Parents who no longer live together – because of separation, divorce or bereavement – often face distinct challenges. One of these is attempting to re-partner. It is natural for parents who are no longer in a relationship with the father or mother of their child to seek new companionship. Around a third of all marriages in England and Wales are remarriages for at least one party. Many of these will include children from either one or both partners, and these marriages will themselves often produce further children. This creates what has been called a “step” or “blended family”. The definition of these families in academic literature is:
It is difficult to determine exactly how many blended families exist in Northern Ireland. The statistics for remarriages are not collected in the way they are in England or Wales, and the growth of co-habiting families without formal marriage means that even if we did have a more accurate number it would not tell the whole picture. We know that in the UK, they represent between 11% and 15% of families with dependent children. Regardless of the exact number, it is reasonable to say that they are a significant proportion of families in Northern Ireland.
This article will seek to identify the key challenges faced by blended families, and give advice on how to address them.
Challenges for Blended Families
Every blended family will face a unique challenge. Partially, this is because both families who are attempting to come together do so with different ideas, routines and backgrounds. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry noted that “the members may have no shared family histories or shared ways of doing things, and they may have very different belief systems which may include a different ethnic or educational background, or religion”. As a parent, you should be aware of the differences between your family and the family you are attempting to blend with. These can be very stark – for example, views on the role of faith or responses to teenage risk-taking behaviours – or relatively minor, like expectations regarding chores or pocket money. Keep in mind that your children will look to you for guidance and may resist that guidance from their step-parent.
Our advice in this situation is to attempt to prepare for these conflicts by talking to your partner, and if possible, your ex-partner. What you should seek to avoid is a feeling of unfairness which when added to the strain of adjusting to the new family dynamic can exacerbate conflict. This is particularly important if your family includes half-siblings.
Areas of difficulty often include:
This has been identified as the number one issue faced in blended families. Stepparents should resist the urge to “establish” themselves right away. Instead, work with your partner to set up a baseline of boundaries that cannot be ignored. Beyond this, have a staged approach and a plan. Agree with your partner who will handle discipline, and how it will be implemented. Introduce stepchild disciplining gradually and ensure that as parents you are as united with your partner as is possible. Talk to the children and let them know the rules and consequences in this new family set up and how discipline will be handled.
This is a highly complex area. For some children, they will have new siblings. These may vary greatly in age, gender and levels of contact. Nonetheless, it is a common concern among parents that they will fight or not get along. Children who acquire stepsiblings often feel jealous or left out. Their place in the family may also have changed from being oldest or youngest. Parents should understand that unlike their relationship with their own new partner, their child did not choose to have new siblings or step siblings. It is natural for them to take some time to get used to it, and they may never be as close to each other as you would like. Each parent should instead ensure that their own children understand the basic rules/boundaries. Beyond that, the most important thing a parent can do is spend time with your own children and talk to them about how they feel. There is good reason to be hopeful as well. Some research has suggested that siblings who share only one parent are as close (and in some cases closer) than full siblings. No matter how hurtful or difficult their initial reactions may be, understand that as a parent it is your role to help them adjust. Listen to their issues, and agree to reasonable action to address them. Be reasonable about language as well. Terms like step or half sibling may be a legal or biological term but may not be right in your home. Talk with all your children within your new blended family to determine what way they would all prefer to be referred too that will best suit everyone in your family.
Beyond discipline, often stepparents will struggle with defining their own roles within the new family. If children already have an active mother and father figure in their life, a stepparent may have feelings of ambiguity in their role. This can lead to dissatisfaction, difficulties in the inter-parental relationship and other negative outcomes. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers regarding the role of stepparents. In some families, stepparents will have very clear and defined roles, while in others they will be more flexible. Successful blended families are those that develop structures, roles, norms, and interaction styles that are appropriate for each individual family situation.
In conclusion, it would be encouraged that adults who wish to take the decision to move in with other adults talk to their children before hand and ensure that their needs are the priority before the decision is reached. Once the change has happened then parents should try to be understanding with children who are struggling with adjusting to the new family reality they face. Additionally, it is important that they are not too hard on themselves. Experts suggest it can take between two and five years for a blended family to fully settle. Do not be too hard on yourself if progress is slow, or if you are struggling. The three key elements for parents to remember are:
- Take your time. Don’t try to force a new dynamic.
- Decide what your roles will be, and communicate this with your children.
- Listen, and understand. Take your children’s concerns seriously and take steps to address them as best you can.
If you are struggling with blending a family, you can always seek support from Parenting NI or other similar organisations. Parenting NI’s support line remains open on 0808 8010 722.