STORY By Melinda Richarz Lyons | Small Town Kids Jan-Mar 2017
What does it mean to be a family? The traditional nuclear family exists, but more and more parents and children are part of a blended family.
A stepfamily or blended family consists of a couple and the children in their household, their children together and/or children from previous relationships.
One in three Americans is a “step” of some sort, according to Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., and author of “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do.”
The Stepfamily Foundation reports that 1,300 blended families form every day and over 50 percent of American families form from a couple who remarry or re-couple.
Ron Deal, a marriage and family therapist, says that 42 million adults currently are in a second or subsequent marriage — which is three times more than in 1960.
According to Deal, blended families face more challenges — such as jealousy, discipline, insecurity and accommodating different family traditions — than the traditional family.
Shirley Cress Dudley, the author of “Blended Family Advice,” says it is important for these families to realize that patience is vital. “Parents in a blended family setting are often surprised about how long it takes to develop into a new unit,” she says.
Because blended families are often the result of a break up of a previous family, she says it takes time for children to feel stable, secure and regain a sense of belonging. That means parents need to get rid of baggage from previous relationships before the new family can begin to bond.
Dr. Jeannette Lofas, founder of the Stepfamily Foundation, suggests that instead of pushing children to accept new relationships, parents should “sympathize with children and emphasize the fact that any loving relationship is good. That attitude helps with jealousy issues and allows all members to begin to find the new version of happy.”
Dr. Martin says, “Putting the marriage or partnership first gives the whole family a chance at stability and happiness.”
Dr. Martin cautions parents not to force certain expectations — like stepfamilies are “supposed to be just like a first family.” Children have enough to deal with in the new family setting, so it is helpful, she said, to “lower the bar, step back and let the relationship develop on its own terms, in its own way.”
She says members within stepfamilies bond best one-on-one and, because of that, it is important to engage in “eye-to-eye activities like doing a puzzle, playing a board game or doing arts and crafts together.”
On the other hand, she emphasizes, that children in blended families shouldn’t be treated like royalty and that when parents bend over backwards to accommodate kids’ every whim, kids feel like guests rather than family.
In her book “Blended Family Success,” Adele Cornish addresses the often difficult issue of dealing with ex-partners. She says that it is important to remember that ex-partners are not ex-parents. She says even when “the adults in a child’s life may not like each other” they will “further the best interests of the child if they can work together.”
According to Cornish, it helps if step-parents encourage their partners to spend time alone with their own children. It is also a good idea for stepparents to emphasize to parents “that they are not out to replace them but to support the relationship.”
Differing traditions often cause disputes. Marriage and family therapist Heather M. Browne says that “the blended family has lost some members and gained others, along with their skills and talents. Therefore, it necessary to appreciate the other family by keeping some of their most important traditions, while creating new ones for the blended family.”
Melissa Gorzelanszyk, a columnist who writes about blended families, notes that when it comes to discipline “experts recommend letting the biological parent be the direct disciplinarian.”
If the biological parent cannot be present when the child needs to be disciplined, she advises that all of the adults in the blended-family relationship should together define their roles as it relates to discipline and then stick to that arrangement.
Teenagers also pose challenges. Gorzelanczyk feels that it is important for stepparents dealing with teenagers to enforce pre-determined rules and back up the biological parent without engaging in power struggles.
Keri Pickett’s blended family includes her three children, her husband and his three children. She says, “all your spouse’s children are now your children. Treat them that way in every aspect — love and punishment.”
She agrees that communication with your partner is vital and that, “It’s also important to look for interactions and actions and the causes behind them all. Discuss them thoroughly with each other.”
Pickett feels like they have blended well. “The kids were all close in age and totally melded. We are very fortunate.”
She said dealing with their respective ex-spouses has been challenging.
“Our greatest challenge has been the loss of my kids’ father from their lives and the ongoing battle to be part of my stepson’s life,” she said. “Still we never speak ill of his mother and we try to explain to my children that their father, who is an alcoholic, loves them but is too sick to be part of their lives.”
Venessa Romero’s blended family includes her two children and two stepchildren. She has been with her partner for nine years. She finds dealing with his ex-spouse difficult.
On top of that, she states that finances, raising teenagers, jobs, varying schedules, lack of sleep and time are challenges for their blended family.
“But we know we can get through anything because we have each other. We are a great team and support system,” she says.
For Romero and her spouse, it works to “raise our kids together but separate. We are a close family but we keep our parenting separate.”
Family traditions, she adds, “are pretty much the same for us and we do our best to make it together to every celebration. But sometimes we have to go our separate ways.”
Ms. Romero has advice for blended families: “You do not need to put a label or role on your family or anyone in it. Just love hard, play hard, work hard, stay true, support, teach, encourage and make lots of memories.”
Among the many books that offer help for blended families are:
• “The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family” by Ron L. Deal
• “Blending Families Successfully” by George Glass
•“Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family” by Susan Wisdom and Jennifer Green
•“Blended Families: Steps to Help You Succeed in Step-Parenting and Become a Strong Family” by Lilli Morgan
Blended family members can also look for support and advice on various websites: