Blending families: A Merger, Not a Hostile-Takeover
Blending two families can be both challenging and rewarding. You might be facing questions like, “How do I parent my new partner’s kids?” or “How do I support my children through this transition?” Here are a few strategies that have proved successful in my work with couples and families as they navigate this process.
Tread lightly when entering into a family with children.
- Just as a biological parenting relationship grows over time, a step-parenting relationship must grow over time as well. Don’t try to rush it. The more naturally you allow your relationship with your new or prospective step-children to grow, the more solid the bond will be.
- Remember that you are stepping into the child’s life at a vulnerable moment and everyone will need time to adjust.
Build trust and an emotional connection with a child before exercising power.
- Developing that connection will look different depending on the age of the kids. In my experience, the older the kid the more pushback you are going to get if you try to parent without that connection.
- Be careful of a “My way or the highway” mentality. Making statements like, “This is my house, my rules!” can feel scary to a child. Their entire world is shifting, and they need to know they can trust you.
- Be curious about the children. What do they need from you as a step-parent? Instead of attempting to take the place of their other parent (something you should never do), try to develop your own relationship together.
- Find activities that they enjoy and make an effort to spend time together. Let them know that you care about your relationship with them, not just your relationship with their mom or dad.
Don’t argue with your new partner about parenting in front of the children.
- Model respect and set the tone for unity in the family by presenting a united front with your partner to the children. This will make everyone feel more confident and safe in the new family.
- As step-parent, you should defer to the biological parent if you disagree.
Be welcoming of your children’s other biological parent.
- Create an environment in which your children never feel they have to develop allegiances as this causes anxiety and stress for them. It’s very reassuring for a kid to see all the important adults in their life working together. That is the best thing you can do to make them feel safe.
- Allow and encourage the other biological parent to spend time in your house when they drop off the kids. Let them see and spend time in the kids’ rooms. The thought of, “My dad isn’t even welcome in my mom’s house” feels very scary for a child.
Be authentic and take ownership of your own experience. As the adults, it is your responsibility to create a safe environment for the children.
- Try to find that delicate balance between being authentic with your children while not sharing too much. Kids are highly perceptive and when things are tense, they know. It is scary when you lie to your kid about what’s going on.
- Don’t overwhelm your kids with details, but don’t lie about your emotions. If they notice you are sad and ask you about it, why not say something like, “I am feeling sad right now, but being sad is OK. Everyone gets sad. When was the last time you were sad? Let’s go on a walk and we can talk all about it.” Modeling healthy emotional expression to your kids will give them the opportunity to deal with their own difficult emotions and will bring you closer together.