If you’re getting married and your partner has children from their previous marriage, this means your family is about to become a blended one. A blended family often involves a stepparent, stepsibling, or a half-sibling — and it’s also possible to have them all.
And if you’re just discovering these new family dynamics, you’re not alone. According to the U.S. Census, 16 percent of children live in a blended family as of 2009.
There’s also a possibility this number could be higher. The U.S. Census is done every 10 years, and there are also 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every day. (Note: Not all stepfamilies are blended as a stepparent without children wouldn’t constitute a blended family.)
When it comes to growing up or raising a blended family, there will be challenges. Whether it’s new family dynamics to navigate, such as co-parenting with ex-partners, becoming a stepparent, or letting new siblings bond, one of the best ways to navigate these challenges is preparing for them.
Here’s how to plan ahead when it comes to communicating, navigating, and growing your blended family.
1. Blending different family traditions
When two households blend, everyone will be coming with different traditions. Before you talk to your kids, be sure to talk to your partner about what’s important and what can be compromised upon. Never assume the feelings of your partner, your kids, or your partner’s kids.
Kids especially may have different expectations around holidays and birthdays. Without proper introduction or preparation, they may feel resentful about having to follow someone else’s way of celebrating.
Try to compromise, split time equally between parents, and create new traditions together as a blended family.
Tips for the holidays
- Plan as early as possible with ex-partners, extended family, and everyone involved about how your children will spend each holiday. Try to keep things as simple as possible. Communication is key here.
- Be flexible. You may let your kids spend Thanksgiving with your ex, but Christmas or their birthday with you.
- Plan to give your children and your stepchildren the same number or type of gifts at each holiday.
- Start a new tradition you know your blended family will enjoy.
2. Helping kids adjust to change
Too many changes at one time can be unsettling. Children thrive off of routine, so set a schedule and stick to it as much as possible. Having clear expectations and outlining what their school weeks will look like — Monday you’ll be with your mom, Tuesday dad will pick you up, for example — will help your kids adjust.
|New space or home||Make sure kids have their own independent space they feel safe in, such as personal room, play space, or personalized nook.|
|Moving between two homes||Allow kids to have a permanent space for things, even when they aren’t there so they don’t feel like a visitor.|
|New school||If possible, allow them time to adjust to the new family routine before starting school again.|
|New schedules||Have a conversation with children a few days before the new schedule starts. Be sure to plan individual attention time, if needed.|
For older children, set up conversations before making decisions so they feel they have agency or input in what’s going on.
3. Sibling rivalry
Some kids will be excited about having stepsiblings, while others may initially resent it. Jealousy and conflict may arise quickly in the transition to living together.
You can help ease the transition by:
- setting expectations and rules about respecting each member of the family
- posting house rules that apply to all family members somewhere everyone can see them
- making sure everyone has their own space where they can be alone when they need some space
- displaying pictures of all the kids around your home
- planning activities like a beach or theme park outing everyone will enjoy
It might also be a good idea to trial what living together will be like by going on vacation. A camping trip is a great way to see how siblings interact with each other.
4. Compromising with parent discipline styles
You and your partner may have different discipline styles. The rules in your house might also not match those at your ex-partner’s. It’s important to get on the same page and follow the same rules before you marry and live under one roof.
The following steps may help:
- prioritize being civil and respectful
- let the main parent remain the prime discipliner until the stepparent has solid bonds with their stepchildren
- avoid ultimatums or disciplining when your partner isn’t around
- a stepparent can serve as more of a friend or counselor instead of a disciplinarian
- list and post family rules and be consistent about following them
- make clear that rules in your house may be different than at your ex-partner’s home and that’s OK
- limit expectations from your partner
5. Managing age differences
Family members of different ages and stages will have different needs. They may also adjust differently to the new family dynamic.
Understanding frustrations and honoring differences can go a long way in a blended family. For example, don’t make assumptions or place expectations on older children to look after the younger ones right away. Let them adjust to the new family dynamics first, and ask if that’s something they’re interested in.
