Approximately 75 percent of Americans who divorce eventually remarry. Many of these couples have children, and the transition to becoming a stepfamily can be challenging. Coping with the emotions of a breakup, collaborating with an ex, the blending of families, managing schedules, navigating stepsibling relationships and children adapting to new parental relationships can make this experience complicated. Members of the family may be at different stages in their feelings and adaptation to change. Experts estimate that it takes between two to five years for a stepfamily to establish itself. Growing pains are expected; however, there are many opportunities for joy and fulfillment in these familial systems.
Children thrive on fair and consistent discipline. In the absence of this, children may become anxious, insecure and confused. Tension often comes when dealing with discipline in blended families. When children are aware that there is a disagreement regarding discipline, they may manipulate situations so that adults are against one another. Communicate with your partner and your ex regarding the values you wish to promote in your home. Discuss discipline and household rules. When blending families first come together, biological parents should take the lead on enforcing rules. The stepparent should support the biological parent while working on creating strong bonds with stepchildren.
Children in blended families often spend a significant amount of time in transition. Creating rituals can help them ease into their routines. For example, on the way home from a pick-up, create a consistent ritual or predictable event such as stopping for a snack or playing a certain song. This provides the child with something fun and predictable to anticipate before heading into a different space. Create a weekly calendar to help children keep track of where they will be. Offer a permanent space for items so children do not feel like visitors. Place pictures of all family members around the house.
Research indicates that a major stressor for children during a breakup is when parents speak negatively about one another in their presence. Exposure to these negative interactions and conversations can have lifelong effects. Remember that you and your former partner are linked for life when children are involved. Establishing a new and healthy relationship is the key to the success of a blended family and the transition your children face. Having negative feelings is normal, but share them with adult family and friends. Do not expose your children to these feelings.
Blended families need time to bond and to settle into new routines and relationships. Find small moments to connect such as reading stories together, watching movies and playing games. Make children feel secure, loved and heard. Ideally, the rules would be consistent between homes. As this may not always be possible, be wise in objecting and compromise when possible. Remember bonding is a gradual process. Relationships develop slowly. Consider family therapy to strengthen the couple relationship, to help navigate tension between former partners, to reduce conflict and to help children find a place to process their emotions and feel heard. Growing up in a blended family can help children be flexible, adaptable and able to build relationships with a diverse group of people.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator. Simonetti is a former kindergarten teacher.