What Makes a Happy Blended Family?

Blended families is a topic that regularly comes up in the Inner West Mums Facebook group. The posts tend to focus on the following areas: How do you establish a happy, well-blended family? How do you satisfy all family members? And most often, how do you settle the almost inevitable conflict that arises from having multiple sets of parents with varying views and approaches?
To shed light on the experience of blended families, I put these questions and more to mum Sophie, whose blended family totals an impressive eight kids, and Liz Neal, Inner West Mum and owner of Elizabeth Neal Psychology in Gladesville. First up, we have Sophie’s story.
 
Sophie
How did your blended family come about? I ask Sophie. ‘My family blended in 2015 when we all moved in together,’ she explains. ‘My partner’s three children were eight, six and five. Mine were twelve, ten and six. In 2016 we welcomed twins to our family.’
I ask Sophie what she believes makes a happy, well-blended family. ‘A happy, blended family is one where each person is seen as an individual and given time to develop relationships with each other. You can’t force kids to like you or their step-siblings. It has to happen naturally – and sometimes it does not happen at all. The word “blended” is a key: it’s important to include everyone in the mix and try to work together.’
What have been some of the most joyful aspects of having a blended family? I ask her. ‘I have loved learning about one other and seeing the relationships grow,’ Sophie says. ‘Each member brings something different to the family. Time spent together – through dinners, board games, outings, and so on – cements us as a family. It has been beautiful to watch the older kids bond with our twin babies, who have truly brought us all together.’
Of her relationship with her stepchildren, she says: ‘I’ve never pushed the kids to call me stepmum or tell me they love me, but they now do both. I love that this has been earned not demanded. It is amazing when you realise that you have fallen in love with kids that are not biologically your own, and when they love you back it makes your heart soar.’
But of course, it’s not all roses. Like many stepparents, Sophie has found working with the other parent challenging at times. She explains: ‘You want to parent in a way that complements life at the other house; the less change in boundaries and rules, the easier it is for the kids. It’s hard when the parenting at Mum’s is totally different to your own, though.’ She has learned from experience that consistency is crucial, and in her house ‘the same rules and discipline apply to all’. And she has also realised the importance of ensuring her own biological kids have time with her without the others as they had previously. ‘It’s a juggle!’ she says.
Communication is a huge part of raising a blended family, says Sophie. ‘It’s so easy to miss something important unless you and the other parent communicate.’ It can be hard to hear another adult’s, or even two other adults’, opinions of the way you parent. ‘Pick your battles with the other parent,’ says Sophie. ‘I will only bring up issues that really affect the kids.’
When issues do crop up, Sophie tries to keep her difference of opinion away from the kids.  ‘I feel very strongly about not speaking badly about their mum. All kids love their parents; if you speak negatively about their mum you can lose all respect and love. We are very open and encourage our kids to express their feelings and ask questions. After all, it’s not about making me happy; it’s about making a home that’s happy for everyone.’
 
Psychologist Liz Neal
In your opinion, what makes a happy, well-blended family? I ask Liz. She says: ‘Just like any other family unit or system of people, a “happy” well-blended family is comprised of individuals who have kindness towards each other, understanding and compassion, and can reflect on difficult interactions objectively, taking responsibility for their own contributions to family tensions. These families are accepting of the uniqueness of and differences amongst individuals.’
I ask Liz, What are some of the more joyful aspects of a blended family? ‘The wonderful thing about welcoming new people is that they have something brand new to offer – new ideas, new thoughts, new mentalities, new ways of being. When embraced as positives or (positive challenges), these circumstances can lead to personal growth and new bonds formed.’
According to Liz, one of the main challenges in establishing a blended family include is ensuring good communication. ‘Children will naturally crave a stable, secure environment. The transition into a blended family requires putting in place good communication to ensure children will view the change as a comfortable one, rather than one that will bring new discomfort. When family members feel unaccepted, or misunderstood, tensions can arise and build over time. If these issues go unaddressed or are addressed in negative ways, rivalry takes place and interaction can become hostile and defensive. Over time, family members are vulnerable to feeling excluded, marginalised, misunderstood, judged or as though home just doesn’t feel like a home anymore.’
So, how are great connections formed between children and stepparents? I ask her. ‘Great connections are formed when stepchildren feel accepted and understood by their stepparents,’ she says. ‘Strong connections help significantly in discipline and dealing with everyday stressors too.’
Once the family has been established, it is common for struggles to occur between all of the adults, particularly between the new partner and the ex, Liz says. ‘These will ultimately spill out into the relationship between the new couple and frequently drag the children into it. Parents in the new relationship often feel protective over their well-established parenting style that now comes up against an alternative one within the household.’ Another difficult issue, says Liz, is trying to give everyone the amount of face time that they want.
Broadly speaking, in your practice how do you navigate these kinds of challenges together with families? I ask Liz. ‘I work on these kinds of issues with mums on their own as well as partners in couples therapy. The goal is to help parents develop good reflective skills so they can better understand what’s underlying family tensions, to be able to respond with constructive strategies. I help parents free themselves from feelings of guilt – guilt gets in the way of parents’ ability to accurately attune to their children’s (normal and expected) strong feelings of anger, sadness and fear. I help families take the heat out of fiery arguments, and bring warmth into the talking space when it’s all feeling too icy. Interestingly, the most successful outcomes occur when people simply have the ability to self-reflect – regardless of how much pain, hostility, volatility, rejection and trauma there has been. A simple moment of true reflection provides an enormous possibility for healing and change.’
 
For further reading, you may wish to look at the Raising Children Network’s section on Blended Families and Stepfamilies:
http://raisingchildren.net.au/blended_families/blended_and_stepfamilies.html
 
You might also enjoy:
When Two Becomes Three (or More)
When is Enough, Enough?
Welcoming Baby Number Two

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