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A Happy Blended Home

blended family

As wonderful as it is to have found love the second time around, living in a blended family can seem particularly stressful at times. Newly formed stepfamilies -- and experts say that "new" is a term that can apply for up to seven years, as everyone learns to navigate old loyalties, unfamiliar relationships, and developmental changes -- need lots of advice, and they know it. Conflict about how to handle kids is tough on everyone and can be murder on a marriage. (It's one of the reasons second unions fail more than first ones.) We've got advice on how to handle the most predictable hurdles.

My 3-year-old spends every other weekend with my ex, who just ignores our son's schedule for naps, meals, and bedtime. How can I get him to respect our request for consistency between our houses?
While there is plenty you can do to create healthy routines in your home, there's a limit to how much you can impose your ideas and standards on someone else, says Anne C. Bernstein, Ph.D., a family psychologist and mediator in Berkeley, California. Your requests -- even something as basic as "please get him to bed by 8:30 because otherwise he has a hard time at day care" -- can be construed as bossy, critical, or controlling. You'll be more successful if you try to address your ex as a colleague rather than a subordinate. Stick to the issues you think are most important -- maybe bedtime matters more than what or when your child eats. But be clear that you're asking, not demanding, and then let it go. The good news, Dr. Bernstein says, is that this probably isn't as much of a problem as you think. "There will always be differences between homes, and there's a wide spectrum of how well families cooperate," she adds. "From a very young age, even as toddlers, kids are able to appreciate that. It's as simple as saying, 'In Dad's house bedtime may be different, but here it's 8:30.' "

Sometimes I feel like my stepdaughter, who's 4, is trying to come between us. How can I tell my husband without sounding jealous?
She's just a little kid longing for her daddy, and if you're smart, you'll encourage her. "One of the biggest myths about blended families is that there should be a lot of family togetherness, and there will be an instant sense of intimacy," says Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Auburn University, in Alabama. "Your stepdaughter is likely just seeking the time and attention she is used to getting from Dad." But don't worry -- she's not plotting. Kids aren't able to grasp the intricacies of relationships (or how to bust them up) until around age 10. "Before then, they're just normally egocentric," says Dr. Adler-Baeder. Try to make sure she gets alone time with her dad, fun time with both of you, and one-on-one opportunities with you too.

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blended family

My husband won't discipline his kids when they visit, so I'm always the Evil Stepmother.
"It is really the biological parent's job to be the heavy," says Barry B. Frieman, Ed.D., a child-development expert and author of The Divorcing Father's Manual. "Otherwise, it just sets the new parent up for those nasty, 'You can't boss me -- you're not my real mother' comments." Talk to your husband about the situation and plan a strategy. Try to hash out guidelines about what kind of behavior you expect, and what the consequences will be when kids break the rules -- and encourage him to be the one to handle the situations with his kids. Tell him how you feel when he turns into a softie, and discuss different ways you can serve as one another''s backup. When your husband isn't around, it's better to invoke his authority with his kids than assert your own: "Your dad expects you to keep your room clean -- please pick up your toys" will get much less push-back than a command from you. If you're faced with a difficult scenario when he's away, don't be afraid to do nothing. "It's fine to tell the kids you're going to wait and talk with their dad about how to handle a situation," Dr. Frieman says. "You can always impose a consequence later."

We know we shouldn't say anything bad about our exes in front of our kids -- but we slip every now and then. How can we do damage control?
Apologize. Simply explain, "I think you heard me say something not very nice about your mom. That must be hard for you, because you love her. I want you to know I don't hate your mom. I was upset, and said something thoughtless," suggests Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling. "It's a good chance for you to say, 'We are all human and make mistakes.' " That said, remember that these types of remarks about exes truly are toxic. "Your child sees herself as half her mom and half her dad. So when you trash a parent, you're trashing her."'

