How to Bond with Your Stepchildren and Deal with Stepfamily Issues
Since many remarriages include children from previous relationships, blended families or stepfamilies are more common than ever. When families “blend,” though, it rarely progresses smoothly. Some children may resist changes, while you as a parent can become frustrated when your new family doesn’t function in the same way as your previous one. While blending families requires adjustment for everyone involved, these guidelines can help your new family work through the growing pains. No matter how strained or difficult things seem at first, with open communication, mutual respect, and plenty of love and patience, you can develop a close bond with your new stepchildren and form an affectionate and successful blended family.
What is a blended family?
A blended family or stepfamily forms when you and your partner make a life together with the children from one or both of your previous relationships. The process of forming a new, blended family can be both a rewarding and challenging experience. While you as parents are likely to approach remarriage and a new family with great joy and expectation, your kids or your new spouse’s kids may not be nearly as excited. They’ll likely feel uncertain about the upcoming changes and how they will affect relationships with their natural parents. They’ll also be worried about living with new stepsiblings, whom they may not know well, or worse, ones they may not even like.
Making your blended family a success
Trying to make a blended family a replica of your first family, or the ideal nuclear family, can often set family members up for confusion, frustration, and disappointment. Instead, embrace the differences and consider the basic elements that make a successful blended family:
- Solid marriage. Without the marriage, there is no family. It’s harder to take care of the marriage in a blended family because you don’t have the time to adjust as a couple like in most first marriages. You’ll have to grow and mature into the marriage while parenting.
- Being civil. If family members can act civil towards one another on a regular basis rather than ignoring, purposely trying to hurt, or completely withdrawing from each other, you’re on track.
- All relationships are respectful. This is not just referring to the kids’ behavior toward the adults. Respect should be given not just based on age, but also based on the fact that you are all family members now.
- Compassion for everyone’s development. Members of your blended family may be at various life stages and have different needs (teens versus toddlers, for example). They may also be at different stages in accepting this new family. Family members need to understand and honor those differences.
- Room for growth. After a few years of being blended, hopefully the family will grow and members will choose to spend more time together and feel closer to one another.
To give yourself the best chance of success in creating a blended family, it’s important to start planning how the new family will function before the marriage even takes place.
Planning your blended family
After having survived a painful divorce or separation and then managed to find a new loving relationship, the temptation can often be to rush into remarriage and a blended family without first laying solid foundations. But by taking your time, you give everyone a chance to get used to each other, and to the idea of marriage and forming a new family.
Too many changes at once can unsettle children. Blended families have the highest success rate if the couple waits two years or more after a divorce to remarry, instead of piling one drastic family change onto another.
Don’t expect to fall in love with your partner’s children overnight. Get to know them. Love and affection take time to develop.
Find ways to experience “real life” together. Taking both sets of kids to a theme park every time you get together is a lot of fun, but it isn’t reflective of everyday life. Try to get the kids used to your partner and their children in daily life situations.
Make parenting changes before you marry. Agree with your new partner how you intend to parent together, and then make any necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. It’ll make for a smoother transition and your kids won’t become angry at your new spouse for initiating changes.
Don’t allow ultimatums. Your kids or new partner may put you in a situation where you feel you have to choose between them. Remind them that you want both sets of people in your life.
Insist on respect. You can’t insist on people liking each other, but you can insist that they treat one another with respect.
Limit your expectations. You may give a lot of time, energy, love, and affection to your new partner’s kids that they will not return immediately. Think of it as making small investments that may one day yield a lot of interest.
Given the right support, kids should gradually adjust to the prospect of marriage and being part of a new family. It is your job to communicate openly, meet their needs for security, and give them plenty of time to make a successful transition.
Dealing with the death of a parent
When a parent has died, the remarriage of the remaining parent may trigger unfinished grieving in children. Give them space and time to grieve.
Bonding with your new blended family
You will increase your chances of successfully bonding with your new stepchildren by thinking about what they need. Age, gender, and personality are not irrelevant, but all children have some basic needs and wants that once met, can help you establish a rewarding new relationship.
