Cinderella struggled with her stepfamily until her life took a turn for the better. Here’s how blended families can survive without the help of a fairy godmother. By Xanet van Vuuren, contributions by Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist from PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre.

The ‘blended family’ is a relatively new term, but in the last 50 years it has become part of our everyday language and, these days, stepfamilies are quite the norm. Clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou from the family-focused PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, describes ‘blended families’ as a new term to define what were previously known as stepfamilies. “This is when one parent with at least one child from a previous marriage enters another marriage or partnership with someone else. It is vital for new partners to have realistic expectations about entering the new family and to plan, discuss and agree in advance,” explains Kleovoulou.

Grey areas

Being part of a blended family is not always smooth sailing. It’s evident that a myriad of problems could arise in this situation. Many people think they can enter a new marriage with the idea that ‘romance conquers all’. This is hardly ever the case, as the challenging reality of trying to bond with a new partner, let alone a new family, presents itself.

Trying times

The challenges of living in a blended family are many, but the most common problem is that children don’t initially accept a new parent and his or her parental authority. There can also be complications around custody arrangements. Another source of conflict may be the new set of rules in the home, which may be vastly different to the primary caregiver’s rules if he or she looked after the children alone. A new partner may also feel unwelcome or unloved, as he or she may find it hard to automatically love the ‘new’ children.

The stepfamily, which may include stepbrothers, stepcousins and even stepgrandparents, probably has their own set of attitudes, traditions and rituals, which clash with the ‘original’ family’s habits. This can cause conflict and requires a period of adjustment. Parents may also be plagued by guilt that their divorce has inflicted pain on their children.

A recipe for success

There is hope, however, as there are ways to make blended families work successfully. Here are a few tips to get your family through this sometimes challenging transition:

  • Work towards an atmosphere of mutual respect in the home.
  • An environment of openness is essential so everyone in the family can express what they are feeling.
  • Create new traditions and rituals within the stepfamily.
  • It’s important that you as a new couple support each other, especially when making decisions, as all children need consistency and limits (within reason) to thrive.
  • Create a strong, nurturing bond between the two of you and try to eliminate unrealistic expectations about your new marriage and family.
  • Address all practical matters, for example, your new living conditions, which of you will be responsible for the medical care of the children, financial issues, and so on.
  • If you are the ‘new’ partner, you should let your ex-partner spend special ‘alone time’ with his or her children.
  • A new partner needs to understand there will be contact with an ex with regard to the children.
  • The biological parent should tell his or her children that respect and cooperation are required towards the new stepparent. Experts advise you shouldn’t force your children to love your new spouse.
  • Work together as parents when making house rules and deciding on how to discipline the children.
  • Don’t allow your children to influence you negatively towards your new spouse, or against your ex.
  • A ‘parenting plan’ is a useful tool for parents to use during this period to ensure their children grow up with love and care.

Building bonds

Kleovoulou says it’s important to keep in mind that children in blended families have already been through the trauma of a divorce and now need to adjust to life with one parent at home, and the complications of limited time with the other parent. “New challenges arise when children are introduced to a new partner. The stepparent should try to build a bond with the children before initiating discipline at home,” explains Kleovoulou, “and you should avoid forcing children to like you.” Kleovoulou says you should understand that blended families go through stages and that children need time to adapt and adjust to new circumstances. “You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself as a stepparent either, as it takes time for families to settle.”

Kleovoulou says the age and gender of children can have an affect on blending families. Children younger than 10 years usually find it easier to adapt to new circumstances than teenagers, as they yearn for and flourish with close family connections. “Teenagers, on the other hand, may have more difficulty accepting a new family, as they are in a phase where they are exploring their identity, independence and their environment, so control and power struggles may arise within the family. Young adult children are usually more focused on separating from the family and living more independent lives.”

Establishing relationships with new grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins is not always easy. Kleovoulou explains that you have to keep in mind that the new family is probably just as uncertain and nervous as you are about making the family system work. “You have to be patient and try not to ‘force’ parties to bond instantly. Bonding may take time – given the probable history of distress in the breakdown of a previous relationship.”

When to seek professional help

  • When there is major emotional conflict within the family that does not dissipate over time.
  • If there is a lot of rage and resentment between family members that cannot be managed or dealt with.
  • If the parent/s are unable to cope with the challenges of the transition. This may manifest as stress, a decline in work performance, sleep disturbances, a change in appetite and energy levels, as well as a drop in mood and motivation.
  • If children behave out of the ordinary for a period of time, for example, not being able to adjust at school or maintain friendships.
  • If one partner is still in turmoil about his or her previous relationship.
  • If there is ongoing abuse or neglect in either of the families.
  • If you find you are struggling with parental skills needed to provide a loving and secure home.

