If you’re starting a blended family – a family composed of two adults with kids from previous relationships – you’re probably no stranger to stress. You’ve already been through a breakup or widowhood, and now you’re hoping to coast into the peaceful family life you’ve been hoping for. Unfortunately, the kids may have other plans.
“Just because the two of you are in love doesn’t mean your kids will be best friends,” says Les Parrott, Ph.D, author of The Parent You Want to Be: Who You Are Matters More Than What You Do. Children may resent a stepparent who disciplines them or takes their biological parent’s attention. The fantasy that biological parents will get back together has been smashed, and the long-standing rules and routines that your child has become accustomed to are about to change.
None of this is easy, but there are steps you can take to make the transition smoother:
- “A stepparent should take a step back and observe the family unit as it already exists before entering and making changes,” suggests Jennifer Thomas, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Wilkes University.
- “Have the stepparent assume the role of a friend or guidance counselor, leaving the discipline to the biological parent, until a solid bond has formed between the child and the stepparent,” says Sharon Buchalter, Ph.D, author of New Parents Are People Too.
- Consider the children’s ages. “Research shows that the transition is easiest for children under 10 and over 15,” says Thomas, adding that adolescents will require extra time and attention during the transition period.
- Respect pre-existing relationships. Allow the biological parent time alone with his or her children, and don’t take it personally if they don’t immediately warm to you. Make it clear that you welcome the childrens' relationship with their other biological parent.
- On the "Brady Bunch", the kids became a family overnight. In real life, it takes time. “Research shows that on average it takes as much as seven years before a blended family begins to achieve a sense of equilibrium,” says Parrott. Be patient, and keep your expectations realistic.
- Finally, deal with the baggage from your previous relationship. “As you come to terms with your past, you will be more fully present with your kids,” says Parrott. “And your fully attentive presence is what helps kids feel secure and loved.”