Children want to feel:
Safe and secure. Children want to be able to count on parents and step-parents. Children of divorce have already felt the upset of people they trust letting them down, and may not be eager to give second chances to a new step-parent.
Loved. Kids like to see and feel your affection, although it should come in a gradual process.
Valued. Kids often feel unimportant or invisible when it comes to decision making in the new blended family. Recognize their role in the family when you make decisions.
Heard and emotionally connected. Creating an honest and open environment free of judgment will help kids feel heard and emotionally connected to a new step-parent. Show them that you can view the situation from their perspective.
Appreciated and encouraged. Children of all ages respond to praise and encouragement and like to feel appreciated.
Limits and boundaries. Children may not think they need limits, but a lack of boundaries sends a signal that the child is unworthy of the parents’ time, care, and attention. As a new step-parent, you shouldn’t step in as the enforcer at first, but work with your spouse to set limits.
Let your stepchild set the pace
Every child is different and will show you how slow or fast to go as you get to know them. Some kids may be more open and willing to engage. Shy, introverted children may require you to slow down and give them more time to warm up to you. Given enough time, patience, and interest, most children will eventually give you a chance.
Use routines and rituals to bond
Creating family routines and rituals can help you bond with your new stepchildren and unite the family as a whole. Plan to incorporate at least one new family ritual, such as Sunday visits to the beach, a weekly game night, or special ways to celebrate a family birthday. Establishing regular family meals, for example, offers a great chance for you to talk and bond with your children and stepchildren as well as encourage healthy eating habits.
Helping children adjust
Kids of different ages and genders tend to adjust differently to a blended family. The physical and emotional needs of a two-year-old girl are different than those of a 13-year-old boy, but don’t mistake differences in development and age for differences in fundamental needs. Just because a teenager may take a long time to accept your love and affection doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want it. You will need to adjust your approach with different age levels and genders, but your goal of establishing a trusting relationship is the same.
Young children under 10
- May adjust more easily because they thrive on cohesive family relationships.
- Are more accepting of a new adult.
- Feel competitive for their parent’s attention.
- Have more daily needs to be met.
Adolescents aged 10-14
- May have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily.
- Need more time to bond before accepting a new person as a disciplinarian.
- May not demonstrate their feelings openly, but may be even more sensitive than young children when it comes to needing love, support, discipline, and attention.
Teenagers 15 or older
- May have less involvement in stepfamily life.
- Prefer to separate from the family as they form they own identities.
- May not be open in their expression of affection or sensitivity, but still want to feel important, loved and secure.
Gender Differences – general tendencies:
- Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, like hugs and kisses.
- Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from their stepfather.
- Boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
Blended family challenges
As you blend two families, differences in parenting, discipline, lifestyle, etc., can create challenges and become a source of frustration for the children. Agreeing on consistent guidelines about rules, chores, discipline, and allowances will show the kids that you and your spouse intend to deal with issues in a similar and fair way.
Other common challenges include:
Age differences. In blended families, there may be children with birthdays closer to one another than possible with natural siblings, or the new step-parent may be only a few years older than the eldest child.
Parental inexperience. One step-parent may have never been a parent before, and therefore may have no experience of the different stages children go through.
Changes in family relationships. If both parents remarry partners with existing families, it can mean children suddenly find themselves with different roles in two blended families. For example, one child may be the eldest in one stepfamily, but the youngest in the other. Blending families may also mean one child loses their uniqueness as the only boy or girl in the family.
Difficulty in accepting a new parent. If children have spent a long time in a one-parent family, or still nurture hopes of reconciling their parents, they may have difficulty accepting a new person.
Coping with demands of others. In blended families, planning family events can get complicated, especially when there are custody considerations to take into account. Children may grow frustrated that vacations, parties, or weekend trips now require complicated arrangements to include their new stepsiblings.
