Building a happy stepfamily

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Families of all kinds experience joys, challenges, and unique relationship dynamics, but the circumstances surrounding the growth of a stepfamily sometimes present challenges that others may not. Those circumstances can create amazing opportunities for bonding and growth for the family, but they can also create complicated feelings over issues of discipline, boundaries, and more. 

Stepfamilies aren’t such a minority anymore. Recent statistics reveal that roughly one-third of all weddings in the US, including first-time marriages, create blended families. Because of the increasing number of stepfamilies, traditional roles are being re-defined, and the daily functioning of the blended family unit is being examined more closely. In addition to internal challenges, blended families sometimes encounter societal stereotypes that favor the traditional nuclear family unit and portray stepfamilies as somehow abnormal. 

Therapists use this increased understanding to help families better understand their challenges and learn to communicate about them effectively. If you are experiencing challenges within your blended family, speaking to a family therapist is an excellent way to address and work on them. There are also plenty of strategies you can use at home to help cultivate healthier, more harmonious relationships. 

How to build and maintain a strong partnership

In blended families, a strong partnership between the parents is usually the foundation on which the structure of the family unit is based. One of the best ways adults can nurture a new stepfamily is through mutually establishing the household rules, displaying a united front, and backing each other up as necessary.

One of the most effective ways to accomplish these goals is to take time on a regular basis to reconnect and enjoy time as a couple. The time constraints faced by many busy parents may make this challenging, but whether you choose to keep an evening free regularly for “date night” or schedule time to do a favorite activity together, this will cultivate communication and contribute to strengthening the bond between you.

Healthy family relationships are important

Beyond this, it’s also critical to place a priority on communicating daily to talk about family matters and address issues such as finances, household business, and more. Again, it may be difficult to carve out that time, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to cultivate a stable home life for your blended family.   

Managing discipline in a stepfamily

Many blended families find themselves starting out with two sets of parenting styles, rules, and routines. Without ample emphasis on communication and conflict resolution, this can lead to disagreements and difficulties around discipline. 

Talk with your spouse ahead of time and come up with a set of rules that you both can align around easily, as well as a plan for enforcing rules and administering consequences. This is especially helpful when unexpected circumstances arise that require disciplinary action. 

Some couples find that in the beginning, it isn’t appropriate or reasonable to expect either spouse to act in the role of a disciplinarian to their new stepchildren. This may not be the case for every newly formed stepfamily, but effective discipline requires bonds of mutual trust and respect, and sometimes ample time is needed for these bonds to develop. 

Try to keep the lines of communication open with your spouse and discuss discipline challenges as they arise. While it may not be appropriate for you to discipline your stepchild yet, you should speak to your spouse about behaviors that you think require extra attention. 

Establishing rules about respect and politeness is perhaps the most important step toward nurturing a smooth family dynamic. Beyond that, you may also need to agree upon mutual ground rules about things like household chores, bedtimes, and other day-to-day issues. 

Discipline is often challenging in blended and traditional families alike. Don't feel discouraged if you encounter problems, especially in the beginning. With patience, firmness, and mutual respect, most of these issues can be resolved with time.

Facing financial concerns

Many professionals say that what we do with our money says a lot about who we are and that our relationship with money often influences our values, work ethic, and overall philosophies about life. For that reason, it's important for partners to be on the same page about this topic well before you join families. 

Establish your bills and income and discuss your attitudes towards spending. That way, after you merge families, you’ll likely agree more easily about how you’ll teach the children in your family 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.

Carving out quality time

Quality time is an essential building block in any relationship, and it's often in short supply in busy stepfamilies. Between typical activities like school events, extracurricular activities, and traveling between households (if applicable), many blended families find they don’t spend enough time together. 

This can lead to resentment from children over the lack of quality time alone with their parent. It can lessen opportunities for stepparents to spend time bonding with their new stepchildren. And it can also lead to a disconnect in communication between all parties. 

Try to prioritize time together as a family, but also one-on-one time on a regular basis with each of your children and stepchildren. Use that time to do something special that you both enjoy, like going for a bike ride or catching a movie together.

Enforcing consistency

Set clear expectations around things like mealtimes, bedtimes, and transition times. Establishing clear routines and a firm family structure helps reduce disorganization and stress in the household- but it also creates healthy boundaries. 

Boundaries and consequences are essential for providing children with an environment of safety in the household. This cultivates greater trust for everyone and discourages kids from testing the household rules. 

The biological parent relationship

They may be physically absent from the daily dynamic of your stepfamily, but non-custodial parents will likely have a profound impact on your familial relationships. Some instances of remarriage may trigger unresolved feelings for the children involved, as they are forced to give up any lingering hope of reconciliation between biological parents. Your ex-spouse may also react negatively to your remarriage, as he or she may still have some unresolved feelings.

But adults can minimize the negative impact of such emotions by ensuring a consistent presence in their children's lives. According to HealthyChildren.org, “Children do better if both parents continue to be positively involved in their lives (assuming both parents are safe, capable caregivers) and, in particular, if the nonresident parent maintains a close and supportive relationship with the child.”  

It's also crucial to refrain from speaking negatively about the biological parent in front of the kids. A 2018 study found that the effects of parental denigration – or, speaking badly about a biological parent in front of or to a child in a blended family – could have serious negative consequences on both the parent being disparaged and the child. This intense negativity could damage the child’s development of both their relationship with that parent and their own self-image. As a result, many experts agree that refraining from negative conversations about an absent biological parent in a blended family is a good idea.

Healthy family relationships are important

Respecting time and space

Building a happy stepfamily may take years. Children must be given room to set their own pace when warming up to new stepparents and learning to trust them. 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.

Recognizing signs of potential difficulty in a blended family

Taking the time to actively listen to your stepchildren and your partner during times of difficulty is another vital part of developing a healthier blended family. Pay close attention to what everyone has to say, and consider seeking professional help if you notice any of the following behaviors:

  • 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 their children.
  • A child exhibits an extreme amount of anger or resentment towards a parent or stepparent.
  • One of the parents is left out of household decisions or decisions about discipline.

Takeaway

Although stepfamilies may encounter challenges that aren’t as common in other family structures, there are several ways that blended families can meet those challenges successfully.  Of those strategies, two-way communication is perhaps the most essential. And one of the best ways to cultivate healthy family communication is to seek the help of a trained counselor with experience in helping blended families grow and thrive. 

But many families find it difficult to schedule a time to speak to a therapist and coordinating trips to and from a therapist’s office can be just as challenging. Some families may also feel uncomfortable meeting with a psychologist face-to-face or feel some trepidation around encountering others in the office.

That’s why many families use platforms like BetterHelp to find a licensed and accredited online therapist who can help develop strategies for healthier family dynamics. Help is available anytime, anywhere with an internet connection, with no need to travel to a brick-and-mortar office. 

Research suggests that online therapy can be an effective measure in supporting the mental and emotional states of many individuals with a range of concerns, including those with family concerns. This means that families do not have to sacrifice quality of care for convenience.

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