Q: I am about to marry for the second time. I have two children and my future husband has two also. Can you give me some tips on how to blend the two families?
A: Success in a stepfamily depends very much on having good information on what to expect and how to deal with difficulties that may present themselves. The following strategies are useful for couples who are beginning to or are in the process of building a stepfamily. Some of these tips are from the book “Making Healthy Stepfamilies” by Gayle Peterson, PhD.
Strengthen the Couple’s Bond:
The key to any healthy family system is the mutual love, caring and respect that the partners share. Working through the predictable stresses of becoming a stepfamily secures your relationship. Take time to be alone and develop your bond independent of the children and parenting roles in the family. Just remember to be patient with the desire for change.
Remember this is Your Choice, Not the Children’s:
It is important to remember that as a stepparent, you had a choice in the situation while the children did not. As the adult your responsibility must encompass an understanding that you will be expected to be concerned and involved in caring for your husband’s children and ensuring their sense of security in traveling through this transition.
Don’t Expect Instant Love:
Very often stepparents suffer from unrealistic expectations regarding the transition of blending families, resulting in feelings of helplessness and victimization. Often biological parents share fantasies of the perfect family union, pressuring spouses to love children they do not even really know yet.
Relationships take time. Realistic expectations between stepparents and children must include a gradual period of getting to know one another. There is no such thing as instant intimacy. Let the relationship build security and caring on its own merit, without pressure to fill the fantasy of loving one another before a solid “like” has been established. On the average, two to three years is the time period for developing these bonds and stabilizing the new family.
Allow Losses to be Mourned:
By the time of a second marriage, it is often a child’s third family unit. The first being the biological parents’ marriage, the second being a separate or single family unit and the third being the new relationship which involves a stepparent. Children need parental permission and understanding to grieve these losses, before embracing the new family system.
Remember that Every Child is Unique:
A small child will tend to accept the stepparent in a parental role differently than a teenager. Coming into a teenager’s life may involve more of a friendship, depending on the individuals and needs involved, while coming into a family with a one-year-old will require parental nurturance and attachment similar to that of a primary parent. Respect boundaries and what has come before as well as being open to a different form of relating than your idealized interpretation of what family “should” be.
Create Family Rituals:
Every family develops its own culture. This gives members a sense of belonging to an intimate group and helps to build a new family identity. Holiday and other rituals can be developed that are unique to the present constellation. Other elements, like specific kinds of jokes or well-intentioned humor can also go a long way in weaving a family together. Finding ways to laugh together will go a long way towards establishing a sense of belonging.
Support Children’s Relationship with the Other Biological Parent:
Supporting children’s relationship to their biological parent who does not live in the stepfamily is important to healthy development. Keeping these situations separate will decrease chances for conflict with children being caught in the crossfire.
Understand that Children Come First:
Our children deserve our superior effort at understanding what is in their best interest, especially when feelings and struggles are intense, as they often are in the transition to a remarried family constellation. And it is a parent’s job to be able to consider the needs of the child and expect to put them first when appropriate.