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The importance of good communication in your blended family

You and your blended family spouse have lots to talk about: step parenting, step kids, biological kids, ex-spouses, visitation, child support, alimony, and the list goes on. It is critical that you communicate about these and other blended family issues. Many of us grew up in households where nobody talked openly about their feelings, concerns, needs, or wishes.  Most traditional families operated on the premise that things almost always worked themselves out; and for the most part, they almost always did. While a traditional family may, at times, be able to get along without much extra effort, a blended family needs to clearly understand and address the divergent demands inherent to step family life.

Nothing is off the table in your step family

You and your blended family spouse ought to be able to discuss anything and everything if you are to be effective leaders of your blended family. Unless you can both feel okay voicing concerns, frustrations, fears, and all the other emotions which affect step parents on a regular basis; unless you can both feel okay talking about step family financial issues, custodial matters, uncooperative ex-spouses or battling step siblings, your blended family can soon spin out of control. You both need to know you can talk with the other about anything and everything; unless you have a clear picture of where your partner stands on these important issues, how can you know what to expect when a problem arises?

Primary blended family relationships

When you fell in love with your new blended family partner, your kids may have worried that your love for them would be moved to second place. They were wrong, but in reality not that far off, especially in kid terms. In kid terms, loving them best can mean getting all your attention, and having your decisions and efforts focused only on them. Couples who center a traditional marriage on their children put their own relationship at risk; couples with children who need help with unresolved feelings of loss or anger are at even greater risk. Ongoing family struggle translates to relationship risk, and you can always count on the step family dynamic for potential struggle. The solution? Focus on keeping your couple relationship your primary relationship. If you two have it together, individual struggles will be easier to handle, and you will be better parents to your blended family kids.

We need to talk

The concept of scheduling regular blended family meetings may seem trite or even a waste of time for some step family members. Nevertheless, it is a communication tool which has proven to be very successful for many step families, especially in the early stages of blending. The first benefit of the blended family meeting is your obvious commitment to establishing a forum for communication between the two groups of people who make up your step family. They help step kids and step parents, and step siblings, begin to see themselves as a new family unit with a common purpose. Blended family meetings also provide an excellent place to model and practice effective ways of presenting a complaint or concern, listening respectfully to others, asking for and receiving opinions, and understanding how and why decisions are made.

Effective communication is vital to your blended family. If you need help establishing your blended family meetings, read blended family advice on this and other step family advice websites, join a local blended family support group, or talk with a family therapist with experience with the special challenges step families experience.


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Tone important in blended family communication

How blended family conflicts or behavioral issues are addressed has a direct impact on how readily family members are willing to take the steps needed to reach a solution to the problem at hand. As step family leaders, the parents set the tone for blended family meetings and one-on-one discussions; generally, conflict communication can be categorized as assertive, aggressive, or passive. For discussion to be effective, the participants need to feel safe, cared for, and listened to.

Types of conflict communication in your step family

Assertive communication is characterized by statements that describe the feelings, ideas, or concerns of the speaker, rather than a description the ways in which the listener is wrong or what he should and should not be doing. Accordingly, aggressive communication has the effect of setting the listener back on his heels, reacting to criticism, an accusation, a threat or ultimatum. Passive communicators tend not to say what they think or feel, but get angry when their issues are ignored. As you can probably surmise, assertive communication might tend to work best.

Assertiveness talks, hostility walks

Assertiveness means taking responsibility for your own feelings, and not criticizing others. Imagine a scenario in which you would like one of your step children to stop dumping the entire contents of his gym bag on the laundry room floor. An aggressive communicator might complain she is sick of picking up after him, and define him as lazy and inconsiderate. A passive communicator would probably just make a sarcastic remark and then be even more irritated the next time he does it. An assertive communicator could tell her step child how much she appreciates not having to dig into a damp gym bag to find dirty laundry. She might then add that since all step family members are responsible for putting away their own things, she would appreciate his leaving her with just dirty clothes to take care of. When you practice assertiveness, you will experience more effective and enjoyable communications, no matter who they are with. You do not have to be perfect all the time; step parents come no closer to perfection than anyone else. Just take each conversation as it comes, and assertiveness will begin to come naturally to you.

Feedback sandwich

Finding a good way to give feedback on blended family marital issues or ongoing problems with step children, without making the other person defensive can be a challenge, as well. It can help to insert suggestions for improvement or critique between two positive statements.

  • Know exactly what you are going to say before you begin talking.
  • Find something positive to say to begin the conversation, being sure it does not also contain a complaint.
  • Present critical feedback by describing your feelings or observations on the issue at hand without laying blame, and suggest a means to improve the situation, if you have one.
  • Acknowledge the need for continued progress with an enthusiasm that anticipates a successful outcome that will benefit your blended family.

Blended family conflicts do not have to be divisive. With careful thought, mutual respect, and sensitive words, everyone can get their feelings heard, understood, and valued. Blended family meetings are an excellent way to develop skills which support these values, and to practice them in a safe environment.  Think about what your words convey to the people in your blended family, consider how your tone of voice affects your message, and practice assertive communication. If you need additional assistance, contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center for coaching.


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Blended family household rules and behavioral boundaries

As parents, we want our kids to learn self-discipline, self-reliance and self-motivation; these important life skills can help them be successful throughout their entire lives. As parents in a blended family, we also want to live in a home that is stress-free, organized, and a place of caring relationships. We can accomplish these goals by establishing blended family household rules grounded on a solid foundation of consideration and mutual respect.

