Stepparenting Success: Creating a Healthy Blended FamilyJul 31, 2023 ● By Julie Peterson
Blended families are complex and often challenging. A marriage between two people that already have children creates new relationships with individuals that were strangers not long ago. The newlyweds must nurture their own kids while forming new bonds with stepchildren, and the children may need to figure out how to accept a stepparent into their lives, share physical and emotional space with stepsiblings or spend part of their time in their other parent’s home.
It’s a lot to ask. Imagine this through the eyes of a young child or teenager. It might be confusing, frustrating or infuriating. Fortunately, there are methods to knit a blended family into a strong and enduring tapestry.
Beat the Odds
According to Julee Peterson, a California-based therapist at Helping Blended Families, 65 percent of families are blended. It is the new norm. And yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 23 percent of second marriages end in divorce after five years and 39 percent dissolve after 10 years. Peterson notes, “Many reputable scholars still project the overall divorce rate for all marriages to be between 40 and 50 percent.”
To avoid becoming part of these statistics, it is crucial to manage expectations before creating a blended family. “What roles do you see each other playing? How are you going to handle discipline, experience holidays, safeguard your relationship or deal with divorce drama?” asks Christina McGhee, MSW, author of Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids.
See the Child’s Point of View
McGhee, who prefers to be called “bonus mom” by her two stepchildren, cautions parents not to underestimate the amount of stress that blended families experience due to different parenting styles, uncooperative coparents and revolving schedules. “But it’s still possible to create an environment where everybody feels connected and accepted,” she asserts.
“Even very young children pick up on body language and stress,” says McGhee. “Kids can do remarkably well having one household that is grounded, balanced and supportive with parental figures that validate their feelings, shield them from conflict, create opportunities for conversation and remain consistent and predictable.”
Set Practical Boundaries
While it’s OK if a stepchild is not comfortable with a stepparent right away, “the child should have an understanding of the importance of the stepparent in their life, and that the stepparent should be treated with respect,” says attorney Victoria Kelly, a partner at Sefton Kelly Family Law, in Naperville, Illinois.
Although a couple may be excited to embark upon a blended family adventure, their children may feel pressured into instantly liking or accepting a stepparent. “Kids may feel a loyalty conflict or worry about betraying the other parent if they accept the stepparent,” says McGhee, suggesting that stepparents encourage and support one-on-one time with the other parent. “It’s critical for bonus parents to honor the history that your bonus children have,” she advises. “Part of their lives didn’t include you. Respect that.”
Collaborate With the Coparent
“You have zero control over the decisions that coparents make—what they do, what they say, the rules that they establish,” says McGhee. “But you always have a choice about how you respond and how you engage. Focus on what you can control.”
“It’s important to have an open line of communication with the other parent, but if the other parent is not comfortable speaking with the stepparent, that boundary should be respected, advises Kelly. “All families can benefit from monthly meetings.”
“Often, there are issues that kids are navigating behind the scenes that don’t make it on our parent radar,” McGhee notes, suggesting that parents set up a transition time when children are moving between households, such as a gathering around the dinner table to talk about the things that took place while apart. “Kids need some emotional space to shift gears,” she says. “When they’re with the other parent, keep communication open, so that when the children come back through the door, they don’t get sensory overload.”
Create Memories Together
Will Smith, senior business development manager for Acrow Bridge, in Alabama, raised one biological son and one stepson. He says that each child is different, so every situation needs to be customized to meet their needs. Smith and his wife presented a clear and consistent front when setting long-term values and goals for the kids—expecting the boys to do well in school and go to college—and they leaned in hard to achieve those objectives.
Stepparents can gradually incorporate quality togetherness by celebrating holidays, new rituals or even ordinary activities. “My relationship with my stepson grew through a shared interest in sports,” Smith says. “As a family, we played a lot of board games and had some favorite movies. These things became traditions.”
Julie Peterson is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.