Many people who get divorced remarry or at least re-couple, and blended families now account for more than 50% of all families in the U.S. according to The Stepfamily Foundation. Blending a family has become easier in some ways, but there are still numerous challenges that are unique to this scenario. The good news is that there are many more resources available to parents now, and divorce attorneys note that it is becoming increasingly common to plan for these difficulties in prenuptial and postnuptial agreements.
What is a Blended Family?
A blended family or stepfamily is any family unit where there is one or more children from a previous relationship. Blended families come in many different forms. “The Brady Bunch” television show is an example of the traditional view of a blended family where there are two parents and children from each side. But in modern times, it is much more common for parents not to remarry but live together in a relationship. There are many blended families where one of the stepparents does not have any children of their own, and there are also situations in which there is only one parent because the other has passed away and so the children are adopted.
The Common Challenges of a Blended Family
Family lawyers warn that many people enter into a blended family without a plan and unprepared for the additional challenges that they will face. Blending a family involves a great deal of change. That change is incredibly stressful on children. Some of the other potential challenges that you will want to consider include:
- Changes to family dynamics
- Age differences between children
- Disruptions to family traditions and rituals
The Pillars of a Successful Blended Family
Many divorce lawyers and mental health professionals who work in this field agree that successful blended families generally have some fundamental characteristics in common. These include:
- Open communication
- Strong parental relationships
- Effective co-parenting plans
- Clear boundaries
- Civility, compassion and respect for all
Recognize that everyone involved will be under a great deal of stress as the family blends. This includes both parents, of course, but the change will affect the children the most and can manifest as problems in school or emotional or social issues. It is very important that everyone has room to grow as that growth is necessary for your family to get to that place that you envision.
Experts also caution against not giving the children the respect they need. A common mistake, and one that often happens without intent, is a stepparent demanding respect but not providing it even in the absence of it being reciprocated.
Planning Your Blended Family
It is essential that you have a plan in place to mitigate the stress of blending the family as much as possible and to deal with any of the challenges that may crop up. This begins with an open and honest discussion between the couple on how to approach parenting. If both people are already parents with techniques established in a previous relationship, there will be differences. These should all be discussed and negotiated prior to blending the family. You may also want to speak with a divorce attorney about codifying these agreements in a prenuptial or post-marital agreement.
Consider Family and Individual Counseling
Some family law attorneys encourage blended families to attend counseling together. There are therapists who specialize in blending families and provide therapy specifically for blended families at the various stages of growth. Those who attend such therapy are often amazed at how it functions as a relief valve and allows everyone to be heard in a nonconfrontational and productive matter. The research shows that children of blended families who attend therapy do much better in school and other aspects of their lives, and your family therapist may even recommend individual counseling for one or more of the children or even the parents.
Bond Through Routines and Rituals
One of the great challenges of a blended family is bonding with stepchildren, and if there are stepsiblings involved, it is important not to overlook the need for bonding among them as well. It takes time, and parents often do not know where to begin. Start by preserving as many family traditions as possible on both sides and without stepping on the toes of parents who live elsewhere. You should also establish new routines and relationships for this family group. This can be as simple as family game night. Establishing regular family meals, even if it is just a few times a week, can make a big difference.
Let the Children Set the Pace
Family lawyers and therapists also recommend allowing the children to set the pace of growth. The adults are often excited about their relationship and new family, and getting ahead of yourself due to this eagerness is not unusual. However, it is important to have patience. Give the children the room to progress quickly, but allow them to slow down as much as they need. It is particularly important if you are dealing with an introverted child for the first time to know that it is likely going to take some time for them to warm up to you and that this slow progress is not a reflection of how the child actually feels about you.
Other Tips for a Successful Blended Family
A strong parental relationship whether you are married or just a couple is imperative to successfully blending the family. While it would be nice if the entire group progressed at the same rate, this is unlikely to be the case. Everyone will be at different stages and have different needs.
Divorce lawyers also recommend keeping change to a minimum and only introducing new changes when the group is ready for it. Mental health professionals also caution that you may not fall in love with your partner’s children overnight and should not beat yourself up about it. This is natural, and the love and affection will come in time as the bond strengthens.
Legal Assistance for Families in New Jersey
Lawrence Law focuses on New Jersey family law and has extensive experience with matters such as child support, custody and parenting time, and establishing co-parenting plans in both prenuptial and post-marital agreements. If you would like to meet with a family law attorney, you can schedule an appointment by calling us at 908-645-1000 or by completing and submitting our online contact form.