More and more families these days are made up of kids from previous relationships. Studies show that a large percentage of marriages end in separation, and that step families are becoming the new normal according to the census taken in 2011.
Wrapping your head around the mostly non-existent rules of the modern family dynamic can be scary, and actually living it may be taking a toll. We get it, it’s a whole new world. But you can navigate it.
Here’s our guide on making the transitions into a blended family easier.
Take a step back
The other kids already have a mother or father; generally, unless the other parent is absent, you don’t actually have to “raise” someone else’s kids at all.
If you have children yourself, you intrinsically understand how you would feel if your ex’s new partner suddenly started making rules and behaving bossily around your kids. You’ll likely already have experience of dealing with other people’s kids because of play dates and childcare swaps. The danger is to get so familiar with the other partner’s kids that you forget they already have another parent.
If you don’t have children, it’s important to understand that your partner’s kids aren’t looking at you as a substitute parent. They have a loyalty to their own parents, which means that they may feel weird about your new role in their lives too.
Talk to your partner
Ask your partner questions at every stage, “What does your child need?” “How can I support you/your child during this transition?” “What the best way to…”
Make an effort to learn about the children themselves, rather than have some imaginary idea of how kids of a certain age should behave in your head. All people are different. Children are people!
If you have kids, don’t automatically compare them to yours. The other set of parents will have differences in the way they’ve raised their kids. If you’ve not had kids, you might not understand why they have made certain decisions that they’ve made. Now is time to put your judgement out of the window.
Talk in confidence
Make sure you make safe spaces and time for your kids to confide in either parent. Give them access to telephones/skype so they can talk to their other parent too. Always let them know they get a choice about when they can talk to their parent without the other one being there. Schedule quality time with just you and your kid so they know that you are always available to them, and that your relationship is solid and not changing. This is even more important as they get older. Teens need as much support as younger kids, but in different ways and you need to listen more as your teen will find it harder to communicate their feelings.
Know your role
If the other parent is absent/abusive, you have a different role in the children’s life. In this case your role will dramatically change. Specific conditions will dictate the appropriate steps you need to take. If the child has been through a trauma you may be dealing with a lot of unexpected emotional outbursts.
Resources are available for you: Child Welfare Information Gateway has a great resource sheet that details the impact of trauma on a child’s life. The child may be acting out or experiencing fight/flight response reactions. Try not to take any of this personally. It’s also suggested that you give the child some control over some aspect of their life. This could be decorating their room at your house, or letting them choose some new clothes, or books. Let them help you plan meals or activities.
If your partner has indicated that they’d like you to step in as a parent figure, find support among other parents and carers in your area or online. You don’t have to have all the answers all of the time.
Never talk trash about the child’s parent
Not ever. Doesn’t matter if they are the worst person alive, doesn’t matter if they send you hate filled emails, don’t run them down. Chances are, if they are a terrible parent, the child is feeling awful about it already without you adding to their bad feelings.
Children identify with their parents, good or bad, so the poor kid may be feeling like they are like the bad parent in many ways. Redirect what you would like to say about the bad parent into comments about how well the child is doing at adapting. Make an effort to tell them that they are a great kid and focus on putting your energy into being good to that child, not disliking their parent.
Develop a healthy relationship with the other parent
Where you can, keep things amicable with the other parent. You don’t have to hang out with them or see them all the time. You don’t even need to like them. It’s an exercise in politeness. Be clear with the other parent that you are trying to respect their decisions and ground rules about their kid, and that if there are any problems, they are just part of a learning curve.
If you have kids yourself you can say, “We are just finding our way in coming to a balance.” Use the opportunity to discuss ideas, explain the differences in your household and creatively explore
Don’t take it personally if the other parent is petty
You might not mind your partner’s kids being at your kid’s birthday parties, but don’t always expect your kids to be at theirs. There may be signs that the other parent is insecure about the new situation and is wanting to limit the amount of time all the kids are together.
Just focus on the positives and don’t get drawn into the game. Reassure your own kids that they will get to spend plenty of time with your partner’s kids at other times. Respect the other parent’s priority in making decisions about the kids
It’s up to your partner and their ex to decide together what happens on a child’s birthday or planning a holiday like Christmas. Stand back, let them sort it out so you don’t get unwittingly pulled into a disagreement.
Introduce the introductions
Actually introducing the kids should happen in as undramatic setting as possible. Great first ‘dates’ are cinema, park or museum. Don’t make a big deal out of it. “Hey we are going to hang out with Christopher’s kids on Saturday.” Don’t discuss your romantic relationship, or what their relationship will be with the new kids. Younger kids usually get on and accept each other without too many complications, but older kids can find a lot more to be anxious about. You can start to discuss the new setup with “What if?” questions; “What if Chloe came to stay at our house on Friday nights?” Then, see where the conversations lead you. Any changes like moving kids in need to happen over a long period of time ideally, and should start with sleepovers. In the same way you don’t just rush moving a partner in, don’t be in a rush with the kids.
Share, and don’t share: spaces, privacy and YOU!
Explain to all the kids involved that they don’t have to share ALL their toys, clothes or space! Younger ones will appreciate knowing this. You can also label communal shared areas, and private areas – so toys in the blue bin in the lounge are for everyone to play with, toys that are in Katie’s bedroom are not to be played with.
Kids in blended families often need their privacy, and they also don’t always want to share their parent! Make sure you get quality time with your kid alone and the same for the other parent and their children.
Set limits straight away
When it comes to sleep, sugar, food, spending and tv – set limits with the other parent first.
Be prepared. Make a list of the common areas where you think some negotiating needs to happen. Sit down with your partner and discuss what needs to happen. Be ready to compromise and to be flexible with a problem solving approach to this. Your kids go to bed at 9, their kids go to bed at 8. Is 8.30 a compromise or is there some other way? Telling kids that there are new rules to follow is easier if you say it is so that everyone can get along and that no one feels left out.
If you’ve not had kids yourself ask you partner to explain what the ground rules are for their kid, be ok with texting them if you are taking the kids out on your own to check in what their agreed limits are.
Don’t assume your way is their way. You’ll learn by watching how the other parent deals in times of stress. If you have a more healing suggestion go ahead and share it, but if your suggestion is stricter you will be met with resistance.
Aha Parenting has some great resources on how to discipline kids lovingly. If you’ve not had your own kids, do some research into peaceful parenting. It’s not ok to hit kids, and we would encourage everyone to find peaceful and respectful ways to discipline their children.
Find fun activities to do as a mixed family
The more the merrier is great for movie trips, movie and pizza night and camping out in the yard. Invest in a load of bean bags for them to collapse on. Grab some old board games off eBay and set up a table of games and snacks. Think of fun food ideas like Tex Mex where they can help make their own tacos. Getting them to help set and clear the table can be fun for kids and make for memorable meal times together. Have a party!
Get help if it all breaks down
Sometimes the problems are too much to handle on your own. Breakdowns in communication, difficulties with the ex, kids who are traumatized from an abusive parent, or teens who are just not adjusting well can all need some extra support from a family therapist.
The Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is the national non-profit association representing Marriage and Family Therapists in Canada. You can contact them to find a family therapist specialist in your area.