Households in which two married people are the parents of all the children in the home are now the exception in the United States. Divorce affects more marriages than not, and step-families or “blended families” are nearly as common. This situation raises challenges, as children may be accustomed to different parenting styles, may experience stress due to visitations, or due to conflict between their parents or between one parent and the other parent’s new spouse. Sibling rivalry can take on a new dimension, as children may feel compelled to compete for attention and dominance in the new household. Visitations mean that the once typical circumstance, in which families were together day after day and could therefore work out harmonious arrangements in due time, gives way to what can be a confusing, insecure pattern, where new family members never have quite enough to get used to one another. All in all, blending families present many unavoidable challenges.
The first thing to remember is that increased stress in a new family situation is normal and should not be cause for alarm. To the contrary, adults who are planning to remarry or cohabitate with children from previous relationships should plan ahead to face such challenges, by talking with one another and, after they come to some understanding, with their children, about parenting styles and agreements, how to handle conflicts, and any difficult feelings or questions the children may have. No matter what the kids say, assume they do have such emotions and questions, and don’t stop asking about them just because they don’t immediately reveal themselves.
Marriage and family therapy is one of the most effective ways to help a blended family work through the issues that each member brings to the new family. Children of blended families may struggle with issues such as jealousy, confusion, animosity, resentment, rivalry, loyalty and loss. They may still be trying to sort out the pain and grief over the loss of the family they had. If there are step-siblings, the children of both parents may feel like they are losing their remaining parent to the new spouse. This can cause sibling rivalry and tension for all of the children. Parents must also sort out their new roles and set boundaries with regards to parenting, discipline, financial obligations and time. Family therapy can help address these issues and provides a platform for each member to voice their feelings in a respectful and loving way. Children can express their fears and concerns and discover their place within the new family unit. Parents can learn how to maintain a healthy relationship with their children while building a new and loving bond with their spouse and step-children. Family constellation therapy, family systems therapy and family attachment narrative therapy are just a few of the types of therapy that focus on the family.
The Williams family presents their son, Dustin, 14, to a therapist, complaining about Dustin’s behavioral problems in school, which have come on suddenly over the last semester. Mr Williams, Dustin’s father, remarried three years previously after being divorced from Dustin’s mother ten years ago. The transition seemed smooth at first. Upon investigation, it is discovered that Dustin’s sister recently graduated high school and moved out, and also that Dustin’s father is working more hours, leaving Dustin and his step mom at home alone much of the evening. Dustin’s father admits that he has always simply trusted his wife to discipline Dustin as she saw fit, as she raised two children on her own (her husband died several years ago) who are now grown and quite successful. Mrs Williams’ parenting style is nothing extreme, but she is somewhat stricter than Dustin’s father, and while she and Dustin are fond of each other, she is not as energetic or warm as her husband. In private, Dustin confides to the therapist that he misses his mother terribly but doesn’t want to hurt his stepmother’s feelings. Sessions focus on helping Mrs Williams avoid taking Dustin’s behavior personally, helping Dustin express his feelings about his mother openly, and coming to agreements between the Williams’ regarding parenting techniques.
Susan, 42, has remarried and is unsure how to treat her stepchildren, who are elementary school aged. She finds that if she treats them the same way she treats her own children, who are slightly older, her children get jealous; however, if she is more distant from her step children, they act out, and her new husband becomes irritated. The therapist immediately asks Susan’s husband to attend their sessions; it is revealed that Susan is home with the children a great deal and is expected to discipline them, but that the two parents have not made any explicit agreements about discipline, privileges, expectations, and so forth. Once these agreements are made, the other children are brought into the session. While there is no explicit discussion of the difficulties Susan is having, the process of being together all at once as a family helps the children bond, and Susan’s children find they can enjoy a new role as elder siblings without being jealous. In private sessions with Susan’s children, they disclose their feelings of rivalry, which the therapist normalizes, and, later, with Susan present, the therapist helps the children to express their concerns so that Susan can allay them directly.
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Last updated: 05-02-2014
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