Facts about Blended Families

What is the truth about blended families? The following is a list of facts on which most researchers agree:

  • Younger children tend to make the best adjustment to blended families.
  • Adolescents, particularly those of the same sex as the stepparent, are apt to feel resentful of the stepparent.
  • Children generally adjust better to a stepparent after the death of a natural parent than after a divorce.
  • Following divorce, the attitude of the adults involved (custodial, noncustodial, and stepparents) will contribute significantly to the child's adjustment to a blended family. Not surprisingly, positive attitudes are more apt to result in a healthier adjustment than negative attitudes.
  • Most blended families report being happy.

Myths about Blended Families

Unfortunately, too often the expectations for blended families are based on myths rather than facts. The following are four particularly dangerous myths.

Myth 1. Family roles in blended families are similar to those of intact families. Although another adult can replace a spouse, they cannot replace a parent. The role of the stepparent is ill-defined and, as children often remind them, "You are not my parent!" While stepparents may nurture and support the children they seldom play the role assigned to the natural parent.

Myth 2. Members instantly love each other. It took the adults in the blended family time to build their relationship and yet there is an unrealistic expectation that the stepparent and stepchildren will automatically love one another. The\- need time to build a relationship, but even given time there are complicating factors. Mixed loyalties present problems for many blended families: "If I love my stepparent, am I being disloyal to my natural parent?" Also, jealousy of stepsiblings and stepparents is often a problem that must be addressed prior to the development of a functional family.

Myth 3. Blended families function just like "traditional" families. Although traditional families share common histories, traditions, and relatives, blended families do not. In contrast, blended families share the richness that goes with diversity—although that diversity may require change. Family traditions (birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, family trips, etc.) provide opportunities for enjoyable and enriching new experiences, but they also may result in conflict. In addition, relationships between stepsiblings (custodial and noncustodial, etc.) must be negotiated. In mam- families step siblings add to the richness of the family as well as the friction.

Myth 4. Life is just a family sitcom. Perhaps the most detrimental myth of all comes to us from television. Although the stepfamily myths of the past (e.g., Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White) have been examined and found wanting, we have replaced them with a new set of myths about the blended family (i.e., the Brady Bunch and more recent shows about blended families). The Brady Bunch may technically be a blended family, but the script writers have them acting just like an intact family. It is important that you as an educator be aware of the realities of blended families. The Utopian adjustment made on television programs such as the Brady Bunch, and subsequently their never-ending reruns, is more dangerous than the myth of Cinderella. In Cinderella, the wicked stepmother is accepted as a storybook character while blended families may see the Bradys as a real possibility and feel guilty when they don't live up to this contemporary fairy tale.

When examining any family that differs from the traditional family there is a temptation to dwell on the differences between the two. Often the behaviors that are unlike those of traditional families are seen as undesirable. Also, the strengths of the nontraditional family are apt to be ignored. Ganong and Coleman (2003) help us examine the strengths of blended families.

Flexibility. Stepchildren often learn to adjust to different value systems. Thus they may adapt more easily and flexibly to new traditions and situations. These children generally know how to negotiate new situations and compromise when necessary. Consequently, when situations require new behaviors (new schools, teachers, etc.), the child from a blended family may have already developed some important coping skills that can be generalized to these other situations.

Multiple Role Models. There are generally more adults in the lives of children of blended families than those of other family structures, and these adults provide a variety of models from which a child can choose. Aunt Susan is a good business person, Cousin Jim is very creative, and Grandma Mae is a scholar, and they are all role models for the child from the blended family.

Experience with Conflict Resolution. It has been said that children from blended families should be excellent in politics or business management because they know how to negotiate. Their negotiation skills are generally well developed because they may have positive relationships with people who may otherwise be hostile to each other (i.e., their divorced parents).

An Extended Kin Network. The child of a blended family has more parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins than children from other family structures. Not only are there more people to learn from, there are more people to love and support them.

Higher Standard of Living. Most children from blended homes previously lived in female-headed, single-parent homes with limited economic resources. With marrriage, the total family income is generally increased. With the increase in resources, there is also a rise in the standard of living, as well as added opportunities available for the children. In addition, there is a decrease in the stress caused by worrying about financial instability.

Happy Parents. Remarriage may provide children with a more supportive emotional environment because their parents are happier. Children who have experienced hostility in a previous family may benefit greatly from a more caring, loving environment. Happier remarriages may also provide exposure to a good model of marital interaction.

Stepfamilies are not traditional families warmed over. They are families with their own unique strengths and needs. By understanding the realities of the blended family and dispelling the myths, you can work with these children and their families more effectively. Knowledge allows us to look past the differences and appreciate the strengths of the blended family.

In summary, it is necessary that educators know about, and appreciate, the families of their students. It is also necessary to know how changing family structures play out in the lives of children. Families have become a fluid concept and the following scenario is about one of your future students, Angie. Angie was born into an intact family, her parents divorced, she then lived in a single-parent family, her mother then remarried, and she then lived in a blended family. Angie's father also remarried and she was part of his blended family, but he has since divorced and is planning to remarry. Angie will have been a member of a number of family configurations during her childhood, not only with her custodial parent but also with her noncustodial parent. Angie's experience is representative of a large number of children.

In addition, as families change, so do their needs. For example, as the number of single-parent families increases, so does the need for child care. There is continual change in all families, even within traditional (intact) families. There may be changes in the parents' employment, child care arrangements, or the economic status of the family. Furthermore, families are more mobile and mm-e more frequently than they have in the past. Families are in a continual state of change.