Modern Family: Tips for Happy Blended Families
Families come in all shapes and sizes. The 2009 U.S. Census found that as many as 16 percent of children in America lived in a blended family, and that number has only continued to rise over the past decade. Blended families bring new opportunities for love and connection, but they also come with some unique challenges, from different holiday traditions and religious practices to conflicting household rules to complicated schedules.
So how can you make sure your modern family thrives in harmony? Here are a few tips.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Communication is critical to any relationship. This is even more true for blended families, with all of their moving pieces: parents, stepparents, children, stepchildren, multiple extended families. Open, honest, and frequent communication is key to keeping things running smoothly.
If possible, make sure that all the adults involved in childcare communicate on a regular basis. This can be done over the phone, through email, or via text or messaging app. Consistent communication will help ensure that important information—school or extracurricular schedules, doctors’ appointments or updated medical information, or new behavioral or social struggles—doesn’t fall through the cracks. It can also help parents and caretakers get on the same page when it comes to rules, such as chores, curfews, and appropriate punishments. Finally, regular check-ins, even when there is nothing big to communicate, can also help maintain open, cooperative relationships among all the grown-ups in the picture.
And don’t forget about the kids! Talking regularly and openly with your children, and making sure they feel safe talking to you as well, is key to easing the growing pains as you build your blended family. Ensure children that their new step-parent is not going to replace their mother or father and that they are still safe, loved, and cherished. Schedule regular family meetings to discuss upcoming schedule changes, address any challenges or hurt feelings, and plan family fun. If children aren’t comfortable discussing something as a group or even in person, encourage them to express themselves in a letter or an email to a trusted adult. Establishing an “open door” policy can go a long way to helping children feel comfortable communicating with the adults in their life.
Be Patient, Respectful, and Compassionate
Relationships aren’t built overnight. Rather, they need time and care to grow strong. If you are just beginning your transition into a blended family, be patient with yourself and others. Everyone adjusts to change at a different pace, and every family faces bumps in the road. If you go into the process not expecting perfection and willing to meet your partner and children where they are, you’ll be setting your new family up for success.
Respect is also a critical factor in building a strong blended family. We all have moments of frustration, but how we handle that frustration can go a long way toward making or breaking a relationship. Even if a co-parenting situation is difficult, never speak badly about a child’s other parent or caretaker in front of them, and make sure to treat children equally and with respect. In addition to modelling respectful behavior, you should also set clear expectations for children; let them know what language and behaviors are appropriate and what the consequences are for disrespectful behavior.
Finally, be compassionate. Change, even an exciting change, can be difficult. Children especially may need more time and space to process their emotions and adjust to new schedules and living arrangements. Acknowledge the challenges and try to make your children feel seen, heard, and valued.
Take Care of Your Relationship with Your Significant Other — and Yourself
When making the transition to a blended family, it’s very easy, and natural, for parents to focus all of their attention on easing the adjustment for the children. However, the children are not the only members of the family! Maintaining a strong relationship with your significant other is just as important and will benefit everyone in the end by establishing your new family on a stable foundation. Modeling love, respect, open communication, and trust can ease the transition for children, make them feel more secure in the new family structure, and encourage them to behave similarly. So make sure you and your partner regularly take time away as a couple to maintain your connection.
Similarly, you should also continue to prioritize your relationship with yourself! Taking time for self-care and for your own interests and hobbies isn’t selfish; it’s healthy and essential for mental and emotional well-being. Even if you can only get away for a 10-minute jog or read a couple of pages of a good book, you’ll come back feeling calmer and more refreshed—ultimately making you a better parent and partner.
Make Children Feel Involved
The remarriage or cohabitation of a parent can bring up a lot of complicated emotions for children, including potential feelings of abandonment and loss of control. Parents can help mitigate these feelings by involving children in (age-appropriate) decisions. If the transition involves moving to a new house, let children choose how to decorate their rooms. On family fun nights, let children choose which restaurant to order take-out from or which movie they want to watch or game they want to play. Establish new holiday, summer, or family travel traditions together.
If you are a new step-parent, take the time to get to know your step-children on an individual basis. Learn about their interests and spend time with them by yourself. This will help them feel more settled with you and build your bond on both sides.
If there is a new step-sibling on the way, you can help ease sibling rivalry by asking older children to help decorate the nursery or pick out clothes and toys. When the baby arrives, let them help with caretaking. Most importantly, make sure that older children still have time with both new parents so they don’t feel overshadowed or forgotten. You can schedule special “big brother or sister” dates or even just dedicate a few minutes each night before bedtime to catch up.
By being intentional and putting in conscious effort to build your blended family’s relationship, you’ll all walk away with a stronger sense of love, safety, and trust.