17 May 2018

Blended, not stirred: making step families work

From Are We There Yet?, 9:30 am on 17 May 2018

One family sharing a bathroom can be hard enough. What about a blended family with all its new step-siblings, dramas and dynamics?

Katy Gosset looks at how to get the right blend.

A photo of happy brothers and sisters  raising arms in the park

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It's a big step to start a family but you get a chance to shape it and decide how it's going to work.  

But with blended families the parts all come fully formed and, like puzzle pieces, you somehow need to fit them together.

Clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher advises going in with a realistic idea of just what those parts are.

"If your hope is that you can squeeze your blended family into a nuclear family model, then that’s when the troubles start to arise... We need to be dealing with what we've actually got rather than what we wish it would look like."

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

She says while there were many different "makes and models" of the blended family, they were all grappling with a major life change.

And just because it was a common scenario, that didn't make it any less complicated.

"We don’t want to underestimate the fact that, for each particular child, each particular family, they are traversing this thing which is a really big deal and so we don’t want to rush the process"

Gallagher says step-siblings are often not in the house at the same time and the arrangement could feel "pretty messy".

This meant it was important to create smooth transitions for children each time they arrived home.

"That idea of taking extra time to ground children when they arrive, "OK, you’re here now and this is what our week is going to look like."

While the adults in the new family group should keep their own relationship strong, Gallagher says children need one-on-one time with their biological parents so they aren't always sharing them with the new partner.

This is also a good way of acknowledging blood ties.

"It's not that suddenly we’re a big happy family and we're all the same because we’re not actually. We've all got different histories and different allegiances, different loyalties and expectations. .so we have to honour that."

A photo of a sad girl in the foreground, happy parents in the background

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Part of creating a successful blended family is managing those expectations.

"It's about going in with your eyes open. These kids may get along beautifully and it may be everything you possibly imagined but they might not and that’s equally valid."

Gallagher sees many clients who have issues arising from blended families. Often these parents hope that their new partner will love their children as much as they do.

But this isn’t realistic and she recalls telling one step-father that he “didn't have to love them".

"The mother looked completely devastated because that was her wish and her expectation that he was going to love her kids the same as she did.

“The step-dad just looked completely relieved because he, too, had felt that pressure that "I should feel about these kids like they're my own and I don’t".

Instead, she says if step-parents and children focus on liking each other and having fun together, over time love can grow.

A photo of a mother and son lying on the floor playing a game

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"If people are realistic, then they can enjoy what they've actually got in front of them rather than without wishing it was different."

When children do like their step-parents, they can sometimes feel a sense of divided loyalty.

"Kids worry that if they start to get along with the new parent or… they have fun with the new blended family then, they’re doing something wrong. So "I shouldn’t like this new parent who's come into my life 'cause does that mean my mum or my dad will get the idea that I love them less?"

Gallagher acknowledges some parents struggle to move on from their previous relationship.

"You might feel completely devastated about the fact that your old partner's got a new partner but if you want to be a good parent then you've got to do something about those feelings."

Allowing children the freedom to enjoy their new blended families can have long-term benefits, she says.

"What you're doing is giving your child the gift of acceptance, which means they’re going to adjust to whatever is happening in their lives a lot better."

Blending in - helping everyone feel at home  

A photo of seven mixed race children all lying with their heads in a circle

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- Take it slowly

Gallagher says, even in unhappy family environments, many children still harbour the fantasy of the nuclear family remaining together.

She advises parents to allow time before starting a new relationship, and even then introduce the topic gently.

"Even if you are well ready to move on, keep this adult business, for a while at least, as children don't do well if they're going to be rushed.

"It can be useful to plant the seed that one day you might like a new partner and talk through reactions and issues that this brings up."

However, she warns against asking children for "permission" to enter a new relationship as the child might then withhold it.

- Be realistic and expect your expectations to go unmet

When introducing a new partner, it helps for parents to consider how their children will find the situation.

"It would be normal for a child to be uncertain, fearful and, at times downright hostile."

New partners should be patient about building relationships with a child, Gallagher says.

Likewise, they might not feel the way they expected to.

A photo of a teenage daughter using her mobile phone whilst studying. Her mother can be seen looking on angrily from behind.

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"It won’t feel like your own child. You may not feel love. But, if the goal is warmth and mutual respect and some fun, then that can create a realistic foundation for a long-lasting and successful relationship."

-  Maintain your own strong, adult relationship

"That was the reason why the family got together in the first place so conversations about themselves as a couple, time out but also conversations, obviously, about parenting. Being really overt about it can be important."

- Decide how to approach parenting together

Gallagher says it should fall to the biological parent to take on much of the parenting and, particularly, the discipline while the step-parent settles into the new role.

In many blended families, this system stays in place, long-term.

"This can feel frustrating for some step parents whose voice may not feel heard so it's important to have active conversations around what values are important even if it's the biological parent who enforces them."

- Keep talking with children about rules and expectations in the new blended family and allow them to express their views  

Ngā Taonga kōrero

Gallagher suggests creating a safe environment where children feel they can communicate and speak out if they believe a mistake has occurred or they were uncomfortable with parenting decisions.

"It might still mean that the punishment stands but at least if people feel like they've got a voice, then that can mean that things resolve."

- Don't expect it all to work right away

"Clumping them all together and saying "Go off and play" isn’t that helpful all the time."

Stepchildren might be different ages or have different roles within their own biological families and it will take time for them to establish positions within the new blended family, 
Gallagher says.

- Create an easy transition into the blended family setting each time your child returns

Welcome them home, let them know what's planned for your time together and help everyone feel at ease.

"The good news is, with planning, with honouring those transitions and with support, stuff can go fine."

A photo of an excited girl returning home from school with her father

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