Blending two families and the start of committing to a shared life together is an exciting time for a couple. However, this time around, you're not just thinking about the two of you but your children as well.
It's a chapter could be a time full of new beginnings and you want them to be positive ones.
I spoke with Alison Collision, a Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist who has been working with children, adolescents, and couples for over 20 years. She helps families navigate the challenges that come with blending into a new family unit. I asked her for her thoughts about taking this next step in a relationship.
Q: Is there a 'right' or 'wrong' time to blend families?
A: There is no formula for the 'right' time but, generally speaking, about two years into the relationship is a good guideline. By then, a couple has developed a strong, solid relationship. It allows the relationship time to get through the 'I love everything about you phase' and gives a couple the chance to see how they manage when issues arise. There should also be time for each person has also developed a relationship with each other's children, before joining the families together.
When a couple starts to think about blending their families, they should talk at length about what is important to them and their children. Play through scenarios: 'what would you do if...' and 'what do you think of…?" Talk about your values, beliefs, and expectations. Discussions also have to include what each needs in terms of physical and emotional support. Remember that the children have already gone through one major change in their living arrangements.
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Q: How should parents do the actual blending and scheduling in order to satisfy everyone's needs?
A: Blended families are developing a new family dynamic, as well as holding onto parts of their old family traditions, memories and values. Balancing these two dynamics is important for parents to be aware of.
Parents can be creative in the manner in which they blend their families. Although it should remain fairly consistent, particularly when the children are young, it should also be adaptable to the needs of the children. This adaptability is important during the teenage years.
Generally, it often depends on the schedule that each person has agreed on with their children's other parent. Ideally, there would be time for all the children from both families to be together with their parent and stepparent, then times when one set of biological siblings is there and the other set of children isn't. In a perfect world, there would also be one evening a week with no children so a couple can reenergize!
Within the schedule, there should be small pieces of time dedicated for children to spend alone time with their parent, even doing small things like taking a walk together, going for an ice cream, or watching a show.
Q: Are certain ages of children trickier to manage when blending families?
A: Blended families generally go through the same challenges as non-blended families do. So, during the teen years, kids are going through a lot and that can add another element for parents to manage. This is also a time when developmentally teens are differentiating from their families so the challenge for parents is staying connected and in-tune with what is going on in their children's lives.
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Q: What is the biggest or most common challenge of blending two families?
A: The most common and biggest challenge families face is differing opinions about discipline and how their children should be raised. Both parents should agree on consistent rules and expectations for all of their children. This allows the children to feel a sense of equity and respect.
Generally, any situation that arises that is a little difficult or requires a certain amount of parental follow-through should be addressed by the biological parent with support from the stepparent. Any differing options between parents should be discussed in privacy away from the children. In other words, stepparents should not be the ones doing the 'heavy' parenting of their step children -- their job is to support and be the backup to the biological parent.
Having very clear and consistent expectations is the best way to manage blended families. All of the children need to know what is expected of them as individuals and as part of the family.
It is normal for children to take time to adjust and adapt to their new family dynamic. There can be strong emotions that play out, as some children feel the loss of their old family which may cause them to feel sad and perhaps anxious. It can also be an exciting and adventurous time. Parents should always use empathy and compassion with their children and take time to listen to them, allowing them to express how they are feeling.
Physical space can also be a challenge. Ideally each child can have their own room, but if this is not possible rooms can be shared with the use of 'dividers' that can create more individual space. There should be allocated space in the home for each child (cupboards, shelf spaces, etc.) This allows each child to feel 'at home'.
Q: What's the best way to involve children in decision making so they can feel a part of the process?
A: Generally the parents make the big decisions like where to live, who gets what bedroom, etc. Children can be involved in small decisions that involve them which can help bring the two families together. For example, is there a family evening activity we can all do together? What would be a good family tradition? What pictures would be good to hang up and where? If kids are a bit older, they can even have some input on their schedule.
Q: What are your best tips for successful family blending?
A: Here are a few tips:
- Take time, don't rush things.
- Spend time building a solid partner relationship. This is the foundation of the family. If this is solid, then likely the children will feel the stability.
- Each parent should treat their partners children with the utmost respect. Respect is a funny thing: if you give it, you usually get it back.
Alison Collison has over 20 years experience working with adults, adolescents, and children in a number of different capacities. As a Clinical Social Worker in private practice, her experience includes individual, couple, and family therapy for issues such as anxiety and depression, parenting and relationship challenges, trauma, grief, and loss.
Alison was a faculty member at George Brown College for over 15 years and prior to her private practice, she worked as a Clinical Therapist in the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Outpatient Clinic at North York General Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. She holds a Masters of Social Work from Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as certification in Relational Life Therapy, Trauma Training & Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Alison is a member of the Ontario Association of Social Workers and the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. She is the mother of two adult sons.