Changes in family traditions. Most families have very different ideas about how annual events such as holidays, birthdays, and family vacations should be spent. Kids may feel resentful if they’re forced to go along with someone else’s routine. Try to find some common ground or create new traditions for your blended family.
Parental insecurities. A step-parent may feel anxious about how they compare to a child’s natural parent, or may grow resentful if the stepchildren compare them unfavorably to the natural parent.
Strengthening your blended family
Establishing trust is crucial to creating a strong, cohesive blended family. At first, children may feel uncertain about their new family and resist your efforts to get to know them. This is often simply apprehension about having to share their parent with a new spouse (and stepsiblings). Try not to take their negative attitudes personally. Instead, build trust and strengthen your new blended family by:
Creating clear boundaries
Discuss the role each step-parent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules.
- Establish the step-parent as more of a friend or counselor rather than a disciplinarian.
- Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for discipline until the step-parent has developed solid bonds with the kids.
- Create a list of family rules. Discuss the rules with the children and post them in a prominent place. Understand what the rules and boundaries are for the kids in their other residence, and, if possible, stay consistent.
Keeping ALL parents involved
Children will adjust better to the blended family if they have access to both biological parents. It is important that all parents are involved and work toward a parenting collaboration.
- Let the kids know that you and your ex-spouse will continue to love them and be there for them throughout their lives.
- Tell the kids that your new spouse will not be a ‘replacement’ mom or dad, but another person to love and support them.
Communicating often and openly
The way a blended family communicates says a lot about the level of trust between family members. When communication is clear, open, and frequent, there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and more possibilities for connection, whether it is between parent and child, step-parent and stepchild, or between step-siblings.
Discuss everything. Uncertainty and concern about family issues comes from poor communication, so talk as much as possible.
Never keep emotions bottled up or hold grudges, and try to address conflict positively.
Listen respectfully to one another. Establish an open and nonjudgmental atmosphere.
Provide opportunities for communication by doing things together as a family—games, sports, activities.
Tips for a healthy blended family
- All brothers and sisters “fall out,” so don’t assume all family arguments are the result of living in a blended family.
- Beware of favoritism. Be fair. Don’t overcompensate by favoring your stepchildren. This is a common mistake, made with best intentions, in an attempt to avoid indulging your biological children.
- Make special arrangements. If some of the kids “just visit,” make sure they have a locked cupboard for their personal things. Bringing toothbrushes and other “standard fare” each time they come to your home makes them feel like a visitor, not a member of the blended family.
- Find support. Locate a step-parenting support organization in your community. You can learn how other blended families overcome challenges.
- Spend time every day with your child. Try to spend at least one “quiet time” period with your child daily. Even in the best of blended families, children still need to enjoy some “alone time” with each parent.
I do! Take Two
Maintaining marriage quality in a blended family
While newly remarried couples without children can use their first months together to build on their relationship, couples in a blended family are often more consumed with their kids than each other. But focusing on building a strong marital bond will ultimately benefit everyone, including the children. If kids see love, respect, and open communication between you and your spouse, they will feel more secure and are more likely to model those qualities.
- Set aside time as a couple by making regular dates or meeting for lunch or coffee during school time.
- Present a unified parenting approach to the children—arguing or disagreeing in front of them may encourage them to try to come between you.
When to seek help
If, despite all of your best efforts, your new spouse and/or children are not getting along, find a way to protect and nurture the children. It might be time to seek outside help from a therapist if:
- a child directs anger upon a particular family member or openly resents a step-parent or parent
- a step-parent or parent openly favors one child over another
- members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as school, working, playing, or spending time with friends and family
Preparing for Blended Families – Tips for making a second marriage a smooth and healthy transition. (IDoTakeTwo.com)
Couples Considering a Blended Family – Things to consider before remarriage and tips for creating a cohesive blended family. (University of Florida)
Living with Step-parents – A guide for children on being part of a blended family. (KidsHealth)
National Stepfamily Resource Center – Information, resources, and support for stepfamily members. (NSRC)
Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: October 2018.