The Lumps and Bumps of Family Blending

A quick google search shows that the likelihood of living in a blended family is increasing. In fact according to a 60 minutes documentary, a third of all children in New Zealand will grow up in a blended family. This means that more often parents and children are wrestling with the issues that arise from families splitting up and being reformed in a different way.

New parent relationships bring excitement and different perspectives not only to you but your children. There is an opportunity to refresh and restart in an environment that can be all the things you have hoped for.

It is important to be aware that as you blend together your family and a new partner, or a new partner’s family, there are likely to be some lumps and bumps along the way. It takes time to get to know each other as a couple. More time still to get to know and care about your partner’s children. As tempting as it is to rush in and get started. It is well worth it to take time to get to know each other and plan for potential challenges.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR PARTNER?

Pay particular attention to your relationships. Cultivate your relationship with your partner. It can be difficult to find time for each other if you are juggling children as well. Agree to prioritize a time just for yourselves once a fortnight or a month, when you can do something together that is relaxing and fun – something that feeds your relationship.

Find little ways to signal each other that you are thinking about them. It could be a note here or there, making your partner’s lunch or stepping in and doing a job that they would usually do for them.

Know from the start that you will probably not agree with your partner on all parenting decisions. Some disagreement and negotiation will be required. It’s important not to allow yourself to feel that disagreements mean that your relationship isn’t working. In fact by working out your differences you are positively growing your relationship.

Discuss with your partner how you will manage disagreements when you are around your children. Watching a full blown argument is very distressing for children and can make them feel protective of their parent and resentful of the step parent. Agree on ways to identify disagreements and find a space to work it out away from the children.

Talk with your partner early on about parenting styles, and expectations of the children. How these ideas work together or not. Agree on how and who does the discipline. As a rule, it works better if the parent of the child is the disciplinarian. Having clear expectations and rules for the family mean your children know what is expected of them and this will help to decrease anxiety.

Remind yourself of indicators that show you your stress levels are creeping up, and refresh your stress management skills. This can be hard to do when you are feeling that everything is going great. Whether it is exercise, reading, listening to music or talking with friends. Reminding yourself of the things that support you when things are difficult, means that you can quickly reach for them if you start to feel overwhelmed.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?

Take time to get to know your partner’s children and allow them to get to know you. Finding things that you can genuinely connect on is great for the older children. Spending time playing with the younger children will help you both get to know each other. Doing this before you add the pressure of negotiating living together, will help cultivate relationships and make managing the challenges easier later on.

Don’t be put off if your efforts to create a positive relationship with your partner’s children are initially rebuffed. Sometimes a new partner is welcomed as something very positive. For other children they may view a new partner as a more concrete signal that their parents will not be getting back together (I know that they know this, but there is often a little hope), and they can react to the partner accordingly. It is important not to take the behavior personally.

Understanding what developmental stage your partner’s child or children are at will make understanding some of your interactions easier and will depersonalize some of the slights that you may experience. For example, 7 year olds are very black and white and expect everything to be correct. Whereas adolescents are more focused on their peer group and are often less interested in their parents than a younger child. They find public displays of affection between their adults offensive. A friend of mine recently said that you needed to have a healthy self-esteem to raise adolescents because everything you do either provokes an eye roll or ‘eww yuck’ response.

Part of the rules that you will need to set in your household may include respecting each family member whether you like them or not.

Transitions are often really difficult for children, even when they have really good relationships with both parents. It’s not just the practicalities of making sure that they have everything that they need, and distress when something is found to be forgotten. It is the emotional tugs of leaving one place and joining in to the next. Many children that I see get anxious leading up to the change in houses. Often parents will see it in behavior that gets more difficult or ‘silly’ the day before, or the day of the change. Making sure that you have time to support your children through the transition will decrease the stress for both of you. Listening carefully to what your child is saying, giving them opportunities to run off anxious energy and using bubble blowing (a form of deep breathing for younger children) as a way of managing anxiety can all help children manage change.

ROUTINE AND SUPPORT ESSENTIAL

Children respond well to routine. If they are struggling to settle when they come back from their other parents house, try creating a routine that you can do together every time they come home. Doing something with them that they like and are good at. This is a quick way to re-establish their sense of self-esteem and efficacy. Incorporating a physical activity to work off any pent up anxiety can be helpful too.

Support your children in their relationship with their other parent and step parent. Speaking positively about those parents allow children to navigate their relationships with them without being influenced by your feelings for those parents. It is much better for the children if they can establish a positive relationship with their other parent and step parent.

When you are trying to change a pattern of behavior that is causing discord in the family, try using humor or a game, this is a fun and easy way to learn and practice a new behavior. This can dissipate the intensity of the issue and makes change fun.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

There are some great mindfulness and breathing apps available, try out:

  • Smiling Mind - free mindfulness meditation programs for ages seven to Adult.
  • Breathe2relax – slows your breath rate to lower your stress

If you want to refresh and get some good ideas on parenting techniques, try out:

  • The Triple P Parenting Program
  • Toolbox parenting groups
  • The Incredible Years Parenting Programs

 

By Lara Mulgrew
Child Psychotherapist