Relationships don’t always work out, and it can be devastating when kids are involved. If you’re brave enough, you can start over and build the family you’ve always hoped to have. However, bringing kids from a previous relationship into a new one means you may end up starting a blended family. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2019, there were 2.4 million stepchildren in the United States.
Blended families aren’t always as easy as we hope they’ll be. You have kids and adults from previous relationships coming together to build a life.
“When we are talking about blended families, it’s a kind of thought that love is just supposed to permeate throughout the entire family. That’s not necessarily true,” says Roma Williams, LMFT and Founder of Unload it Therapy in Houston, Texas.
Despite the challenges that may occur, successful blended families are a thing. How are these blended families making this work? ESSENCE spoke to therapists who have worked with blended families to get a few tips.
Communicate About Parenting Styles
“Communication is fundamental in every relationship, but it’s critical in a blended family. Three levels of communication should be taking place, and that should happen between the couple, with the kids, and with the former partner,” says Dr. Kimberly Jenkins-Richardson, a licensed counselor and executive director of Jenkins-Richardson & Associates.
Regarding what the couple should discuss, parenting responsibilities and styles are a good starting point. Jenkins-Richardson says this is important so clear boundaries can be established and maintained.
“Parenting styles is a biggie — it’s important for a stepparent, whether they are new to parenting or have kids of their own, to know their partner’s parenting style and what parenting style works for each kid,” she says.
Having conversations about parenting can help avoid conflict around disciplining kids and help manage expectations, too.
Give Kids Time and Grace
Children coming into a blended family should also be part of your ongoing conversations. While you may be in love with your new partner and happy, there is no guarantee your kids will feel the same.
Some common concerns they may have include worrying about how the new parent could change the family dynamic or concerns about not getting as much attention as before. Depending n their ages, your kids may also experience some grief because a new partner means the possibility of reconciliation between biological parents reduces, says Jenkins-Richardson. To make the process easier, listen to your kids and give them a safe space to express their fears.
“One issue I often hear when working with kids in blended families is that they feel unheard or unseen,” Jenkins-Richardson explains. “Ensuring that each parent or stepparent is spending individual, quality time with each kid is important to establish, maintain, and hopefully solidify an ongoing healthy relationship.”
Extend grace and patience if your kids are acting out due to the new family dynamic. Also, remind them the new parent isn’t there to replace their biological one but to add someone into your family to give them more love and care. If things escalate, family therapy is another viable option.
Include the Other Parents Where Possible
When a nuclear family splits, sometimes it’s amicable, and other times, it’s not. Either way, you still have to co-parent and communicate. It can get complex when bringing new partners and kids into the mix.
To improve your chances of success and hopefully reduce the drama you experience, carry the other parents along.
“We don’t wanna leave anybody important to that child out,” Williams says.
This can look like the stepparent and the biological parent setting up a time to talk, says Williams. The meet-up doesn’t have to be grand and should ideally be facilitated by the other biological parent.
“It may look like [a] stepparent and bio parent get together, and they just talk, and maybe it builds up to stepparent and bio parent taking the child out to do things together,” she says.
If you’re a single parent or blending a family with a single parent, then the focus is more on dating the child, so they can get used to being in a two-parent home.
“Ultimately, the goal of that is to make space for people to get to know one another, get to know one another’s intentions, and to feel good about this person being in [their] space 24/7,” says Williams. You want to clarify to the child that you’re simply trying to get to know them and aren’t trying to replace their biological parent.
Have Family Meetings
We’ve discussed the separate conversations that should take place, but there’s also a need for a joint conversation. Have family meetings to see where everyone is, discuss boundaries, and reset them if needed.
“Set aside time for everybody to kind of get together and discuss whatever they may or may not like,” Williams says. You can start with what’s going well and then segway to what may be bothering each person. You may also want to discuss starting new family rituals and traditions unique to your blended family. This can be a way to bond and give your new family its own unique identity.
As time goes on, you can also include other extended family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and anyone who is a regular part of your family. Ultimately, these meetings can be a way to get to know and understand one another more intimately, which is a healthy practice for any relationship.
Choose Your Battles
Every family has tumultuous times, but they can be even more amplified in a blended family. At times, you’ll have to choose which battles to fight and which ones to sit out as it relates to kids and conflict between the two biological parents who were previously in a relationship. “These types of disagreements are bound to happen, but it’s important to keep boundaries top of mind still, even when you want to protect or defend your partner,” says Jenkins-Richardson.
“It is okay to have a conversation with the partner about how you can assist,” she says. “Sometimes it may be more helpful to function as a sounding board for each party until a resolution can be identified.”
You also want to tread carefully when getting into conflict with your partner’s ex-partner, be it a verbal or physical altercation. Doing this can derail the relationship you’re trying to build with your stepchildren. Although it may not be easy, establishing a healthy and loving blended family dynamic is possible.
For inspiration, take a look at the successful celebrity families below.