In the 1970s, my parents got divorced, and I was devastated that my family was no longer intact. My father moved out and remarried immediately. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable about everything divorce-related and did not like to talk about my family life to anyone. Flash forward many years. My siblings and step-siblings and I now plan spring break vacations in Anna Maria Island, Florida for ourselves, our kids, and our parents, and we have a blast.
The majority of the cases that I presently handle involve families who are separating and divorcing. Many of my neighbors, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have uncoupled, entered into the dating game, and re-married. And these days people are much more open about sharing funny stories and talking about the challenges of successfully blending two families.
Everyone has a good idea or two regarding how to successfully blend a family. After talking with friends and family, here are my top five tips for successfully blending a family:
1. Spend one on one time with your significant other, your biological children, and your stepchildren. Be present, be patient, be positive, and be accepting. Allow lots of time for all relationships to be nurtured. Some children may want to engage more with family members and activities than other children. Don't force children to partake in family activities if they don't want to. But do provide regular family meals, celebrations, outings, and get togethers where everyone is invited to gather for good food, conversation, and fun. Have a good sense of humor.
2. Have realistic expectations about how the blended family will bond. There may be step-sibling relationship issues, disrespectful behavior, acting out, and loyalty conflicts, as well as issues over money, household responsibilities, parenting styles, vacations, holidays, and boundaries. Traditional family systems, as well as blended families, wrestle with many of these same issues! Decide in advance with your significant other what the house rules and routines will be. Discipline your own children and not your stepchildren.
3. Hang on to old family traditions and develop new traditions that are specific to the blended family. One blended family started a new tradition of spending a week at a different lake each summer with all the children invited but not required to attend, while holding onto old traditions of spending time with family from the Northeast for Thanksgiving or Christmas each year. Another family held onto the Sunday morning tradition of making chocolate chip pancakes each week and created a new tradition of cooking a Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve each year. In our family, one of our rituals on Anna Maria Island is to drop whatever we are doing at sunset and meet on the beach to watch the sun go down together. Decide in advance how to celebrate special events and holidays.
4. Acknowledge and mourn losses that family members are grieving and have faced in the past. A child may be mourning the loss of the original intact traditional family on his or her birthday and/or special event or grieving the loss of his or her parent who doesn't regularly attend sporting events, plays, and recitals because he or she now lives out of town. Children need to feel loved, safe, valued, supported, and heard. Encourage and invite them to share their thoughts and feelings and be a good listener. Do not say anything negative about your stepchild's biological parent (your significant other's ex-spouse.)
5. Get support. You as parents are the foundation of the family. Be unified as a couple and support each other. Read up on marriage, parenting, and blended families. You may need to meet with a financial planner to discuss how to handle money management, financial issues, and investment matters in a blended family, as well as to obtain specific guidance regarding how to handle obligations such as child support and spousal support. You may also choose to seek help with challenging parenting or family issues by meeting with the clergy at your church or temple, a good therapist or life coach, or by joining or creating a support group.
Let me know your own favorite tips for successfully blending your family by commenting below! Here is our family in April, 2016 and 2017 on our favorite Anna Maria Island beach at sunset.
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.