The importance of guidelines in learning life skills

As adults, we know that most wisdom comes out of learning from our mistakes, but also recognize that as parents we must teach children how to get their needs met in appropriate ways and how to get along with others. Kids also need to learn about the relationship between effort and achievement. By setting behavioral boundaries, we teach that self-control is often needed; by setting consequences for rule breaking, we demonstrate personal responsibility and encourage self-discipline; by insisting on mutual respect and consideration for everyone in all situations, we teach self-worth and the value of others.

Talk about the specific needs of your blended family

It is important that you and your blended family partner sit down and discuss the kinds of rules and guidelines your particular step family will need. Guidelines can make your experience as step family managers a bit more satisfying, but their real purpose is to give your kids a stable and loving home that is strong enough to nurture them. Take into account the ages, personalities, and special needs or abilities of your children; look at where you all will live; and implement your personal values in creating guidelines for living together as a blended family. For obvious reasons, it is best to do this before you merge your two families. Talking about your individual expectations for the blended family can give you both a clear picture of important parenting similarities and differences.  If you find that either, or both, of you need to modify parenting styles or routines which would undermine new guidelines, changes are better made by the biological parent alone.

Thou shalt, thou shalt not

The behavioral boundaries and rules you and your blended family partner establish are entirely up to you and the needs of your particular family. Generally speaking, successful blended families share some common elements in their written expectations.  These include:

  • Everyone will treat and speak to each other with consideration and respect
  • The resident parent and step parent are in charge
  • Rules apply to all blended family members, even those who do not live here permanently
  • Regular family meetings are a safe place for discussion, disagreements, and conflict
  • Family members share assigned chores and responsibilities
  • No favoritism; everyone is treated, loved, disciplined, and rewarded equally

Many step or blended family experts agree that discipline is often best handled by the biological parent in a blended family setting. Depending on the ages of your kids, you may wish to ask them to suggest appropriate consequences when someone breaks a rule. At any rate, for your blended family rules and guidelines to be effective, everyone must be well aware of all rules and all potential consequences.

Presenting blended family rules and expectations

Once your rules are written and reviewed, you should plan when, where and how to introduce the new rules and guidelines to the rest of your blended family. This is an important meeting, as it can help establish you as equal partners in step family leadership, and can also lay the groundwork for future family meetings, a useful tool in blended family leadership strategy. Unless you are very good at improvisation, it is a very good idea to prepare your presentation, and consider what you will say, and how you will say it. Be sure you follow your new rules as you present them!

Kids need boundaries to feel safe and to learn. Parents lead, teach, and love best in an atmosphere of cooperation and unity. If your blended family rules address values you cherish, respect the individual differences of each step family member, and promote a sense of being loved and valued, your family can thrive.  When you establish and enforce boundaries out of a loving responsibility, good things can happen.  If you need additional assistance, contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center for coaching.


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Blended family meetings are good for you

Not many of us were brought up in families that held meetings, so it is understandable if some of us are not very keen on the idea of meeting regularly as a blended family. Yet, virtually all blended family or step family experts strongly advocate holding family meetings, and holding them on a regular basis! Let’s remind ourselves why regular meetings are necessary and how blended family members can benefit from them.

Why are blended family meetings necessary?

Meetings are vital to blended families because our members do not yet share common history, rituals, or memories, and we have not established methods of resolving differences, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Blended family members cannot draw on the slowly evolving understanding of each other and of the family dynamic in the same way first families can. Plus, the stressful combination of loss, divorce, change, loss, remarriage, and more change present in a blended family makes it imperative for step family parents to help their merged families cope with everyday life. Blended family meetings are also a great way to learn effective communication skills.

How else can family meetings benefit a blended family?

Blended family meetings, like them or not, represent our best chance of finding out how our kids are doing with everything we have thrown at them. The family meeting is our best chance at getting feedback on how well we are doing as parents and as step parents. It is our best chance to make a positive impact on the bonding processes that step parents, step kids and step siblings are all undergoing simultaneously. A blended family meeting is an excellent reinforcement of parental authority and leadership, and a wonderful exercise in cooperative living among people who care for and respect each other.

Meetings with the step family help manage family issues

Set aside a specific time each month for a regularly scheduled blended family meeting, to stay in touch and to address family problems. The most successful blended families have a plan for conflict resolution in place from the very beginning so that each member of the step family knows what to do when a problem arises. Family meetings, when handled properly, are a great way to resolve family conflicts.  Family meetings are not bitch sessions, nor are they a forum for fault-finding, blame-laying, or kitchen sink recitations of pet peeves. The family meeting, as a source of conflict resolution, works best when only one subject is addressed at a time, and there are established rules to let everyone know exactly what to expect.

What your family meeting may look like

The key to a successful blended family meeting is that the parents in each family establishes their own rules.  What works for you is correct for your blended family, so be open and flexible and mold your method of conflict resolution to your own group of individuals. That being said, you might agree that anyone in the family who is upset can request a family meeting, and that when a family meeting is called, everyone must attend, no excuses.  A date and time is set for the near future, and everyone attends.   It is a good idea to have the person with the problem speak first at your family meeting, explain their concern, and then invite family members to honestly help find ways to solve the problem.  The goal is conflict resolution, not additional conflicts, so no one is allowed to lose their temper, call names, or lay blame; if someone does, everyone asks them politely to stop it.  The goal of the family meeting is to look for solutions together, and everyone stays at the table until everyone agrees on a solution.  A successful family meeting is orderly, good natured, and addresses one problem at a time.

If the idea of a family meeting still seems trite or contrived to you, give it a try anyway. Not everyone is comfortable taking part in a round-table discussion that may touch on hurt feelings, anger, frustrations, fear, concerns, or complaints, but these are the things that help make up every blended family – yours, mine, and everyone else’s. Let your blended family meetings teach your kids how to face and deal with difficult issues calmly, intelligently, and with grace.   If you need additional assistance, contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center for coaching.