How to blend a family in 3 steps
Parenting is tricky stuff. Just look at the enormous collection of materials in the "Parenting and Family" section at your local bookstore or online. Blended families face additional challenges (they even have their own section of shelves). How can two parents find common ground after years of parenting "their" way? Three steps of family planning are essential to make a merger successful.
Step 1: Groundwork
This phase is really a pre-step. Ideally, it should happen prior to the merger. Both parents need to take the time to learn and understand their own parenting styles and preferences. Whether you take a quiz online or read a 300 page book, it doesn’t matter as long as you understand your style well enough to be able to talk to your partner about your style of parenting. It may also be helpful to plan an "observation" date where you can watch your partner interacting and parenting his (or her) child. Afterward (not in front of the child) you can ask questions of your partner and discuss your differences and similarities. Be careful not to openly challenge your partner’s style. This is an opportunity to learn about each other, not to criticize.
Another very important part of the self-discovery phase is to check for emotional baggage. Most blended families are the product of divorce or the death of a parent which often involves intense personal emotions. Be sure your parenting style is not going to be affected by guilt, anger or defensiveness. Many parents feel so guilty subjecting their children to the turmoil of divorce that they parent out of guilt and become more permissive. It’s a myth that children need a break from discipline and structure following an event like this. They often need more structure and will find comfort in the predictability of your consistent parenting.
Step 2: Rebuilding
Bringing two families together creates an opportunity to craft something new. You and your partner get to construct a new household. Depending on the age of your children, this may be the perfect time to make new rules and establish new consequences. Having regular family meetings is particularly helpful and gives parents an opportunity to lay out details of the new plan while fielding the "But why…." and "How come…." questions. Even with proper explanation and clarification, details of the new plan are likely to be challenged and tested in the days, weeks, or months following the merge. This leads us to the final and most challenging step.
Step 3: Settling
You planned ahead, you laid it out, and now it’s time to let it settle. Some parts will work like a charm and other parts will seem like a complete failure. This is part of the parenting process and isn’t unique to blended families. However, blended families often come with circumstances that may make the settling process a little rough. There may be joint custody arrangements with your ex-spouse which make it necessary to think through rules and consequences you set in your home. You can’t ground your child from video games if he is going to be able to go over to his mother’s house and have unlimited play time. It’s better to set consequences you know you can enforce.
Another significant issue that might arise during your well-planned settling phase involves your child’s emotional and behavioral reaction to the divorce. If your child displays uncharacteristic behaviors such as sleep difficulty, appetite changes, poor school performance or social withdrawal it may indicate the development of an adjustment disorder, depression or anxiety. If this is the case, you and your child may need a mental health professional to steer you through the settling process. These issues can’t be addressed through consistent parenting alone.
Following these three steps does not ensure a perfectly blended family. It does, however, ensure that you will have established a foundation of open communication, compromise and flexibility that will enable your new family to weather any storm.
Alaina Everitt, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at Cook Children's, who sees patients in Denton and Lewisville. Cook Children's Behavioral Health services provides a broad range of care that focuses on children from ages three years through 17, and their families. We also have some limited services available for children age 2.