Parenting, itself, is a challenge. But when parents are trying to raise children who are blended from different families, it is an even bigger one. When blending a family, a biological parent may feel disillusion that they found a new partner to share their life with and yet still feel like a single parent! A step-parent may feel disillusion that no matter how hard they try, they end up being the bad guy and their “real parent” is always the good guy! These are common struggles for both sides.
In a first marriage, research shows there’s usually an initial period called the honeymoon stage. The couple experiences all the wonderful feelings of being in love for the first few years. When a couple marries for the second time, they usually don’t get the luxury of experiencing this, especially if there are children from previous marriages. Research also shows the first year can be the hardest. This is a great struggle for newlyweds. Not only do they skip the honeymoon stage that creates a lasting bond, but they are thrown immediately into a fiery trial.[i]
If you feel disillusioned from how difficult blending two families can be, there is hope. The key to successful blending is simply time and patience. Research shows that it often takes five to seven years to successfully blend two families together in which they feel like a “family” – bonded, and comfortable together.
In traditional families, newborns get precious bonding time with their parents. In the first months, the baby can literally do nothing for itself while parents do everything. In between feeding, sleeping, and diapers, the parents hold and cuddle the little human. This time is essential to the foundation of the parent/child relationship. The child learns to trust their parents for their most basic needs. The parents fall in love with the child as they experience the baby’s utter dependence, vulnerability, and innocence. But when a step-parent is introduced into the life of a child, they most likely will not get this essential bonding time. They jump into the middle of an active game and have to try to figure out how the game is played and what their role is! A mistake most step-parents make is jumping into the middle and trying to be the coach to their step-children who have already played a lot of the game. Usually by the time the step-parent comes in, a lot of the game has already been played. With teenagers, the step-parent is coming in during the 4th quarter. There is so much previous history. The step-parent needs to take time to answer essential questions: What are the rules of the game? What is the role each member of the family plays? Do the children feel like they are winning or losing the game?
An important key to building a relationship is through bonding. The child needs to feel bonded before the step-parent has any right to be coach. This is challenging! By the time the step-parent comes in, the step-child does not want to snuggle and stare into their eyes like a newborn. And the older the child is, the more difficult it is for the child to give the step-parent room in their life to bond. Navigating what interests the child is a good step. Ways of bonding with a young boy may be shooting hoops in the driveway (over and over again); for a young girl, it may be watching her dance lessons (over and over again); for a teen, this may mean listening to music that you may not care for (over and over again). Whatever their interest is, you need to find some way to connect and show them you care. Notice the term I used above: Over and over again. Showing interest and connecting is not a one-time event. In order to build trust and bond it must be done consistently and over a long period of time – which can translate into years.
What about disciplinarian roles? Discipline and respect are varsity level skills, and until the step-parent bonds with the children and a trusting relationship is built, they will not receive discipline from the step-parent. On the contrary, if you try to teach them these varsity skills before they are ready, it will make the relationships highly-conflictual. This can also increase conflict in the marriage. So, how do you get through the first years of blending a family if the step-parent cannot discipline? Imagine that for right now, the biological parent is the head coach and has all the authority, and the children are the players on the field. When the step-parent comes into the game, they step in as the assistant coach. The assistant coach does not have any official authority and borrows authority from the coach. They do not make any new rule or plays and only enforce what the coach says. For example, a step-father may say to his step-children while the mother is out, “Your mom says you are not supposed to be on your tablet before your homework is done. Please get off the tablet.” The step-parent is not enforcing their own rules but rather enforcing rules already in place. This allows the step-parent time and space to create a trusting bond with the children and puts the biological parent in the position of enforcing discipline. As the children bond with the step-parent, they can move slowly into being a co-coach. For this transition to be successful, this should be a slow process with the biological parent leading the way. In some cases, especially with older children, the step-parent may always remain assistant coach.
Blending families is hard work. It may seem impossible right now, but with time, constancy, and bonding, it can become a beautiful reality. Protect this vulnerable time and do not allow the step-parent to jump into the role of coach and disciplinarian. Be patient with yourselves and with the children, and believe that making the time and choice to throw the football over and over again will add up to a trusting and loving relationship.[ii]
[i][i] Deal, Ron L. 2006. The smart step-family. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.