About 43% of all marriages these days include one or more of the partners who have had a previous marriage. 65% of these remarriages involve children from a previous relationship. When all the math is done, it appears that one out of every three children will spend time in a blended family situation (note that this is an estimate and a definitive statistic is hard to come by on this). Therefore, you, or someone you know is likely experiencing some of the difficulties that a blended family brings. Additionally, your child is likely to have multiple friends in this family structure too.
It’s pretty rare to see families blend together smoothly. The ones that have the most chance of succeeding are those that involve children under 10, less children overall, a solid bond between the newly married parents, and parents who are still civil to their exes, no matter the reason for their divorce.
What makes these situations better? Well, younger children are more accepting of new people and may not even remember a time without being in a blended family, and the most important part for them is stability and loving relationships. Less children creates less competition because kids can battle for their parent’s attention, especially if there has been some time that they had mom or dad all to themselves, without competing with a new partner or their children.
Finally, if the children learn a culture of love and harmony then they will internalize these feelings and behaviours, enabling them to grow into healthy adults with strong attachments. If the new marriage is strong but there is resentment towards former partners, the children learn that that’s how you treat people who aren’t primary to you, which makes them more critical and limits their ability to socialize and make lots of friends. They are also prone to be sensitive to others and then become hostile in response if they feel slighted. Teaching children that mistakes happen and miscommunications are common models how children encounter these situations in their life. They can be spiteful or look for common understanding, a trait surely needed for their future relationships.
It also goes without saying, even though I’m saying it, that hearing a parent criticize the other parent actual makes the child feel criticized themselves. You can teach children to look for others’ faults to justify your own decisions, or you can help them see the gray areas of life – that there is goodness underneath people’s mistakes, and you can still love someone even if you don’t agree with them.
Think of it as an exercise in teaching children how to interpret people around them. They can try to find out if someone is either good or bad, or they can try to see the complexity of people’s inner world and learn to accept others for who they are, not necessarily what they do. Of course, all of this assumes that parents are able to model this kind of thinking for their children – much easier said than done, especially if you’ve been hurt in your relationships.
Consider showing your child how to cope with life by acting in ways you hope they would do one day. Do you want them to cope with drugs, alcohol, finding another relationship immediately, or shutting out their feelings? Well then use the divorce and blended family experience to teach them how they can do it right. Be careful not to be pious about it, and acknowledge your mistakes along the way. It’s actually very powerful for kids to learn that mistakes happen and they are learning experiences, not times to beat yourself up.
This all sounds a bit abstract, so here’s some concrete tips to help with blended family dynamics:
Stepfamilies have become more common and touch up to half of us (Sayre, McCollum, & Spring, 2010). These families are formed following a loss, meaning that unresolved grief could impact the formation of the stepfamily. They are also at risk for loyalty conflicts where children, partners, and ex-partners can become entwined in negative interactional patterns. Stepparents may have difficulty navigating their role as a parent while children are adapting to new parental figures. The increased stress leaves the couple at risk for divorce and another round of grief and loss (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2006).
What families can do to help the transition
Browning, S., & Artelt, E. (2012). Stepfamily diversity. In Stepfamily therapy: A 10-step clinical approach (pp. 225-259). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Clarke-Stewart, A., & Brentano, C. (2006). Divorce: Causes and consequences. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Pruett, M. K., & Donsky, T. (2011). Coparenting after divorce: Paving pathways for parental cooperation, conflict resolution, and redefined family roles. In J. P. McHale, K. M.
Lindahl, J. P. McHale, K. M. Lindahl (Eds.), Coparenting: A conceptual and clinical examination of family systems (pp. 231-250). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/12328-011
Sayre, J. B., McCollum, E. E., & Spring, E. L. (2010). An outsider in my own home: attachment injury in stepcouple relationships. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 36(4), 403-415.
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