Learning how to create a successful stepfamily

Like most things in life that matter, a successful blended family cannot be achieved without thoughtful consideration, dedication, and hard work. Step parents, step children, and step siblings can form a happy step family, but usually not until everyone has endured the developmental stages of a blended family.

Blended family stage one: fantasy

Initially, blended family members romanticize step family life. Prior family living experiences can distort expectations, such as presuming that step kids, step siblings, and their step parents will all feel an immediate bond with each other.  Some step parents dream that their efforts to please their step kids will be appreciated; some expect their biological children to see the blended family as an improvement in their lives. Children generally want their real parents to get back together!

Blended family stage two: reality

Reality hits, and everyday things make life seem as if it is coming apart. For example, a spouse who values regular meals with the children finds that he or she is married to someone who eats on the run. Step kids worry that loving a step parent means they are being disloyal to their natural parent. While you can insist children act with consideration and respect toward a stepparent, it is totally unfair to demand they love the step parent.

Blended family stage three: awareness

In this stage, step parents begin to see the bigger picture, understanding more about their own painful feelings, and those of their children and step children.  While wanting to protect their children from too many changes, they recognize that marital intimacy means excluding them from some parts of their relationship, and that blended family house rules are essential. As well, there may still be issues to work out with an ex-spouse. Step parents can find help from support groups, from a therapist, from books such as Blended Family Advice, and this website.

Blended family stage four: speak out!

Rocking the boat is typical of stage four. Problems between step siblings or with step kids may cause step parents to take a stronger disciplinary stand, and to stick by it. This phase is often characterized by arguments, generally started by those blended family members who feel most excluded and dissatisfied. By initiating the fight, this person is actually doing a good thing by calling attention to something that needs changing. The blended family couple sees each member of their family as a person in pain.

Blended family stage five: action

In the action stage, couples work together, sometimes with the help of a therapist, to resolve differences and to strengthen their blended family structure. There may still be fights in this phase, but by now problems actually get resolved, and decisions are made that meet some of the needs of each person. These efforts change the way the family functions. By now, biological parents allow room for step parents and step children to work things out together, even if it means an argument. The step parent-step child relationship cannot flourish until this is done. This is the point at which the step parent can, and should, begin moving into the disciplinary role.

Blended family stage six: contact

In stage six, members of the blended family really get to know each other, step parents and step kids have more heart-to-heart talks, and the couple relationship improves. Previously, their relationship was easily strained by step family issues, but now they share an intimacy where feelings and problems can be safely addressed. Also, step parents and step kids are more comfortable with each other, based on a solid foundation for a warm relationship.

Blended family stage seven: resolution

By the resolution stage, most of the hardest challenges have been met. Norms and rules are established, and new rituals are being built.  Most step parent and step child relationships feel stable and reliable. Step parents are close enough to know important details about their step kids, but distant enough that the step child can confide in them about important issues like sexuality, drug use, and unresolved feelings about the divorce.

Working through these stages may sound tedious and time-consuming, but expecting that building a blended family will be quick and easy is an invitation to disappointment and failure. The time and effort you invest in your blended family will reward you and your children with stability, mutual respect, and love. What more could you ask for?

If you need additional help, contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center for coaching.