According to Stats Canada, 4 in 10 first time marriages will end in divorce. Approximately 40% of families end up in transitions leading to significant changes for parents and children. Blended families are now the new reality in our Canadian society.
At the heart of the “blended” family are the children. As adults, we are less aware of how difficult it is to go through transitions as children. Dr. David Anderson states “One of the reasons why transitions may be hard is that we’re often transitioning from a preferred activity – something we like doing – to something that we need to do.”
For children, the loss of the biological family system is significant. As parents restore their lives, they often transition to new relationships. As these new relationships form for the adults, children are not positioned by “choice” into these new blended families, but instead must “adapt”.
Common Mistakes Parents and Step Parents Make in Trying to Form the Blended Family
Parents can be overzealous to make all children “get along.” Relationships between the children must “evolve” and develop over time rather than being “enforced.” I often tell step parents, you are not a fully accepted step parent until the child gives you this role. To become a step parent, you need to earn this role by investing into the relationship with the children in a meaningful, loving and nurturing way.
Many parents immediately start disciplining each other’s kids rather than building the relationship first and easing into this role. Parents often underestimate the stress their children feel while transitioning back and forth between two homes. These back and forth transitions are very stressful and difficult for children. Parents will sometimes bring up an embarrassing subject in front of new siblings or new parents. Be considerate about when and where topics are to be discussed, and even more, how they are discussed.
Parents should avoid talking about their “ex” disparagingly in front of others. Remember that when you negatively discuss the “ex” in front of the child, you are tearing down the other parent, whom they ultimately love deeply, regardless of how well or not they function within this role. Creating the 3C’s in parenting creates a healthy culture. The 3 C’s of healthy parenting includes “Cooperative” ,“Collaborative” and “Caring” co-parenting approaches between ALL parents including biological and step parents is in the best interest of developing adjusted, secure children. Anything less than this is “counter-parenting” and harmful to children’s emotional needs.
When conflict arises between children or parents, overprotecting your child and alienating out your partner’s children is traumatic for the children. At the heart of a healthy blended family is creating a “safe environment” for everyone. When children experience any forms of alienation within the family system, they feel unsafe, unloved and unprotected. Children cannot thrive well within these environments where they lack healthy connection with the adults in their life.
To build caring, supportive homes for blended families where children can thrive emotionally and confidently, the following key areas will make a difference:
Often, parents have their own anxiousness for everything to work out and for all children to get along, this can cause them to have unrealistic expectations. Slow the process down and allow space for the children to express what they are feeling, creating a safe place where this can be openly shared without repercussions. It is important to try and not “pretend” that you are all one big happy family. This can invalidate what the children are actually really feeling. Initially, be cautious of overdoing too many joint activities.
Allow the children to climatize to these significant changes in their life. Your process of blending the family will go no quicker/faster than your slowest member (child) of the family in the adaptation process. Remember this: “adults and children cannot be PUSHED into change” but instead nurtured through this process with patience and gentleness.
Include Children in the Process
“If an ‘original’ parent suddenly says to their own child, ‘you will be sharing your room with Susie every other weekend,’ that can create a problem for the two kids right away,” Amy Klein (Psychotherapist) says, “It is critical to talk with your child before making a decision on their living arrangements.” As parents, you will need to listen to their opinion and honour the feeling around their dramatically shifting world. Provide continual support by listening to them, encouraging them, validating them and reassuring them as you go through this process with them. They need to know you hear them and that their voice really matters.
Support and Keep the Connections Between Biological Parents
Where children experience two separate homes, where the biological parents are openly respectful of the other parent in each others’ home, this builds safety and support for the children. Children deeply hurt when parents and step parents engage in “other” parent bashing. Children love both parents and are protective of this special relationship and bond. Trying to negatively influence this can only impact your child’s relationship with you. One final thought here: be careful asking your child to keep secrets from their other biological parent. This will also push your child away from you over time, as children know, and are taught that secrets are not good to keep overall.
Integrate the Blended Family Appropriately
“When appropriate, new parents should have a role in their step-children’s lives such as going to school plays, picking up at school or an activity, helping with homework,” Amy Klein states. One area where there needs to be sensitivity is around discipline. “New parents should not be disciplining their new step-children when they start living together. This will not make for a smooth transition.” Each home needs to develop household rules that apply to everyone. You can start with this by structuring a fun evening activity with food and then hold a family meeting afterwards to go over all the household rules and chores. Have the children also participate in the development of the household guidelines for the home. With a family meeting “everyone is up on all the household guidelines and there are no secrets, nobody gets special consideration.” Offer collaborative support for children living in two separate homes in an individualized way, meeting each child’s needs.
Be Creative to Meet the Individualized Needs of the Children
“Going back and forth for kids is always difficult, they ostensibly live in two houses and often have to deal with two sets of step-siblings,” Klein explains. “Every effort should be made to ease this transition.” Along with this, “parents should talk to their kids the night before they leave for the other house, to ask them how they’re feeling, if they need help packing anything or if anything is coming up in the next few days, that they may need to speak to them about. Often kids worry that they will be missing out on some fun that their step-siblings will be having while they’re at their other parents house for the weekend. This is all a tricky balance and it’s incumbent upon the parents to keep checking in with the kids to see how they’re doing, don’t assume all is fine. This is not a time for that!
Living transitions can take a long time to master, parents have to be patient, think outside the box. Build a home full of fun, connection and meaningful relationships for children, where they feel good coming home to when they are with you.