Blending Families: How To Bring Everyone Together

The very notion of what defines a family has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. We have moved on from the limited notion of the nuclear family to a vision that is much more inclusive than those old ideas were. Today, a family may mean two moms and no dad; two dads and no live-in mom, three or four children, or a rainbow that includes everything in between!

And our modern approach to building families also means that our attitudes toward marriage have evolved. People are not as willing to stay together as they once were if the marriage is an unhappy one; they are also more ready to live together without a legal or religious ceremony. However people choose to build their family today, it often results in bonus parents and bonus children coming together under one roof. This can be tricky, emotional terrain to navigate for everyone, parents and children. But if you take it slowly, carefully and conscientiously, everyone in the family – the “original” members and the new family you’re now creating – can not just tolerate the situation. They can thrive and find joy in the new circumstances, no matter how many changes are in the offing. Here are some suggestions for helping the children (and you) cope with the new family unit you are building.

1. Give them time.

Children are resilient, it’s true. But no matter how loving and stable their family is, any changes cause stress and uncertainty, particularly when they are older adolescents. For example: if you and your partner decide to separate, it’s wise not to introduce a new partner to your children right away. They need to adjust to the very idea of the change, before they can adjust to the change itself. And moving someone new into the home quickly almost never works well. No matter the reason your partner is no longer in the home, your children need to get used to their home without that person before they can begin accepting someone new

2. Communicate Constantly.

You need to be alert for any changes in the children’s behavior, because those changes will tell you how they are handling things emotionally. Some parents and co-parents insist on weekly, family dialogues, so everyone can air out feelings, accomplishments, and goals. Doing this avoids resentments building; it’s always healthier to let family members say their piece, and constructive change flows from there.

3. Do bonding activities regularly.

Let’s say you’re moving into a home where a teenager lives, which is something you have no experience with as a parent. Obviously you spend time with this young person beforehand, but sharing a home, living under the same roof, is a whole different ball game. To make things more comfortable for them (and for you) consider an activity you can do together that fosters closeness. Take up something the teenager enjoys, or confirm a lunch date once a week. Get to know what’s important to them, how they think and feel, in a setting that doesn’t involve your new spouse. As the bonus parent it’s your job to create a familial bond with this young person, and help them adapt to having you in their house.

4. Brace yourself for a few tantrums or acting out – it’s natural.

This depends, in part, on the age of the children, but outbursts of some kind are a common occurrence when blending families. Try not to overreact – hearing “I hate you!” or “Why did you leave Dad?” isn’t easy, we know. But it is sometimes part and parcel of helping children cope with profound changes you’ve asked them to accept. Keep reminding yourself, “This too shall pass!”

5. Be sure all children are treated equally.

Because the situation is new, children become hyper sensitive to their place and role in the family. Be conscious of devoting time and attention to all the children, particularly if an only child is suddenly dealing with two new additional siblings, for example. As much as possible, divide your focus equally among all the children, and make sure you tell them how loved they are, biological family member or not.

6. Don’t ignore your spouse or partner!

Coping with all the changes that come with blending families is difficult for everyone, and not just the children. Perhaps your new partner has never helped to raise twins. Perhaps they haven’t dealt with an infant for decades. Be there for them! Listen to their worries and concerns, and never assume that something that is second nature to you is just as easy for them. Help them with the small issues and they won’t have the opportunity to mushroom into big problems.

Blending families is not an easy, smooth transition that you can do in a matter of weeks. The process is one of ongoing trust building, and there are daily compromises and adjustments that must be made. Perhaps the single most important thing you can do before you actually move in together (all of you) is communicate. Take everyone’s temperature, physically and metaphorically speaking. Verbal communication, written letters, individual time with the children, as well as collective family time, are all important.

A little bit of patience and hard work can make for a harmonious union. Having a positive attitude is key, and if blending families is in your future, you have to prepare for making yours the best kind of combined family possible —  one in which everyone grows and thrives.