Developing happy and harmonious relationships in any family comes with its challenges, but blending two different families has its own particular bumps and bright spots. It can take several years, or more, for stepfamilies to find a groove that is comfortable for everyone.
The early years can be particularly challenging. Not only are new couples getting to know each other and developing their own relationship, there are relationships with biological and stepchildren to nurture as well.
Does the stress of step-parenting sometimes push you to the edge? Are you worried and upset about the clashes that your new partner is having with your children? What can you do to build a healthy blended family and make a good mix?
focus on individual relationships
Although some parents are eager to be “one big happy family” early on, it’s often a good idea to take things slow and put more emphasis on nurturing individual relationships. Stepparents need time alone with their stepchildren to get to know them, and learn to appreciate who they are and what they like, away from the rest of the family.
A stepparent can set aside fifteen or thirty minutes (up to an hour each week) of special time with their stepchild. It’s a time when the child gets to do whatever they want, within the limits of safety and reason. While avoiding instructing, teaching, or critiquing their stepchild, stepmom or stepdad is there to follow their stepchild’s lead and to fill them with appreciation and respect.
This is an opportunity to find common interests, and create a space that feels safe and relaxed enough for both child and adult to really show one another who they are. These times can set the foundation for a strong and loving relationship between a stepparent and stepchild.
For example, one day when my step-daughter was ten, I picked her up from school and asked her what she wanted to do for special time. She said she wanted to go jogging. “Jogging?!” I thought. “I barely get to yoga class these days!” But that was what she wanted, so we put on our running shoes and yoga pants and headed out the door.
In the first twenty seconds of our run, she looked at me and said, “So how are you, Julie? This is a good time to talk,” and she beamed a warm smile my way. I tried to talk through my huffing and puffing. She didn’t seem to mind that at times I had to walk, or couldn’t talk, she just seemed glad that I was there, and that I was willing to push myself in a place that was hard for me…just to be with her. We had a lovely time together, running, walking, huffing, puffing, and talking. We spent the rest of the day lying in the sun reading and doing homework.
Parents also need special time with their biological children—again, a time where the child is given the opportunity to direct the play or decide on the outing. Special time reminds a child how important they are to their parent, even as the household changes and parents put their attention on a new partner or other children.
Couples need special time together as well. Stresses on all sides can mount quickly in stepfamilies, days can be busy, and alone time between couples can easily be put on the back burner. Make time at least once a month to be together without kids— go to the movies, grab dinner, or squeeze in a walk during lunch time.
support children in their transitions
Moving back and forth from one household to another isn’t easy. Transition days can be tough. It is a time when big feelings can erupt and small incidents more easily set children off. If a child begins to cry about going to mommy’s house, or about a granola bar she dropped as she was heading out the door, or a shirt she couldn’t find, lean in, make eye contact, and listen. If a child is allowed to cry, instead of burying her feelings away, chances are her day will go better.
Making room for feelings to erupt as a child settles in after being away for a while or leaves for the other house can make a big difference. Be sure to build in extra time around transitions in case big feelings do surface so you can give your child extra attention in the hours before and after they change households.
use laughter to build closeness and reduce tension
Laughter and physical play can be the antidote to tension that arises in any family, and in blended families it can be used strategically during transition days or to build the relationship between stepparents and stepchildren, as well as between new and old siblings. In our household, we have a ritual of roughhousing after dinner. Wrestling and roughhousing are particularly helpful on the evenings that my stepdaughter returns to our house after being away for a few days.
One of our favorite things to do is start with a “steam-roller” on our king-sized bed. She lies on top of me, I hug her tight, and we try to roll from one end of the bed to the other, often with limited success but with lots of laughter. Even as a preteen, she still laughs until her eyes water as we awkwardly steamroll our way to the edge.
Then we might play, “Steal the Socks.” The children gang up on me and try to take my socks off. “You hold her here, I’ll grab her foot,” one of them shouts to the other as they unite as a formidable team of sock snatchers. And in the end, they are triumphant. I am the one who can’t quite seem to get away, who trips on my way off the bed and falls on the rug as I try to escape. Finally, it is the children who not only have my socks, but a little more power than when they walked in the door that day.
Look for places where your children laugh and keep that laughter going. Be the goofy one who chases them through the house but can’t quite catch them, let them be the victorious one, while you’re the big, bumbling loser. Play and laughter can reduce tension and unify stepfamilies in a wonderful way.
find someone to listen to you
Whether it’s the challenges of roughhousing, making the space for the storm of emotions that can erupt in any household, or the sadness of saying goodbye to a child as they go off with daddy, parents need someone they can talk to relieve the stress of parenting in a blended family. Talking about the stresses of blended families is an essential survival tool.
Find someone outside of your family to get support from. A friend, a neighbor, another parent or stepparent—someone who can just listen without giving advice. Allow each person to take 15 to 30 minutes to talk, or cry, or laugh about how hard stepfamilies can be at times.
You can also use this time to talk about all the things that drive you crazy about your stepchild or biological child. Tell your listener the things you would never say to your children, and probably shouldn’t say to your partner, but are important to get off your chest.
Finding someone to talk to who won’t jump in with their own experience or tell you how to handle your next conflict can be enormously refreshing and can eventually help you enjoy your stepchildren (or your biological kids) even more.
find activities that unite, not alienate, stepchildren and stepparents
A step dad can feel like the odd parent out if mom and her daughter have a ritual of rollerblading every weekend and the step dad isn’t so good on wheels. Find activities that stepparents and stepchildren can do together to bridge the gap. One stepdad I know plays tennis with his stepson every Saturday afternoon while the mom takes their daughters to swimming lessons.
always speak of other parents with respect
Although it may seem obvious, it’s not always easy. In the heat of the moment when you’re angry or frustrated at the parent who lives in the other household, keep negative comments or tension away from the children. All children want their parents to be respected (no matter how much conflict or hurt has ensued between them). And all parents deserve to be respected, even in their darkest moments. Children shouldn’t be in the middle of or privy to conflict between parents who are separated.
What children really want is for their parents to get along. But because that’s not always possible, at least be respectful of one another. Even if a parent is no longer in the picture and the child has lost all contact with their mother or father— we can still remind him that his mother who can no longer live with him will always love him.
find a respite from the storm
Even the most dedicated stepparent can get exhausted, overwhelmed, and on the way to burn-out. Stepparents need a place to go to blow off steam and to feel connected with friends and other family. That might mean taking a good novel to another room of the house for a while, or calling a loved one while walking around the block when things get to be too much. Or better yet, plan an overnight to a place in nature with a good friend. Just as parents need time to refuel and reconnect with people they are close to, stepparents also need a respite from the stress of stepparenting.
When my stepdaughter was very young, there were days when I didn’t know how I would ever manage a child that had such strong emotions and wasn’t one of my own. I would call a friend, my mother, or my mentor, and told them how difficult the days were.
One morning, during one of these desperate calls, my friend said, “Julie, your stepdaughter will be one of the most important people in your life one day.”
And today, that’s true. We have forged a bond that’s unbreakable. Our “special times” together are some of my most enjoyable moments with her, her passionate moments are more manageable for me, and I love the young woman she is turning out to be. We’re living proof that it is possible to have a close blended family where there is still room for big emotions and lots of laughter and love guide our relationships.