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Into the blender; blended families

Blended families - or merged families, if you prefer - have been around for a long time. Families have in the past gotten together due to the loss of a parent, separation, and divorce, and the creation of new relationships.

And, it has to be said, they can be a messy, complex, and painful place to navigate your way through. It can be the most rewarding experience to help shape a functioning and happy family from two (or more) parts, but it can also drive some to near desperation.

So today, we're talking about why blended families are so hard, and what you can do to make them a little easier to navigate.

So what's a blended family?

There are many shapes and shades of family, but in general, a blended or merged family is just as it sounds - two families coming together. In my case that meant two divorced single people with primary care of their children coming together to form a new family. In other cases, you may have a parent with no children merging into a family where the other parent has kids, or both parents may only have kids some of the time. Or something else - blended families can be as varied as the humans they are made from.

Why blended families are great

First of all, let's look at some of the reasons we do this in the first place. Blended families can be amazing things.

They are a second chance to make something great

When blended families are a possibility it normally means our first families have broken apart, for one reason or another. Obviously, we don't set out to make that happen, so blended families are a second opportunity to 'get it right'. Or, at least, closer to right. As with all things in life every time we fall short it helps us to learn lessons; second families can be our chance to put those lessons into practice and make our lives a better place. Blended families are a chance to be better people in better families.

We're not starting from scratch

Unlike the first time around, blended families don't usually start from scratch. Whilst you might see that as a problem you can also see it as a great advantage. Think of it like buying a house that's already been built - you're moving in with the appliances in place, power is already connected, and you're not trying to build everything from scratch and waiting months or years for your efforts to pay off. So many parts of the family and the relationships are already in place, and ready for you to work with and build on.

A chance to heal, for everyone

It has been my experience that almost everyone in a blended family has been through some past trauma, to some degree. The adults have probably been through poor relationships, separation, and divorce, and have dealt with possibly years of disputes and drama, and stress. Children might have lost a parent, or might be struggling with the damage from the separation; grief, loss, and trauma can impact them and bring them undone at a time when they should be carefree and enjoying life. Blended families are not perfect - but they are a perfect opportunity for everyone to begin to heal from those wounds.

Brady Bunch moments

They may not happen often, and they may not happen at all - but those moments where it all comes together, where the kids all get on and the parents manage to match speeds and make it work can be worth absolutely gold. The Brady Bunch moments can make the pain worthwhile if you find them.

Nobody has to be lonely

It can be lonely when families break up. As a parent you have probably lost your partner, and whilst that can feel great it can also tear away your primary source of connection. More than that, families can quickly disappear from your circle, especially the family of your partner. For children it can be the same, and friends can also fade into the distance especially when conflict flares. Blended families place new parents and sometimes new siblings into the equation, meaning we now have more chances to avoid loneliness. Nobody has to be on their own, in a blended family.

Why blended families suck

Okay, enough with the schmaltzy goodness - what about the downsides, I hear you ask. Yes, there are some, it's true...

Lots of baggage gets carried in the door

For each person who walks into the new blended family, there is the potential for baggage. Kids can carry in their feelings of abandonment, or resentment at what they perceive as the replacement of their other parent. They might be carrying grief and loss, even if the parent is still alive and around. As parents, we might be bringing in our resentments, pains, and traumas from our past relationship(s), along with our expectations or demands of the new one. We might have preconceived ideas on how to parent and how kids should behave that might not align with the other parent in this new family - meaning all that baggage has a huge potential to be carrying unexploded and unstable explosives. Setting a few ground rules for behaviour is no guarantee everyone is going to make it through in one piece.

Multiple relationships to go wrong

As new parents, you might think you only have that one relationship to worry about, but you're wrong.

There is the relationship between you two, but also the relationship between each of you and each other's ex-partner, whether they are involved with the family or not - even if they have passed on, your relationship with them will need to carry on in some form. That makes potentially three relationships each, six in total - and you haven't even started on the kids yet! Each child will have a relationship with both their parents in this new family, as well as with each other. In a family of five blended kids such as mine, that means a 'large number' of relationships to consider. All of them have the potential to swing from 'awesome' to 'OMG kill me now' on any one day, all of them need some work and review over time. So it's no wonder parents in blended families are so exhausted!

No 'bank of love' to carry you through

When you are the birth parent to a child you will probably feel an instant and deep love for that child, possibly even before they are born. Think of this like a bank account, it's nature's way of ensuring we don't abandon our newborns the moment they start giving us sleepless nights. It makes it possible for us to love them and support them throughout all the trials and tribulations they'll launch at us like grenades throughout their lives. With blended families we are walking into a family with children who might be in their tweens or teens, might be lobbing those grenades - but we've just met them (on the scale of their lives, that is). We don't have that bank of love, we don't have the endless patience and forgiveness that nature seems to bestow on us when that baby is born. And so our resources can run out far faster, leading to resentment and issues quickly building up. We might see our birth kids as 'acting up' when they do something bad, it's far easier to think of that new stepchild as being 'inherently evil' when they do the same thing.

