Whether you realize it or not, you have a set of assumptions about how to cook your blended family. By that, I mean your approach to how your stepfamily ‘ought’ to come together. Brenda was cooking her family with a blender.

“It happened again the other night,” she began. “My 14 year-old son, Braden, walked in the living room and started asking me to help him with his math homework when his stepfather, Tim, who is much better at math than me, was sitting right there. Braden never asks Tim for help with anything. I was frustrated so I suggested that Braden should ask Tim for help. If Braden would just let Tim in a little things between them would get better, I know.”

Obviously Brenda’s goal is to help her son connect with his stepfather. She’s hopes that Braden will feel a greater level of safety and security with his stepfather—much like he feels with his mother—so that the family will feel more like, well, like a “family.” So, her method of cooking her son and husband is to force them together, much like what a blender does to the various ingredients, by pushing Braden to ask Tim for help. There is nothing wrong with Brenda’s goal of bringing the various ingredients of her home together, but there is something misguided about trying to “force them to blend”.

By suggesting that Braden has done something wrong by not asking Tim for help Brenda is inadvertently creating pressure on her son to blend. “But I feel so guilty that Braden doesn’t yet feel really bonded with Tim. If I don’t push them together, who will?” she asked. “The problem with blenders,” I replied, “is that they aren’t successful unless they whip all the ingredients into one smooth mixture. That means someone has to get creamed first!” “No wonder he just gets mad at me when I suggest things like that.” Brenda was beginning to understand that her efforts to force a blend were really creating resistance in her son’s heart.

That’s the problem with many common cooking styles used by adults in stepfamilies. They all tend to create pressure which inadvertently builds walls between the various “ingredients.” Food processor parents chop up one another's history when they demand that stepchildren call their stepparent "daddy" or "mommy." It is as if the child is told, "We've chopped up your real dad and thrown him to the side. This is your new dad." Some parents actually think their children will buy that.

Microwave parents expect instant love for one another and avoid labels like “stepfamily” because they don’t want to be any different than biological families while pressure cooker parents insist that each member of the family celebrate all the holiday rituals of the other stepfamily members, even if they don’t share the same likes or preferences. In each case, the cooking strategy is pretty much the same: force people into relationship whether they want to or not.

Culinary Insights into Stepfamily Cooking

Smart stepfamilies understand that relationships take time and that the forcing action of “blending” creates resistance, not connection. They cook with a crock-pot.

Parents choosing this method understand that time and low heat makes for an effective combination. Like with a crock-pot, the ingredients of a stepfamily are thrown together in the same pot (we call it a wedding!), but each is left intact, giving affirmation to its unique origin and characteristics. Slowly and with much intention, the low-level heat brings the ingredients into contact with one another. Eventually ingredients begin to share of themselves according to their own timing. What is at first, a collection of separate ingredients, eventually becomes a scrumptious, satisfying meal.

The keys to crock-pot cooking are time and low heat. Stepfamilies need time to adjust to new living conditions, new parenting styles, rules, and responsibilities. They need time to experience one another and develop trust, commitment, and a shared history. They need time to find a sense of belonging and an average of seven years to develop a since of identity as a family unit. None of these things can be rushed. Rather, a crock-pot or slow-cooker mentality invites you to relax in the moment and enjoy the small steps your stepfamily is making toward integration rather than pressuring family members to move ahead.

Cooking with low heat refers to your gradual, intentional efforts to bring the members of your family together over time. It is working smarter, not harder. For example, crock-pot stepparents understand that the cardinal rule of relationship development with stepchildren is to let them set the pace for the relationship. If the child is open to you, then return the child's affections. If she remains distant or standoffish, find ways of managing rules and getting through life without forcing your expectations for affection or fondness toward you.

Crock-pot Rewind

If we could rewind Brenda’s run-in with her son, a crock-pot mentality might have calmed her anxiety and reminded her that since right now her son feels most safe with her she should respond to his dilemma. Over time, that might change as Braden shares more of himself with Tim and their relationship matures. Asking his stepfather for help at that time will more comfortably flow from their bond. Until then, Brenda should be patient with her son, not push too hard, and keep reminding herself that they aren’t finished cooking yet.

Author's Bio: 

Ron L. Deal is Founder and President of Successful Stepfamilies. He is author of the bestselling book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and presents his “laugh and learn” seminar Building A Successful Stepfamily throughout the country on a regular basis. Ron is coauthor of the forthcoming books The Smart Stepmom: Practical Steps to Help You Thrive and The Remarriage Couple Checkup which is based on the largest survey of couples in stepfamilies ever conducted.

Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor. Ron has appeared on numerous national radio and TV broadcasts and has been published in magazines and newspapers around the country. Books, videos, articles, and his FREE E-Magazine are available from his web site: SuccessfulStepfamilies.com.

Ron and his wife have been married since 1986 and have three sons.