A positive outcome

Studies have shown that children in stepfamilies face a higher risk of emotional and behavioural problems than children from nuclear families. Kleovoulou says that even though children of divorced parents face feelings of abandonment, self-blame, isolation, loss, confusion, and fear of what the future holds, it doesn’t mean that they don’t grow up to be confident and responsible adults. Children are generally resilient, she says, “even though it is an enormous and traumatic change for them. With the correct knowledge, awareness and skills from parents, and the possibility of therapy to assist the child through the process of divorce and accepting the new family setting, the child will be able to adjust more effectively.”

Myths about blended families

  • Love occurs instantly between a stepchild and stepparent. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You may love your new partner, but you may not automatically love his or her children. It takes time to build relationships.
  • Stepmothers and stepfathers are wicked. The negative models of fairy tales and blended families can have a negative impact on you and make you feel self-conscious about your new role.
  • Adjustment to stepfamily life occurs quickly. It can take a long time for people in newly blended families to get to know each other and build bonds, so life may be a little rocky for some time.
  • There is only one kind of family. A stepfamily will never be like a biological family, but they don’t have to be either. There are many different kinds of families.
  • Part-time stepfamilies are easier. If stepchildren only visit every other weekend, there won’t be ample opportunity to build bonds and do family activities together. A part-time stepfamily may take longer to adjust.
  • Stepfamilies that are formed after a parent dies adjust more easily. Children need time to grieve the loss of a loved one. By remarrying, unfinished grieving on the child’s side might be reactivated, which can have a negative effect on the new relationship.

Real-life blended families

Braam and Stienie Van Wyk formed a blended family when they married 14 years ago. Braam has three children from his previous marriage, Stienie has two from her prior marriage and the couple has a laatlammetjie together. All six children have been living with Braam and Stienie since the day they got married. Braam says their blended family has problems, but suggests the first rule for making such a family work is to have respect for each other and to communicate with one another. Braam and Stienie try to be fair and consistent when they discipline their children. “Parents have to be united in their decision-making; or the children might see it as an opportunity to use the one parent as a pawn,” explains Braam. “Stienie and I decided right from the beginning that we were going to try and normalise the situation as much as possible. All the children call me ‘dad’ and her ‘mom’. The children are all disciplined by the both of us, as we thought it would be unnatural for Stienie to only discipline her children, and vice versa. The children receive presents in about the same price range for birthdays and Christmas; furthermore, we both buy them whatever they need. We don’t see them as ‘your’ or ‘my’ children, all the kids are ‘our’ children. “The children get along well, but sometimes they have the odd fight, which is normal in all families. During these sibling fights, it’s important to stay objective. Another important aspect of a blended family is that you should make your children feel they are still allowed to love the ‘non-residential’ parent.” Braam says parents should be careful not to badmouth the other parent in front of their children or to try and replace that parent with someone else – the other parent will always be a mother or father to his or her biological children.” – Braam and Stienie van Wyk from Bloemfontein 

My partner and I were ‘alone’ for two years, and I found it very difficult to adjust to a new man, as well as new children, after our marriage. In the beginning we were euphoric; everyone tried to make sure no one was upset or felt left out. We all liked each other and got along in those early stages. But as time went on, it got more difficult, as we couldn’t pretend we were one big family anymore. In came discipline – and then drama followed.  I have learned from experience that when your stepchild is being an absolute tyrant, you must reassess the situation and walk away – and only deal with it once you have calmed down. Never let the children come between you, because if the parents are unhappy, the children will be unhappy as well. Never disagree about how to discipline the children in front of them, as they may use this to their advantage. Anonymous from KwaZulu-Natal

I can’t tell you how lucky my son and I are to have a beautiful, special caring man with such a big heart in our lives. No little boy could have wished for a better dad. My partner is not my son’s biological father, but he does all the father-son activities with my child at his school. He helps him with his homework, he disciplines him and buys him beautiful gifts for his birthday and Christmas. “My partner and I had a little girl together when we got married, and I was worried I might not feel the same way about her as I feel about my son. In the end, everything worked out well and my partner and I now have ‘our’ children, not ‘his’ or ‘mine’, but ‘ours’. I can honestly say there has never been a day that my partner didn’t love our children equally. We show no favouritism and decide together how we are going to raise our children. I feel that as adults we have to look past the things that keep us shackled to decisions and actions. Parents have to love their children unconditionally, and no one in an adapted family situation should be blamed for certain problems that may arise.Anonymous from Weltevreden Park, Johannesburg

Thank you to clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou from the PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre for her help with this article. Contact her on (011) 4503576.

PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre has registered psychologists who have been trained to facilitate a Parenting Plan Agreement.

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