Beware the Bubbles

When families break up they can form what I call bubbles - think of them as little clubs. For example, a father may have an older son that he confides in as a single parent, and leans on to look after the young ones. There's no problem with this, but it leads to a bit of a difference in behaviours within that single-parent family. Dad and the elder son might stay up a little later, he might cut that elder son some slack when it comes to rules - he's created a bubble with him and that son, a small club of two, within the larger bubble of his family. Later, when the newly merged family is formed, that bubble may well cause a problem; now, the elder son is expecting to be treated better than his siblings and might expect to be cut a little slack on the rules. If there's a similarly aged step-brother in that family, he's not going to see their relationship as being quite equal. And step-mum may well cause friction when she feels a little left out of that bubble and tries to exert her authority. Bubbles are hard to avoid, but easily undermine the blended family - it's paramount to identify and manage them before they grow out of control.

Top tips for navigating the blender

Okay, so you're in the blended family blender - how do you avoid getting cut to pieces? Here are our top ten tips.

1. Manage those bubbles

Firstly, undertake an audit. Work out where those bubbles might be.

It could be that there aren't any, that everyone is pretty much in the same space. That's great, but if not identify where they might be and how they are supported. This means being honest - it's not about criticizing each other or blaming, but it's paramount that you're honest about how you're treating your different families and where those bubbles might exist. If you can identify them honestly and be open with each other about them, you've got a great shot at managing them.

Once you've done that, look at how you can expand or change them. It's not about throwing them away or trying to burst them - you want to grow relationships in this new family, not start by destroying or breaking them. Start by working out the hierarchy you want to exist in this family - the parents should be at the top, and alone on that level. No child should be elevated to the same level as the parents unless that's something you know how to manage and have fully agreed to. But with the other children are they all treated the same? You probably won't want to see a newborn or a 1-year-old the same way you'd see a late teenager, so it might be that you see hierarchies for toddlers, children, teens, and adults within the family. Those can become the bubbles, and all children who fit those hierarchies should then become part of those bubbles, and be treated the same.

See it, say it, agree it - don't hide from this, it'll spell doom later on.

2. Negotiate your parenting styles

This is a killer if you don't get this right, and the sooner the better. Work out how you parent, how your styles differ and agree it between you. It's important that this is negotiated as a couple, equally, whether one of you has children already or not. It can be easy for one parent to believe they have more experience, or 'know my children better', and therefore to take the view that their opinion is more important - but that way lies pain and suffering. You are both about to parent these kids and you both need to know your opinions were equally taken into account. Listen to each other, work out the right approach, and stick to it.

One of the top tips I have here is to apply empathy and shoe-swapping with your partner; this is especially true when one parent has younger kids and one has older ones. If you have young kids your parenting style might be more authoritative; early bed-times, eat your veggies, do as you're told. You can easily look at the parent of older children and think they are way too slack, letting their kids stay up too late and get away with too much. But your little toddlers will grow that big too, and will also want to stay up late - will you still feel the same about sending them to bed early without them having a say? Equally, parents with older kids might forget what it's like having younger ones and feel that their adjusted parenting is now the way to go - forgetting they parented quite differently when their own kids were younger.

So it's really important to talk, to work out what works, and to agree that the newly agreed parenting styles will stick for all kids - adjusted for those bubbles, of course.

3. Negotiate the sibling styles (what does that look like)

And it's not a bad idea to also look at the sibling styles - what you expect from each child in terms of how they treat the others. You probably want them to be kind and respectful, to share chores, and to not take others' stuff without asking them - document that.

Not only will that help the children to see what your expectations are, it'll also help both parents to know (and agree) when a child is stepping out of line. One of the hot spots for parents in a blended family is defensiveness - the 'mama bear' effect. One parent sees what they feel is bad behaviour in their step-child and jumps on it, only for the birth parent to come roaring in to defend their child. Agreeing on what's expected from the kids helps to avoid this, or at least to reduce it.

4. Watch for the wedges (esp. from kids)

Kids are master manipulators - if you don't have kids yet, or have little babes, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news but it's true. They really are. One of the joys for me of being a parent was in watching my kids develop their first abilities at lying - just watch any YouTube video of a toddler covered in paint or chocolate denying innocently that they did it to see what I mean. And as they get older those manipulations only grow better and more complex.

It's part of being human, of course, and within the power system of a family, most kids will attempt to negotiate (or obfuscate) their way into a better position.

And if that means putting a wedge between their parent and step-parent, or any other relationship in that new blended family, most will happily still do it. One simple example of this is leaning into the mama-bear effect; they do the wrong thing, get a telling off from the step-parent, and then play the wounded, upset, and innocent party to their birth parent - who again comes roaring in to defend them. The child gets to see the love of their parent and feels defended and valued, they may even get an apology and a treat - they rarely stop to think that they're causing an issue in the parenting relationship.

