Blended families, or stepfamilies, are becoming increasingly common in the United States. Studies show that nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce and that at least half of the nation's children live with a biological parent and the parent's partner (when the partner is not the other biological parent), who might be called a stepparent or a "bonus" parent.
The joining of two parents and their respective children can create challenges, as children may be accustomed to different parenting styles and family routines. As they adapt to the new family structure, children are likely to experience stress due to visitations or conflict between their biological parents, between one parent and the other parent’s new partner, or with their stepsiblings. Before blending a family, all members may find it beneficial to speak to a therapist about the transition.
Research shows 66% of second marriages including children from previous marriages fail. This may be due in part to the increased stress experienced by all members of a new blended family. Stress in a new family situation is normal, even if the transition appears to have gone well, and although the term "blended family" might imply a smooth transition, the early years of a stepfamily relationship are often more likely to be difficult for all involved.
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Individuals who do not have children of their own, and are thus becoming parents for the first time when they enter the stepparent role, might face additional stress as they become accustomed to the new role along with a new marriage. They may struggle to find the right balance between winning the affection and love of the children and parenting them appropriately, and it may take time to adjust to parenthood and be welcomed by a partner's children.
Children, especially older children, can easily become stressed by change, particularly when multiple changes occur at once. Children are often the ones most affected by the blending of a family: After children have experienced the divorce of their parents, they may find it difficult to adjust to a new parent and that parent's new rules, and they might express their frustration with behavioral or emotional outbursts.
Some children may also struggle with feelings for the new parent: Before the blending, a child may view a parent's significant other as a friend, but when the significant other becomes a parent, the child may resent what he or she views as a "replacement" of his or her other parent. Children might also be reluctant to trust a stepparent, especially those who may feel abandoned by a biological parent following a divorce. Further, when the child comes to care for the stepparent, he or she may struggle with the new emotions, as the child may feel that love for the stepparent somehow betrays his or her biological parent.
Sibling rivalry can also take on a new dimension, as children may feel compelled to compete for attention and dominance in the new household. A child may also worry that his or her biological parents may come to prefer the child's stepsiblings.
Visitations with the other parent can also present difficulties. What was once the "normal" routine—one family spending unscheduled and unstructured time together every day, planning events in a flexible or spontaneous manner—gives way to what can be a confusing, insecure pattern, where scheduling conflicts create tension, and new family members may find it difficult to find the time to get used to one another. In addition, children may complain about the stepparent to the "outside" parent, which can strain relations in what may already be a tense relationship.
Grief can also be a factor in the transition. When a remarriage takes place following the death of one parent, a child may still be grieving the loss of the other parent and could be further triggered by the remarriage. Children in these situations will often need more space and time to finish the grieving process before they can come to accept the new parent.
Studies show that it generally takes between two and five years for a blended family to transition successfully. The first few years may prove difficult for some families, but when members of the family recognize that the new family will not be the same as the previous family, learn to respect each other, acknowledge the time needed to accept the changes and give new relationships time to form, they will often be able to succeed as a family.
Adults who are planning to remarry or cohabitate with children from previous relationships might wish to plan ahead and prepare to face challenges by talking with one another and with their children about any possible differences in parenting styles and positive ways to handle any conflicts that might arise. When parenting changes take place before the actual marriage, the transition to living together will often go more smoothly.
Praise, encouragement, and demonstrated affection may all help ease the concerns of children who are reluctant to trust a stepparent or who are worried that a biological parent might come to love them less. Parents may also wish to reassure their children that they will answer any questions and discuss any feelings the children might have.
Some families may also find it beneficial to attend therapy as a family. Counseling both before a remarriage that will result in a blended family and during the transition process may help ease the tensions that often arise in newly blended families.
Family therapy is often an effective way for a blended family to work through the issues that each member brings to the new family. Family members can expect to attend most sessions as a group, though the therapist may also schedule separate, supplemental sessions with each child and with one or both parents. There are many approaches to family counseling, though most are linked to family systems therapy, which views the family as a system and each member's role as being directly informed by the functioning of the family system. Other approaches include family attachment narrative therapy.
Parents face the challenge of sorting out their new roles and setting boundaries with regards to parenting, discipline, financial obligations, and time. Family therapy can help address these issues, and a therapy session also provides a platform for each member to voice his or her feelings in a respectful way. Children can express their fears and concerns and, through therapy, come to a better understanding about their place within the new family unit and may be reassured about their parent's continued love and affection for them. Parents might also learn ways to maintain a healthy relationship with their children while building a new and loving bond with their spouse and stepchildren.
- Adolescent son with behavioral problems in blended family: The Williams family accompanies 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 for seven years. The transition seemed smooth at first, but sessions with the therapist reveal that Dustin’s sister recently graduated from high school and moved out and that Dustin’s father is working more hours, leaving Dustin and his stepmother alone together for longer periods of time. Dustin’s father admits that he has always trusted his wife to discipline Dustin as she saw fit, as the two children she raised are grown and quite successful. Ms. 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 that he does not want to hurt his stepmother’s feelings. Sessions focus on helping Ms. Williams avoid taking Dustin’s behavior personally, encouraging Dustin to express his feelings about his mother openly, and finding a compromise between the parenting techniques of Dustin's father and those of Dustin's stepmother.
- Stepmother establishing boundaries with stepchildren: Susan, 42, has remarried and is unsure how to treat her stepchildren, who are in elementary school. 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 distances herself slightly from her stepchildren, they act out, and her new husband becomes irritated. The therapist immediately asks Susan’s husband to attend their sessions, and in these sessions, it is revealed that Susan is home with the children a great deal and is expected to discipline them, but that Susan and her husband have not come to any explicit agreements about discipline, privileges, expectations, and so forth. Once these agreements are made, the 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, the therapist helps the children express their concerns to their mother so that she can allay them directly.
- Bliss, B. (1998, October 15). Step Families. Retrieved from http://parenthood.library.wisc.edu/Bliss/Bliss.html.
- Kemp, G., Segal, J., & Robinson, L. (2015, February 1). Step-Parenting and Blended Families. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/family-divorce/step-parenting-blended-families.htm.
- Robinson, H. (n.d.). Navigating the Challenges of Blended Families. Retrieved from http://www.parents.com/parenting/divorce/blended-families/challenges-of-blended-families.