Age differences to be aware of
- Under 10. They may adjust more easily, need more attention from parents, and have more basic daily needs.
- Ages 10 to 14. They may be more sensitive to feelings, need more reassurance than little ones, and need more time to bond.
- Ages 15 and older. They may be less involved in family time, may not openly express as easily, and need a sense of agency and equal respect.
Spending time individually with your kids, when possible, to listen to their concerns may also help. If you’re living with your partner’s children for the first time, plan to spend time getting to know them individually, too.
If your partner and their children have a vastly different upbringing and background, it’s best to talk through these identities and what role they play in their lives and yours before moving in together.
Avoid traditional thinking or using your background as a blueprint. These expectations can set your blended family up for more challenges. It’s important to recognize that you or your partner isn’t replacing anyone but setting forth new relationships of trust and communication.
For example, if your stepchild is accustomed to a stay-at-home mom, they may need more attention and guidance from a parental figure when first moving in.
Learning to understand racial and cultural differences can make a huge difference when it comes to bonding with your partner and their children. For people of color in the United States, representative role models in their life are particularly important. This could mean finding a family doctor, after-school coaches, extracurricular instructors, or even play groups that match their background.
When it comes to these different identities, there are some situations you or your partner might not immediately become a child’s confidante in certain areas — or even be capable of reaching that point.
This dynamic doesn’t have to lessen the relationship between you, your partner, and your children. In fact, understanding these nuances can help foster even stronger bonding and respect for one another.
Bonding together as a blended family is going to take time. It may even take years before you and your children feel comfortable with the new dynamics.
But avoid forced bonding with your blended family. It’s OK that your kids and their stepsiblings don’t love — or even like — each other right away.
Bonding is a gradual process that’ll be easier when it isn’t forced. Instead of setting up situations with expectations, find ways to make daily life comfortable first. This will allow for new parents or children to develop on their own timeline.
Get to know each other, but don’t force them to spend all their time with you. Every person needs quiet or alone time to process their experiences before they feel closer to one another. Eventually, they may warm up more. But be patient.
There’s always pressure to stay together as a family. Whether it’s a first marriage or a blended family, whenever you hit a rough patch, the thought of calling it quits may cross your mind.
And that’s perfectly normal.
It’s what you want to do next — and what you really want — that matters. If you find yourself thinking this, ask yourself:
- Have you given yourself and your family enough time to grow together?
- Are your feelings grounded in insecurity or experience?
- Have you talked about your feelings with your partner or older children?
- Are you and your partner still committed to making this work?
Being a blended family isn’t a pick-and-choose formula. It’s a lot of work and communication, and sometimes you may need extra support from friends, a community, or a therapist.
You may need to take a break and step back to analyze the situation, or ask for help from a professional.
As long as you and your partner are still committed to the family, there are still many ways to bounce back from a tense situation.
Blending two families is a major adjustment for everyone. It’s going to take time, compromise, and flexibility before your family is comfortable with the arrangement.
Communication is key. You’ll need to be clear about your needs and expectations with both your old or new partner.
Be sure to balance your time focusing on your blended family as well as on your marriage. By witnessing your love and respect for each other, kids will also recognize the healthy and secure foundation you and your partner are providing for the family.
How to communicate effectively
- Don’t force conversations. Falling out is normal. Let children and parents digest their feelings before speaking.
- Let your feelings be known. Let out your emotions thoughtfully, not reactively. If you, your partner, or your kids need immediately release, write these feelings down and save them for later.
- Listen without interrupting. This helps people feel respected instead of judged. Take notes if you need to.
- Let everything be a discussion. Don’t let your kids or partner feel uncertain about a situation or importance in the family. Not every discussion has to happen right away. If a talk needs to be tabled for later, let others know why and when you can talk about it again.
While one of the most important factors is that your and your partner’s kids feel safe and secure when they’re at your home, remember that everyone has a different definition or perspective to feeling safe.
The best way to feel confident and stable about your blended family is fostering honest communication and active resolutions.