The challenges of blended families ...
My previous article How to talk to kids about Divorce generated discussion around introducing kids to potential step parents. This is a topic parents initiate, while children typically talk about ‘not wanting to go for overnight access’ or ‘not getting along with step siblings’, they rarely talk about step parents, unless one biological parent wants to know ‘how the kids are getting along with Dad’s new partner.’
My observations suggest children who have experienced parental separation, often become guarded when asked about step parents. For the most part, they feel disloyal if they say how they really feel. Psychologists can serve as mediators when children or blended families are in a tough bind of divided loyalties.
But let’s be clear - not all step parents are evil. On the contrary, many step parents I talk to lack confidence in their parenting skills. Others crave a close connection with their step kids.
In my experience, blended families require more communication rather than less.
Two examples come to mind. Both are step mothers. One is proactive, 32 and very beautiful. She contacted our clinic on behalf of her husband and his three children to schedule weekly family appointments. In our first session, this new step mum did most of the talking - Her topics of choice? Homework and house rules. The eldest child, 10, started groaning and placed his head on the table after 5 minutes while the boy’s father sided with his new partner. I suggested a father-son session for the following week. We agreed there was plenty to discuss.
Fast forward five years and we have our next case example. This step mother has signed up for our “Understanding Adolescents” workshop. She hopes to build a relationship with her 15-year-old step son who has not spoken to her since she moved in with his father three years ago. This step mum is saddened by the situation. She would like her husband to deal with his son’s behaviour, but past attempts have only landed more conflict for this blended family.
In my experience, blended families require more communication rather than less. Biological parents are advised to ‘check in regularly’ with kids and step parents; to ask ‘How’s it going with....(Insert step child’s/step parent’s name here)’ and ‘what’s worked best this week?’ Look for exceptions, when things go slightly better and do more of that. For example, unpacking the shopping together may be more comfortable than a face to face attempt at conversation.
When both biological parents encourage respect for step parents, children are more likely to follow suit, and vise versa. Keep your weekly check-in brief, refrain from taking sides and strengthen your partnerships by brainstorming solutions together.
To prevent issues arising in blended families, my best advice to potential step parents is to observe your partner’s parenting style before you move in together and decide if this matches your own approach. If not, negotiate the details together to establish a consistent parenting style.
In best case scenarios, a discussion around consistent parenting would involve both biological parents and both step parents or long-term partners. Having been involved in meetings such as these, children with two sets of parents, typically enjoy negotiating shared rules for both of their homes. An experienced psychologist can help families find a halfway point without dwelling on any one issue. Problem solved, let’s move on.
One topic which requires more time and sensitivity to resolve is jealousy within blended families. Fathers report children from a previous marriage can be the source of tension for days before an access visit. Attempts to schedule one-to-one time with children can result in arguments or silence from step parents. Similarly, children crave individual attention from their biological parents during access weekends. They wedge themselves closer on the lounge and crawl into bed with biological parents at night. Step parents see it as a behavioural issue, while biological parents often relish being closer with their own children.
Here are some tips to try:
1. Make a monthly timetable with pictures including one-to-one time (15-30 mins) with each individual from your blended family. Eg: Dog walk with Kate on Saturday, Bike ride with Tom on Sunday, Breakfast with Lyn on Monday.
2. Be fair about sharing the parental bed. eg: If step children can’t share the bed, then no child can share the bed or only share the bed when the sun’s up.
3. “I Feel Jealous” or “Siblings Without Rivalry” are both recommended reading available through www.therapeuticresources.com.au
4. “Doing The Splits” is a small group workshop at the Quirky Kid Clinic and can be arranged exclusively for blended families. See: www.quirkykid.com.au