These days blended families are often the new normal. Ask any schoolchild and they’ll say that actually few of their classmates live happily with their natural mother and father. Sadly, separation, divorce and re-partnering are too common.
Making a remarriage work in an appropriate, caring and workable way is a huge challenge. There are a million ways to get it wrong and few guidelines on how to get it right.
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There are free (or almost free) courses and programs from Relationships Australia, so your first step should be to contact them and engage in a class that will raise your awareness of whats important, the risks and some suggestions on how to do it successfully.
Each situation is unique, but there are often many aspects that are similar, such as access arrangements, rivalry and jealousy, and miffed ex-partners who can make a difficult situation even worse.
At the beginning it’s important to acknowledge that this is a big step and not everyone is going to leap into being part of the ‘new family’. For a while at least it is going to feel like two separate families who are living under the same roof, and it takes a while for new routines to settle in, new dynamics to form and for everyone to feel like they have a place which is respected. Everyone’s needs have to be taken into account – even if one of the kids appears particularly undemanding and accommodating its important that all are listened to (they can be struggling as much as the one who is acting out).
Children may feel a complex set of emotions, among them grief over the loss of their original family and they may be quick to find fault and blame their new step-parent or step-siblings. Expert help is available (Relationships Australia) to help these children come to terms with what has happened and to find their healthy selves in the new situation.
Working out and accommodating different parentings styles is a common problem. The ‘best’ approach is called the Authoritative style but you may find that your new partner is too liberal or too authoritarian, or may be showing an unfair bias towards their children. Being a step-parent (whether or not you have children of your own) can be a mine-field.
The solution to these and all problems is open and calm communication, and an agreement to discuss and agree on issues rather than one having an automatic right and the other having to agree all the time. Regular meetings – with parents only and with kids as well – are the way to go. Parents should have an united front, so need to have discussed and agreed all issues before the frustrations and conflicts are opened up to discussion with the children. Teamwork between the new step parents is key.
Each adult will come to the new family with woundings from their previous marriage, and these have to be managed delicately. Children too are vulnerable and will not take well to a new parent stepping into the absent parent’s shoes. Explain to the children that, in your house, both adults can enforce consequences to any of the children, and it’s expected that the children will obey the stepparent as they would any other authority figure.
It is important that no-one feels that they are losing out in the new domestic arrangement. Sometimes the new couples has to really go the extra mile to make sure that there is no favouritism evident, and neither their own children or their new step-children feel any bias, or feel left out. All their old arrangements such as sporting obligations and hobbies, as well as friendships, need to be maintained as best as possible. And their contact with their now-absent parent needs to be respected, even if in your eyes the ex is unworthy. It shouldn’t need to be said that the children should not be used as go-betweens or asked to choose their favourite parent. Such games will lead to damage and pain to the children. Always speak of the ex with respect. Research shows that the children who suffer most from divorce and remarriage are those who witness difficult emotional and adult scenes, while those who settle best into a newly blended family are those who feel safe, loved and have space to have their individuality respected and nurtured.
Importance of a United Front
Discipline can be a difficult area, and sometimes its better to lose a battle to win the war. Having said that, kids will quickly discover where their parents and step-parents vulnerable spots are, and focus on them. So an united front with clear lines of responsibility and obligation is a good place to start. Its often helpful for stepparents to focus more on building a bond than disciplining the children. Without a healthy relationship discipline won’t work, especially with adolescents.
Even the most dedicated stepparent can get exhausted, overwhelmed, and on the way to burn-out. Stepparents need a place to go to blow off steam and to feel connected with friends and other family. That might mean calling a loved one while walking around the block, or finding time to go to the beach or park when things get too much. Or better still, plan an overnight to a place in nature with a good friend. Just as parents need time to refuel and reconnect with people they are close to, stepparents also need a respite from the stress of step-parenting.
Despite problems, a blended family is still just that—a family. Although there might be growing pains, squabbles and a few moments of discipline, everyone will eventually adjust to the new situation. Mistakes will be made, by children and by adults, but everyone will learn from those mistakes. Eventually, the household will feel less like a mish-mash of families and more like one solid unit. Just give it time.