How to Make a Blended Family Work Posted on January 27, 2023, updated on August 31, 2023 by Dr. John Hawkins, Sr. As a family counselor, I’ve heard a lot about the challenges families go through. While every single one has their own unique dynamic, they also have a few things in common. The first is that no family is perfect 100% of the time. The second is that families are made up of good people. And even when you argue, it’s in the name of growing stronger as a family unit. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a blended family work. Research shows this adjustment is often hardest on adolescent children. Plus, stepping into your new role as a parent and step-parent takes some getting used to. I need to rip the band-aid off now and tell you there aren’t any easy tricks to simplify this major transition. That said, learning how to make a blended family work is easier with the right perspective. Keep reading for my suggestions on navigating the most common major issues. What is considered a blended family? A blended family forms when two people get married and they each have a child (or children) from a past relationship. This can take many forms. Maybe your children and your spouse’s children are the same age… or maybe they’re years apart. You and your spouse may also decide to have a baby together. Either way, you have what’s considered a blended family. “Stepfamily” is another term you might’ve heard, though I’ve seen it used less often in recent years. What are the expectations of roles of step-parents and how long should it take to blend? Let’s start with how long it should take to blend. Research from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry shows that, on average, it takes 1-2 years for a family to fully blend. But there are so many factors that can influence how long it takes, like: The ages of all children involvedThe reason your previous marriage endedHow much you and your spouse have discussed this move with your childrenIf anyone has to move to a new area to live under one roofAnd other details unique to each family All I’m trying to say is, don’t think of this as a deadline your family has to meet. This is just the average. In terms of expectations for step-parents, these too will vary for every family. But I’d like to share a few ideas to help give you a positive perspective: First, don’t create the expectation that either of you are replacement parents. Instead, think of your role as an additional parent. Trying to “take charge” with your new stepchildren won’t make them loyal or accepting. You and your spouse are responsible adults, which means helping care for both your children and stepchildren. But don’t set an expectation that you need to immediately love each other or form an emotional bond with each other’s kids. Love and affection come naturally over time—for both you and your step-children. One expectation you should strive to meet relates to discipline. You two should take the time to discuss parenting styles, authority, and responsibility long before you move in together. It’s crucial to reach an agreement on what behaviors are (and aren’t) acceptable from your children. You should also discuss the consequences you agree on, potential deal-breakers, and anything that’s negotiable. Finally, it’ll be easiest for the biological parent to discipline each child in the beginning. Ease into that authoritative role with your stepchildren for best results. How can we establish and maintain boundaries with our children and stepchildren? This is a very smart question to ask. It means you’re recognizing that the children in your home have their own needs while adapting to their new family unit. One of the best ways to establish and maintain boundaries with your children and stepchildren is simple: Don’t overstep. For a while, it’s wise for each biological parent to dole out punishments and discipline. The more you try to “prove” that you have authority in the house, the more your stepchildren will rebel and push back. It’s imperative that you don’t give in to these games and take the high road instead. If your stepchildren are misbehaving, you can remind them of the rules. But instead of punishing them yourself, let your spouse do the heavy lifting. I know this sounds backwards to a lot of step-parents. But it comes down to what children respond best to. And until you’ve put in the time and effort to build a strong trust with your stepchildren, they’ll respond best to you respecting their boundaries. The next part is a bit more nuanced. Though you aren’t acting as an authority, all children in the house must respect both parents. Each biological parent should deliver this information to their own kids. Something to the effect of, “You might not like him/her right now. But you MUST be kind, polite, and respectful,” will send the message loud and clear. It’s necessary that you show this same level of respect to your stepchildren. When everybody is given the respect they deserve, plus time to adjust, things will go much smoother. How can we deal with the emotional and psychological impact of blending families on ourselves, our partners, and our children? The key here is to not force anything, or set a timeline for becoming “one big happy family.” The more changes you try to introduce at once, the more difficult things will become. Take the time to actively listen to everyone in the house—including your spouse. Focus less on the destination of everybody getting along, and more on the journey of getting to know each other. Invite your stepchildren to get to know you. Find common likes and dislikes. Make them feel included, not forced to conform. Your partner should do the same for your children. When you let all of this happen on a natural timeline, the emotional and psychological impact won’t be so heavy. All of this said, making a blended family work can still be tough. We learn most of our family dynamics from our own upbringing. And often, unlearning negative patterns is a big piece of the puzzle. The very best way to mitigate any tension or difficulties is with family counseling. As certified experts, we’re here to listen to all sides and get to the root of familial issues. It’s a great way to discover perspectives you hadn’t considered and understand your new family members. And seeking out counseling doesn’t mean your family is “broken” or “in trouble.” Instead, it means you’re interested in solving problems before they wreak havoc in your home. Being proactive in this way can make the transition smoother for everyone involved. If you’re ready to learn more about how family counseling can help your family truly blend, just contact us to learn more.