True confession: Not only do I not feel much love for one of my new stepsons, he really gets on my nerves sometimes. Is that horrible?
"These feelings are typical and it's okay to feel annoyed," says Susan Davis Swanson, a clinical social worker, who runs The Stepfamily Center, in Beverly Hills, California. Don't be too hard on yourself; even biological parents can't stand their own kids sometimes, she says. "As a stepparent, it's important to be respectful and polite. This child is your partner's pride and joy, and he deserves a home where he can feel cared about and secure." Of course, this type of situation works both ways. "Your stepkids may not like you or your children, either," says Swanson. "Remember, the parents created this new family. The kids didn't ask for any of it." Love often develops over time, but it can be complicated. "As the adult, it'll be up to you to move the relationship forward," says Swanson. "But there will be times when you just don't feel up to trying. Give yourself room for all of your feelings and know that they're all right."

I thought our kids would be friends, but they ignore each other. When will we truly blend?
It usually takes double a child's age for everyone to develop strong bonds, Dr. Adler-Baeder says, so a 2-year-old should be adjusted by age 4; a 5-year-old may not feel solid until about age 10. However, many older kids may never completely accept a stepparent or stepsibling. "The term blended is actually pretty misleading," Dr. Adler-Baeder concedes. "Most of the time, there really isn't any true blending, it's more of a tossed salad. Does everyone truly love each other? Maybe not. But everyone should feel appreciated and respected."

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What's the best way for all of us to handle the holidays?
Between hyped-up expectations, stressful scheduling, and extra communication between frosty exes, the holidays can be anything but happy. Try to focus on what's important to the kids, and find ways to celebrate that are fun for them. "Simplify plans as much as possible, says Wisdom. "You might consider alternating holidays -- one year you get Thanksgiving but not Christmas, and so on -- rather than splitting days, which can increase logistical tension." And if it's not your year to get the kids for Christmas, make sure they know you're fine with them having a great time without you. Comments like "I know your holiday with Mommy will be wonderful" go a long way toward letting your kids know you want the best for them 365 days a year -- not just when they are with you.

My husband thinks that having a baby together will help all of us bond, but I'm afraid that it will just create more pressure.
"A new baby can bring a family closer," says Dr. Bernstein, who is also the author of Yours, Mine, and Ours: How Families Change When Remarried Parents Have a Child Together. If possible, though, it's best to put off expanding the pack until you feel that your kids have gotten used to the new regime, or else they might feel like they've been shoved aside. "The earlier a new baby comes, the more work you'll have to do to make sure all members of the family feel valued," says Dr. Bernstein. But you can count on the new addition creating conflict as well as connection. That's true in all families, of course, but it can be especially challenging in blended ones.

I'm afraid that my stepkids' mother is trying to turn them against us.
Since you can only control your own behavior, your best defense is to support all the kids' relationships -- even the one with a difficult biological parent. You can't change their mom. However, the more she realizes that you're not trying to compete with her, the more relaxed she may become. Regardless of her behavior, Dr. Frieman says, it's important to understand that kids have conflicting loyalties. "Let them off the hook by saying things like, 'I'm so glad that you had such a nice time with your mom this weekend,' " he suggests. "Children have an infinite amount of love," he explains, "and they can never have too many caring adults on their team. In many ways, it helps to think about a stepfamily as being like an extended family. Years ago, there would have been lots of aunts, uncles, and grandparents involved. It's the same with parents and stepparents. More can be better."

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Doing It Right

Help kids shift back and forth between homes with these tips for smooth transitions.

  • Be true to a school.

    If possible, make a deal with your exes to stay in the same school district or as close as you can. You'll save lots of driving time and make it easier for all parents to help with everything from middle-of-the-day tummy aches to chaperoning field trips.
  • Start traditions.

    The initial hour or so after a switch is often rife with meltdowns. Make it a ritual to walk the dog or play on the swings so the kids can blow off steam.
  • Use a mom/dad calendar.

    Toddlers and preschoolers typically miss absent parents more acutely. Mark Mom and Dad time with different colors so they can count the days.
  • Say Goodnight via Skype.

    Invite an absent parent to read the kids a virtual bedtime story.
  • Give them a piece of you.

    If a child seems apprehensive or tearful when saying goodbye, hand him something that belongs to you. ("Hey, will you hold my scarf until Sunday?")
  • Get a door-side duffle.

    "Blended" kids are famous for forgetting a favorite toy, soccer gear, or homework at the other parent's house. Develop a catch-all system by the front door, and make a pact with kids and exes to try to handle "Oh, no, I forgot my ____ again" days with humor.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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