Left untouched, those wedges grow wider and meaner over time until that new relationship can threaten to fail. So, watch for those wedges, and try to take them out every time they get put in there. Don't let anyone derail the family.

5. Have a panic room

If your house is big enough for an actual panic room that's all good - but what I mean here is more a parent panic room, where you can retreat if (and when) things get difficult. It might be a shed, an attic room, a study or office or even just the bedroom, but it's important that as a parent you have somewhere you can retreat to when you need it.

There are a couple of important points here. Firstly, you should agree between you where this location is, and agree that if one parent needs it they can use that space without consequence - did you read that, without consequence. It is okay for you to feel overloaded or stressed out at times and you should be able to retreat to that space when needed, as long as this doesn't become a standard tactic in dealing with every conflict or issue. The parent who needs that space should be allowed to flag they are using it, and then use it undisturbed and without having to explain themselves or face some form of punishment or blow-back for doing so. Panic rooms are a must.

6. Write a contract

One thing I recommend to families is to write up a family charter, so that the parenting style and approach is somewhat codified, documented, and agreed upon; this can save heaps of trouble later on.

What you include in it is up to you, but it might cover topics such as:

  1. Parenting and sibling styles

  2. Rewards and positive treatments for those different bubbles

  3. Punishments and costs for breaking any rules

Seeing it and signing it can help to make it clear that both parents are committed and in agreement on their approach.

7. Work on each relationship

As I mentioned above there are lots of different relationships within that new blended family - but as a parent, you have to primarily consider your relationships with your partner and all the kids within it. That's a far smaller number and it's a strong focus for you.

When I say 'work on' those relationships I don't mean simply parent; providing food and shelter, a taxi service, and ordering the kids to bed on time is not building a relationship; forming a mutual bond of love and respect for each other takes work. Just as you don't have that natural bank of love for that step-child, the step-child doesn't have years of love and adoration to build on from you - so you need to work at that.

Take time and try to focus on one relationship at a time, do a mini-audit each week or month, and work out what you've done with each child, how you've shown them you care - and if you see you've fallen short, then put in some work. Just like weeding and feeding in the garden, that little bit of regular work pays dividends over time.

8. Switch perspectives when you struggle

It can be easy to see the rejection of a step-child as a rejection of you, a sign that they don't like you and don't want you in the family. If that's what you believe, then you're going to start responding as if they really don't like you at all, which will lead to a similar and negative response from them, in return. A vicious cycle builds and feeds on itself until the home is filled with vitriol and anger.

Often, it only takes a shift in perspective. One example of this was a teen boy who was seen by his step-dad as being an 'awful kid' through and through; he defied his step-dad's rules, left the room when his step-dad walked in, refused to spend time with him or listen to him. It took some digging and some work but eventually, the dad worked out that the boy was simply missing his birth father (who had disappeared and was no longer involved with the family) and was rejecting what he saw as a replacement because he wanted someone - anyone - to acknowledge you can't simply replace your dad. With that switch in perspective, step-dad was able to approach his step-son differently, and help him to try and reconnect with his dad, and their relationship took off in a far better direction.

9. Give it time

It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.

It's a quote from a Pantene ad I believe - but it's just as true for blended families as it is for great hair. It takes time and work - but mostly, time.

Sometimes it will be instant; you'll meet your new family members and instantly form a bond. I vividly remember the first day I met with my step-kids and felt an amazing connection with them, just wanting to be their dad.

But even when that happens, it might not immediately stick; the step-daughter I felt so bonded to on that first day, we were barely speaking when she hit her late teens and I would have almost paid her rent to see her living elsewhere (I'm sure she, in turn, was ready to organise a little 'accident' to remove me from the home too). Now, I am so glad to say, we are back on track and getting on well - but time is your friend. Don't expect overnight results, and don't expect every win to stay on the board; you're going to take two steps forward and two steps back, at times. Stick with it.

10. Allow space for bad relationships to happen

You wouldn't burn your house down because one room needed decorating; you equally shouldn't give up on a blended family just because one relationship goes south, or fails entirely.

When a family talks to me about how hopeless they feel when their kids don't get on together I like to ask if they got on perfectly well with all their own siblings when growing up. Sometimes they did - but most times the answer is a rueful 'of course not!'

Kids fight, fall out, make up, and fight again. There are alpha personalities that will clash, you might have issues with any number of relationships within the matrix I've described. That may range from mild dislikes or grumbles right up to complete and utter relationship failures and death threats; but as long as everyone remains safe and you can find ways around the struggles, keep at it. Families are hard work, whether they are blended or not. But life teaches us many lessons and children are rarely insightful enough to see how important to them their siblings may be in later life. So keep going, and fight your way through - it's worth it.

I hope this helps, and take care of yourselves, and each other.


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