What the average American family looks like is not the same it was 50 years ago. While there was once a widely accepted standard for a typical American family structure, research shows that idea simply doesn’t exist anymore.
In addition to the rise of single-parent households and cohabitation/blended families—a household with a stepparent, step sibling or half-sibling—are growing in number, with 16% of children experiencing this dynamic, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center.
But as families add more individuals to their daily routine, it can be challenging for each person involved to adjust, ranging from the children to the former spouse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 60% of all marriages involving children from a previous relationship ultimately fail.
Yet, if new parents, former spouses and children properly prepare for the blend, your chances of beating the odds could increase. Here, we share tips from three local experts in the field for easing stress stemming from becoming a blended family.
Come to an agreed parenting style with your partner
Before couples walk down the aisle, there are a few conversations that must be had for the betterment of the relationship for the long term.
“The very first rule of thumb for me as a therapist is to always make sure that once the couple agrees upon moving forward in the relationship, they understand their parenting styles,” says Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., and founder of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services.
According to Oberschneider, the big three areas for good parenting stem from how individuals engage their kids, how they reward them and how they consequence. If partners are not on the same page with how they manage parenting together, explains Oberschneider, then the chances the children feel comfortable in the blending process will decline.
Patrick Ryan, licensed professional counselor and co-founder of Duffy Counseling Center in McLean, notes that it is important to involve the former spouse in the conversation, too.
“One of the hardest things is that everybody is going through the transition, including the ex-spouses if there are any, because they are adjusting to their kids having so many different authoritative figures,” says Ryan. “There can’t be a disconnect between switching houses with things like chores and behavior.”
Understand your child’s expectations of the relationship
Once both partners understand one another’s parenting styles, it’s time to bring the children into the conversation. While the talk will vary for each family depending on the kids’ maturity levels, personality and developmental state, according to Oberschneider, sensitivity is key.
Says Ryan, it is essential for parents to listen to the concerns their children have before the blend occurs, as they are usually valid and can be eased with a discussion. Plus, parents should address each issue their kid might have as they happen, rather than waiting to have a teaching moment at a later date.
“The message of coming together should be positive and fit in a natural progression, because you really want your children to already have a strong bond with that person,” says Oberschneider. “If you think someone’s going to start crying, you’re probably not ready to blend your family.”
Continue familiar routines with your kids
Prior to becoming a blended family, your child didn’t have to share you with other siblings, which can often happen when two families come together. According to Oberschneider, it is important to maintain one-on-one time with your kids so they still feel wanted and loved in the same way they did before the blend.
Consistency is essential in other ways, too. As your child deals with the addition of a new authoritative figure, keeping up with old, comfortable traditions is beneficial in the adjustment period, according to Gabrielle Anderson, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Family Therapy Center of Northern Virginia in Ashburn.
“We create these traditions when we have families that really help you feel connected and like you can trust something,” says Anderson. “The kids need to know that those will still be important when the family dynamic changes; it helps them feel grounded.”
Never assume comfort will come naturally
While the actual length of the adjustment period into a blended family is highly debated, ranging from two to 10 years, Oberschneider says it takes about five to seven years, based on his 17 years of experience in the field.
“The key is to not assume that because you love one another, the children are going to come together like one big happy family,” says Oberschneider. “There’s going to be a phase of adjustment, but with good communication, space and sensitivity, the blend should move along quickly.”
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