. This is extremely tricky terrain. Paula tries to uphold existing standards set by Scott and Heather. Paula will be more parental, and have more success being parental, the younger are the children, the closer in age she is to Scott, and the more the children stay with Scott and Paula.
Challenges of an adolescent. It sometimes happens that the new spouse is only ten years or so older than the oldest child. In this case, the step-mother is tempted to become a buddy with the oldest child. This is fine, to a point. The adolescent girl may even feel more comfortable sharing details of her social life that she can not share with her mother. But this has to be a one way street. The step-mother should not share intimate details with her step-daughter.
Challenges of new children. If Scott and Paula have another child, the older children will feel very left out. Scott will tend to be very focused on this new child, as, of course, will Paula. Scott has to work very hard to be sure to continue to make the older children feel wanted and loved.
Challenges of the ex-spouse. Because of the marriage, Heather now has a "family"-type relationship with Paula. The more Heather can put aside all her emotions toward Paula and work with her for the good of the children, the better off the children will be. Some couples that are bound together this way are actually reasonably cordial toward each other -- although this is much less likely where the man had dated the second wife during his first marriage. Heather must work hard to refrain from trying to find out about Scott's new marriage. But if she manages it, everyone will probably be happier as a result.
Husband gets in the middle. Scott is now in the middle. Often he's the referee, between Paula, who wants the kids to eat their vegetables (for example), and the kids who don't. It's a no-win situation for Scott, as he can't afford to alienate either side. The best Scott can do is to call them as he sees them, then talk it over separately with the "losing" side afterward, basically to assure them of his continuing love.
When Kimberley marries Arnold, Arnold becomes a step-father.
Be ready for trouble with boys. Kimberley's daughter is more amenable to a new stepfather than is the son. Boys strongly resent the new man "replacing" their father. The son may also be reacting against the new man replacing him as the man of the house, and replacing his relationship with his mother. It's the Oedipal reaction again.
Attraction to daughters. Step-fathers often find themselves attracted to the adolescent daughters of their new wives. Arnold finds Helene attractive.
He's not sure whether he's allowed to admit it to himself. He's tempted to react by severely limiting her social life, to show her that he's against any sort of adolescent social activity. But he instead lets himself be guided by Kimberley. He does admit the attraction to himself, but he keeps it to himself. Sometimes, he wants to pick a fight with Helene, just to prove that he's not attracted to her. But he does not do that, either. Ease into discipline. Arnold's position is ambiguous. As a man, he thinks he should be the key disciplinarian. But the children are virtual strangers to him. He's unsure of his role. And he is wondering how good a parent he will be to these children. Some men react to these uncertainties by jumping into the role of strict disciplinarian right away. Arnold makes what is usually a better decision: he decides to ease into it. At first, he lets Kimberley continue to make and enforce the rules, as she has been doing. Then, very gradually, as he gets to know the children and understand what they need, he may assume some responsibilities. He knows that it's better to never get there than to jump in too soon.
Develop separate relationships with the children. Arnold knows that the children have to develop a separate relationship with him. At first, he is just a man who happens to love their mother and happens to live with them. But, through a thousand tiny loving and helping transactions with the children, he builds a separate relationship with the children. Only then does he will become a part of their family, in their eyes.
A 'blended' family or stepfamily faces many challenges. Stepfamily members have experienced important losses. They have limited shared family histories or shared ways of doing things, and they may have very different beliefs. As with any achievement, developing good stepfamily relationships requires a lot of effort.
According to adolescent mental health specialists, a young person may feel torn between the parents he or she lives with, and the "divorced" parent who lives somewhere else. In addition, newly married couples may not have enough time alone to adjust to their new relationship. If these challenges are faced creatively, members of the "blended" family can help build strong bonds among themselves through:
Developing new skills in making decisions as a family
Fostering and strengthening new relationships between parents, as well as step parent-to-step child and step sibling-to-stepsibling
While facing these issues may be difficult, most stepfamilies do work out their problems by consulting grandparents, clergy, support groups and other community based programs. Parents experiencing difficulties might find it helpful to seek outside support, when any family member feels alone dealing with the losses, torn between two parents or two households, excluded, isolated by feelings of guilt and anger, unsure about what is right, or uncomfortable with any member of the original family or stepfamily.
The following signs, if they are lasting or persistent, also suggest the need for outside help:
I am indebted to all of these for some of the wisdom shared above. If any material has been quoted at length, acknowledgement of the source has been made.
Blended Families' webring:
And even a website for special Blended Families' Greeting Cards:
Select any or all from the following:
1. Have sitcoms like The Brady Bunch help us cope with the realities of blended families - or discouraged us?
2. List some ways to reassure children - your own, and step-children - that they are loved.
3. What are some "blended family bonding experiences"? IOne blended family's list: camping trips, vacations, rock climbing adventures, sailing and general stuff that "the guys" can do together. What are yours?
4. How do you teach children about loving people you don't like?
5. Is it wise for a step-parent to disclose to a step-child that they don't 'like' him or her?
6. Chores: what's the best approach? How should chores match the age-level, gender, and special abilities of the child? How should chores be negotiated with children - together with 'consequences'?
7. 'Pocket money should never be given to children for doing jobs around the house. That's part of their privilege/ responsibility in belonging to a community.' Do you agree? Discuss some of the wisdom about how much money to give to children, when, for what?
8. The tidiness question: some children are better organized with their things than others. How do you figure out the guidelines here? At what age do teenagers become totally responsible for the tidiness/cleanliness of their room?
9. The Bible has little or nothing to teach us about blended families as such. But share the age-tested principles from the Scriptures which guide us here...
[Feel free to email me with more discussion questions to be added to these].