“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Jill, stepmother to two teen girls and mom to one biological son, aged 10. “My stepdaughters don’t respect me—I’m the ‘evil stepmother’ to them—and pretty much ignore whatever I say. And my son is constantly telling me that my husband isn’t fair, and that he treats him differently than he treats his two girls. Sometimes I get so exhausted by the whole thing I just want to get up and leave.”
We often jokingly say, “You don’t get a manual on how to parent kids.” But each adult in a blended family brings a set of ideas about parenting with them, in addition to their own prior experiences. This often makes for a very complex situation, and it’s one of the reasons why parents in a blended family can get stuck in some disappointing and frustrating cycles of behavior. Look at it this way: there are so many different points of view and aspects to this relationship that it can naturally be very confusing for everyone. The children also have different experiences and perceptions of the parent-child relationship—and because of the very fact that they are children, they will not surrender those ideas easily. Remember, the secret to having a blended family is having blended adults. The kids just have a responsibility to live with each other respectfully and to respect the other parent.
I think the first question that has to be asked is “What does ‘blended’ mean?” Does it mean everyone calls the woman “Mommy” and the man “Daddy?” Does blended mean each parent supports the other parent no matter what? Or does blended mean that a couple comes to a series of decisions together about their expectations and thoughts regarding the development of children—and then they operationalize those ideas in how they treat their kids and what they expect from them?
I believe that blending two families is the most perplexing and difficult job two adults can take on. There are no quick answers or easy solutions. But there are some guidelines and suggestions I can give you to help you think about the scope and nature of some of the common problems that surface within your family—and how to solve them.
How to Get on the Same Page with Your Spouse
- Before You Get Married: Establish Roles and Resolve the Conflicts You Can Resolve
One type of conflict that occurs between parents in a blended family is having a difference of opinion about general parenting ideas.This might include when bedtime should be, how homework is done, and how much TV is allowed in the house. Many of these differences can be talked about and resolved before you get married.
If your spouse parents differently than you do, talk about that openly—hopefully before you get married. Often people fall in love and don’t face those kinds of issues. They think it will all work out on its own—but the truth is, things usually don’t work out unless the people working them out have the skills to make that happen. Even if you are already married, I suggest you sit down and start talking about the parenting issues that are important to you today.
But don’t kid yourself, although you may agree to things and work them out ahead of time, as stressors and different situations happen, realize that it’s common for both you and your spouse to react in ways you didn’t anticipate. This is because family dynamics change, kids change, circumstances outside the family change. To put it plainly, it’s impossible to plan for everything.
The key is to be adult and understanding of each other. For example, it’s not uncommon for Democrats and Republicans to be happily married to one another. In the same way, if you’re in a blended family situation, you have to find a way to live with your partner by respecting the other person’s point of view when it comes to decisions about how to raise the kids in the family, too.
- Recognize the Importance of the Birth Parent
It’s very important to establish the importance of the birth parent. This means that the birth parent is the primary parent. Think of it this way: marriages break up sometimes, but the birth parent-birth child relationship is never going to dissolve. Because of the birth parent-child connection, the birth parent should be the decision maker of last resort for their biological child, as long as the decision around that child protects the emotional and physical safety of everyone else in the family. What that means is that when we have conflicts, the birth parent will make the final decision, but that doesn’t mean the child should be abusive or hurtful.
That way when your stepchild is saying, “You’re not my father,” the answer is “You’re right, I’m not. But these are the expectations that your mother and I have, and if you don’t follow through you will be held accountable.” It allows you to avoid getting into those kinds of power struggles with your stepchild.
If your spouse isn’t parenting your child the way you think they should be, you need to be able to communicate with them about that and work things out. If there’s a disagreement, the birth parent’s decision takes primacy and the stepparent has to be mature enough and trusting enough in the relationship to go along with it, without a lot of pouting and self-pity.
- Communicate Constantly and Present a United Front
I can’t stress this enough: the foundation for blended families rests on the principles of communication and cooperation between both adults. Compromise is the name of the game. And adults have to communicate, communicate, communicate. In a blended family, there is an absolute necessity for both adults to be on the same page. These two adults, when they decide to get together and marry, have to make a decision that they’re going to communicate about things in private, away from the kids.
The rule has to be, “Whatever agreement we come up with, we have to present a united front on it. And if we disagree, the birth parent should have the right to say, "This is my choice, this is my decision.” And in fact, the common theme in the family should be that Mom and Dad talk things out, that they look into things and work things out together.
- Don’t Throw Labels Around
Labels are one of the biggest roadblocks to communication, because once you start labeling somebody, communication is over—you’ve effectively cut it off. If one parent labels the other as being too soft, or too hardline, those labels interfere with solving the problem. And by the way, that’s why people do label. Genuine communication is very difficult emotionally, and if both people aren’t on the same page, they often avoid it. How do they avoid it? By arguing, fighting, blaming, and labeling.
Let’s say there’s a dispute over the amount of time the kids in the family are spending on video games. You want to limit their game time, but your spouse thinks the kids should be allowed to play as much as they want. It doesn’t help when one adult says to the other, “You’re too soft on them,” or “You’re too rigid.” Again, that’s just labeling the other person. Instead, you need to sit down and ask investigative questions like, “What are you trying to accomplish by letting the kids play video games without putting a time limit on them?” So the question becomes, “What is your goal here?” And your spouse might respond, “I want them to feel like home is a place where they can relax and do the things they enjoy as much as they want, as long as they take care of their responsibilities.” And they should be asking you, “What are you trying to accomplish by limiting the video game time?” You might say, “I want them to have some structure in their lives. I think video games have their place, but they should not be our kids’ main source of entertainment. I’m worried that if we let them play as much as they want, it’ll become a cop-out and they’ll play video games instead of doing other things.”
Now both of these people have a legitimate perspective. The challenge is for them to come up with some kind of compromise. You do this by figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish or avoid. Once you do that—and can come up with a compromise instead of arguing or labeling the other person—you’re really communicating. Remember, basing decisions on what you’re trying to accomplish is often much more effective than basing them on “the way things were on when you were a kid.”
Remember, the key to finding harmony in a blended family is communication and maturity on the part of the parents. One important thing to realize is that the kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. Again, the people who really have to blend are the parents. And blending as adults means seeing your spouse as a partner, not as an obstacle.
Believe me, I know that this advice is easy to read but difficult to do. Know that although a lot of emotional labor has to take place, the fruits of your efforts will translate into much more peace in your home.
Empowering Parents is a weekly newsletter, online magazine and parenting blog published by Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children. The views expressed in the articles on Empowering Parents represent the opinions of the authors and the experts quoted therein. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to respond to every question posted after an article on our website. Empowering Parents encourages its readers to participate by weighing in with suggestions and advice. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and defiant children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.