How To Build A Happy Stepfamily
By: Toni Hoy
Updated February 04, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
Remember that old show The Brady Bunch?
It was an entertaining, "feel-good" kind of show, which gave us warm, fuzzy sentiments about stepfamilies.
In those days, stepfamilies were unusual enough to form the premise of a TV show. But today divorce and remarriage have increasingly become the norm rather than the exception, making blended families the new normal.
These days step families rarely resemble The Brady Bunch. Clashes over finances, discipline, and busy schedules can make everyone in the family feel stressed and anxious.
If you are experiencing problems in your new stepfamily, know that you are not alone. When so many complicated feelings and relationships come into play, problems are inevitable.
But the good news is that you can navigate these tricky relationships to build a successful stepfamily.
It just takes a lot of patience, care, and most importantly, time.
Here are some strategies to make this tough transition easier for everyone.
Building a strong marital partnership
This one goes at the top of the list simply because, without it, you don't have anything else. A strong marriage is truly the foundational building block on which the entire structure of the family unit is based.
If your children sense weakness in your bond as a couple, they can use that to undermine the new family structure by pitting you against one another. For this reason, it's critical that you take time to talk every day and ensure you are on the same page regarding everything from discipline to household chores to finances.
As a stepparent, you may sometimes feel the temptation to make your child a higher priority than loyalty to your spouse. But in doing so, you will cause harm to all members of the family, as it threatens the union on which order within the family depends.
The best way adults can nurture a new stepfamily is through agreeing on the rules and backing each other up as necessary.
As difficult as it can be with all the demands on busy parents, it's critical that you set aside "kid-free" time on a regular basis to reconnect and enjoy time as a couple. Schedule a once-a-month "date night," as well as daily opportunities to discuss how things are going in the family without interruption.
While it's challenging to carve out time for this when there is such a constant barrage of responsibility around work and children, everyone in the family benefits from having a strong couple at the center.
Dealing with discipline
When blending two families, each with its own set of rules and routines, conflicts are bound to occur. Add into the mix the fact that children will not immediately respect their new stepparent as a disciplinarian, and it's no wonder that most stepfamilies cite discipline as their top source of conflict.
Like most things, discipline is easier to navigate if you plan. That way, you are less likely to find yourself facing an impromptu crisis.
Talk with your spouse ahead of time and come up with a set of rules that you both can agree to, as well as a plan for enforcing rules and administering consequences.
Especially in the beginning, it's not reasonable to expect either spouse to act in the role of a disciplinarian to his/her new stepchildren. Effective discipline requires bonds of mutual trust and respect, and it will take time for these bonds to develop. It's best if the primary parent remains responsible for discipline.
Make sure to keep lines of communication open with your spouse and discuss discipline challenges as they arise. While you may not be able to discipline your stepchild, you still need to talk to your spouse about problem behaviors that you observe or experience.
Most importantly, a rule about respect and politeness will go far towards nurturing a smooth family dynamic. Hold each member accountable for speaking to others respectfully and treating them civilly.
Beyond that, you may also need to set mutual ground rules about household chores, bedtimes, and use of electronic devices (depending on the ages of the children).
Discipline is not easy even in traditional families, so don't feel discouraged if you encounter problems, especially in the beginning. With patience, firmness, and mutual respect, most of these issues can get ironed out over time.
Facing financial concerns
What we do with our money says a lot about who we are: our relationship with money often influences your values, work ethic, and overall philosophies about life.
For that reason, it's important to be on the same page about this topic well before you remarry.
Talk about what you have for bills and income. Also, discuss your attitudes towards teaching the children about money. Do you give them an allowance for doing household chores? Do you spend a lot of money on fun activities or vacations? If your values differ, try to find common ground.
Finances, along with stepchildren, top the list of things that married couples argue about in a second marriage. You can head off any trouble early on by coming to some clear understandings around the topic of money.
Carving out quality time
Quality time is an essential building block in any relationship, and it's often in short supply in busy stepfamilies. School events and activities, in addition to the constant back-and-forth as children, travel between two households, can make your home start to feel like Grand Central Station. You never know who's coming or going.
Over time, children can become resentful if they don't have enough quality time alone with their parent. If special things they used to do together fall by the wayside, children may feel like their place in their parent's heart has been usurped by the new family members.
Stepparents will benefit greatly from spending one-on-one time with new stepchildren. It allows them to create memories and solidify a bond.
While creating memories together as a whole family is the ultimate goal, it's wise to begin by carving out lots of one-on-one time among different members. These individual relationships will be the true building blocks of a successful family dynamic.
Schedule a special time on a weekly basis with each of your children and stepchildren and make it a priority. Use that time to do something special that you both enjoy, like going for a bike ride or catching a movie together.
The more chaos exists in your household, the more stressed and anxious everyone will feel. Also, kids are more likely to test limits when there are no clear routines in place.
Having a firm structure and routine in place for things like mealtimes, bedtimes, and transition times helps everyone feel safe. That safety is precisely the element you need to grow trust and build relationships.
If everything is chaotic and no one can relax, it's much more difficult for those bonds of trust to form.
It can seem impossible to enforce routine when members are all coming and going from such different places, but this is precisely the reason that you need it.
The "other" parent
Although physically absent from the dynamic of your stepfamily, non-custodial parents have a profound impact on the relationships within it.
Your remarriage may trigger unresolved feelings for your children, as they are forced to give up any lingering hope of a reconciliation.
Your ex-spouse may also react negatively to your remarriage, as he or she may still have some unresolved feelings of anger.
Adults can minimize the damage from such emotions by ensuring a consistent presence in their children's lives. Children of divorce fare better when both parents are regularly involved. Strive to avoid feelings of abandonment after the remarriage by letting children know they are still a priority.
And no matter how tempting it may be, never speak of the non-custodial parents in a way that is disrespectful in front of your children.
Allowing time…and space
It's natural to want all members of your new stepfamily to love each other right away, but the reality is, it just takes time. In fact, building a happy stepfamily can take years. Children must set their own pace in warming up to new stepparents and learning to trust them, so don't rush the process. It is critical to allow children a safe space to express difficult emotions, especially during times of stress, such as transitions from one home to another.
Family counseling with a trained therapist, either in person or online, can ease the transition for all family members. Seek help especially if you notice any of the following signs of trouble:
- A parent displays obvious favoritism towards one or more of the children over the others.
- A parent becomes too stressed to cope with the needs of his/her children.
- A child exhibits an extreme amount of anger or resentment towards a parent or stepparent.
- One of the parents is left out of decisions about discipline.
Don't give up on your new stepfamily. With a little time and patience, you can create strong bonds that will last a lifetime.
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