8 Steps to Blended Family Bliss

We've asked our experts how to cook up a stepfamily that succeeds.
Stephanie Rausser

Looking to achieve blended family bliss? Add one part parent, one part new spouse. Blend in children, stepchildren, jobs, new living arrangements, and a hefty dose of good intentions. Voilá! If only it were that simple. Whether you call it a stepfamily, a blended family, or the craziness-that-is-my-life, making it work the second time around can take some extra effort. But never fear--it can be done!

First, a reality check.
Whether your family is blended or biological, being married and raising children will always have moments that are frustrating and challenging. "National surveys of remarried couples with children rate children as the number-one cause of conflict between them," says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce. Start with a positive attitude, a willingness to do the hard work, and realistic expectations.

Make a new parenting plan.
A blended family is not picking up where the other marriage left off. It is a brand-new creation with new players and new parameters and therefore needs new rules. Instead of trying to fit the new people, places, and situations into the old mold, design something new. "A blended family is the wrong imagery," says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't. "You're not making a smoothie. It's more like a fruit salad!" In other words, not everything is going to mix perfectly.

Encourage respect, communication, and empathy.
"Working on the respect for the whole family is really important," says Rosalind Sedacca, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce? "That means watching the tone of conversations and being hyper-sensitive to what things are like for the other people in the relationship, especially the children." Although you can't force stepchildren and stepparents to love each other, you can set an expectation for considerate behavior and communication. "Respectful communication even more important in a blended family because you have so many new dynamics that are playing a part," Sedacca says.

Prioritize one-on-one time.
Sometimes the best way to help your new blended family is to spend time apart. "Parents and kids need time alone together without the stepparent. The couple needs time alone together without the children. And the stepparent and the child need some easy, low-key, one-on-one time together without the biological parent," Dr. Papernow suggests. This allows each person in the stepfamily to get what he or she needs from the other. Strengthening the individual bonds in the stepfamily will help strengthen the stepfamily as a whole.

Give permission.
Stepfamilies can be bound up with guilt and insecurities and confusing, contrasting emotions. Release some of this tension by giving family members the freedom to feel, grieve, express, love, and act. Give permission to your spouse to spend guilt-free time with his or her biological children. Give your stepchildren permission not to like you. Give your children permission to like your ex's new spouse. Give yourself permission to care of yourself with exercise, time in nature, or an hour with a good friend.

Let relationships develop naturally, but also look to provide opportunities to help them do so.
"You can't force a stepchild to like or love these new people that come into the family," Sedacca says, but you can find ways to gently nudge and encourage stepfamily members in that direction. Shared experiences, one-on-one time, and a life lived together will help to develop these bonds. "The longing for blending is so understandable," Dr. Papernow says, "but I wish stepfamilies would know from the start that becoming a stepfamily is a process, not an event."

Expect bumps and make adjustments as needed.
Whether you are parenting stepkids or biological kids, they change as they grow up and your parenting needs to adjust as well. Kids also naturally act out to test the boundaries of a new family dynamic such as a stepfamily. "Children are feeling their way of how much control they have and may try to play both parents off each other or create tensions," Sedacca says. Don't take this as a personal attack or a sign that your stepfamily is doomed. Work with the ebb and flow of the stepfamily.

Seek Support
Consider searching out therapy, coaching, or other support groups to start your stepfamily or stepparenting off on the right foot. Whether there is a divorce or a death, stepchildren from both spouses or from just one, no two stepfamilies have the same situation, dynamic, or pieces to fit together. Seeking professional counseling can allow an objective third party to help you navigate the waters of your specific situation. "In family therapy sessions, everyone gets a chance to talk, everyone feels heard, and agreements can be made with the help of a neutral third party where everyone feels that they were in on the decision," Sedacca says. And that can help you create a recipe for stepfamily success.

Positive, or authoritative, parents value mutual respect and being a good listener.

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