What to Do When a Blended Family Isn’t Working

Blended families are often created out of brokenness. Chances are, there was grief sprinkled in amongst all the blended family ashes. Whether it was divorce or death, the blended family often begins as an uphill trudge.

When a blended family isn’t working, there is one commonality of every family member: everyone knows it isn’t working. Anxiety and tensions seem to seep out from the air and heat ducts in the home. And while the blended family seeks harmony, they often don’t know how to get there. When harmony is elusive, the blended family can reclaim harmony through clear and heart-healthy communication.

Most parents enter into the new relationship with the knowledge that they do not try to replace the biological mother or father. But that’s not enough. To make the blanket statement, “I will not try to take over as your mother/father,” is a good start, like the table of contents in a book. But it doesn’t begin to go into the depth of the unfolding new narrative. Your blended family is a new book, with new chapters, and you all are the authors of your new life story.

There is one non-negotiable tenet that all blended family parents need to embrace: be on the same page. The kids are like Labradors: able to sense the emotion in the house, whether it’s underlying tension or joy. It is essential that the newly-formed couple speak with one parenting voice. The parents must ride a figurative tandem bike.

Here are 9 ideas to take the training wheels off of the blended family:

1) Look for things that are working: This is so obvious and simple, yet many of us dismiss this critical observation, and there’s a good reason why. The human brain’s amygdala and fear center is hyper alert for perceived threats and dangers, so the tendency is to look for things that are wrong. For every positive emotion, there is a correlation of four negative emotions to knock it over.

We need to bring that mindful, conscious awareness into our family interactions and catch our kids (and parents) in the act of doing something wonderful. “I so appreciate how you put away your laundry without being asked” Or, “Thank you for being ready on time to go to Grandma’s; I know not going to your friend’s house is disappointing. Grandma is so grateful that you’re coming and so am I.” And, “Thank you for including Hannah (new younger stepsister) when you had your friend over.”

2) Act “as if” and exercise patience: We interviewed a mom whose step-daughter barely spoke to her; dismissive of almost of all of the stepmom’s gestures. The stepdaughter, who still grappled with often overwhelming emotions from her parent’s contentious divorce, was understandably leery of the new dynamic in her father’s home.

Each time the woman French braided her own daughter’s hair, she offered her step-daughter the same. Denied eleven times, the stepmom continued to offer. On the twelfth time, the stepdaughter nodded and said, “Thank you.” The mom recalls that a flush came over her own face, but she calmly braided her stepdaughter’s hair as if they’ve had a wonderful relationship all along.

3) Establish clear and loving boundaries and make it fun: Having 4 children: two teens and two toddlers, we found it challenging to bridge the disparate needs and desires of the children. We created a Star Chart, where respectful, kind, and responsible behavior earned kids a star. Once 10 stars accumulated, each age group received an age appropriate reward: the toddlers are allowed to purchase a small toy or choose a fun activity. The teens get to have a sleepover, go to a friend’s house for an hour on a school night, or stay out a half hour longer.

4) Consistency among all children. Nothing is as divisive nor as resentment-fueling as step-sibs who with the eyes of a hawk, spot an inequity in parenting. When the bio mom or dad is more lenient with their own offspring, there is bound to be trouble. Blended families come equipped with advanced state-of-the-art fairness meters. Consequences need to be equally consistent. That means time- related sentences and curfews are exactly the same, and if similar infractions are committed by another child, identical consequences must follow.

5) Understand your Myers Briggs personality preference and those of the other family members: Blaming and frustration dissipate when parents understand their own and their children’s innate personality preferences. Carl Jung theorized that we all have preferences for how we experience the world, how we take in information, how and when we make decisions.

This knowledge will help parents to adapt their communication style around that understanding. If parents have a preference for making decisions quickly and easily, yet have a child that seems to be frequently lost in thought and pokey, shaming them is not the answer. Know that making decisions is less important to the child than having ample time to think and reflect, and embed extra time for decision making and reflection time for the child to develop their more dominant preferences.

6) Love and Logic: We reached out to Dr. Charles Fay, part of the Love and Logic team, who has more than 50 years in public education. Dr. Fay suggests that using love and logic is a wonderful opportunity to take mistakes and turn them into life lessons. Allow the child or teen the opportunity to make their unacceptable behavior their problem. Fay says that, “loving empathy and consequences do the teaching.”

When our 4-years-old son, a regular attendee in church, decided on a particular Sunday that he wanted to climb on the pews and talk our loud, we said nothing at the time. After church the church service, it was a tradition to go out for breakfast. He tugged on his mother’s (Poppy’s) dress to urge her out the door. Poppy waved goodbye to the other family members, leaned down, and quietly said, “Oh, Sweetie. I know you were looking forward to going out for breakfast with the rest of the family, but you and I are going to stay for the next service to practice our quiet church manners.”

The extra hour and a half of that lesson paid off, as we never again experienced disruptive manners in church. Finally, Fay says, “Hope is provided when kids know that nothing can separate them from our love.” Whenever we embed a teachable message in love, it’s a win win.

7) Family Meeting: This event is especially effective in blended family. Plan an hour meeting once per week, where each family member gets a turn; even the youngest members who might be two or three years old. You can pass a “talking stick,” to ensure that no one is interrupted. (Kids love making these.)

In a respectful, non-judgmental and confidential setting, the blended family meeting should have an agenda that includes successes and challenges, expectations, a family member who leads the meeting each week, (kids can do
this too), a transcriber (note-taker), and a timer. Each person gets a vote and a chance to share. After 45 minutes, the team leader of the day asks if there is any issue or concern that needs to be resolved or tabled. All issues are reviewed with a call to action, if necessary. Next week’s agenda is drafted, and the sequential team leader is appointed.

One caveat: expect older children to roll their eyes at this family community event. (We believe that teen eye-rolling is another affirmation that you’re doing your job as a parent.) Reluctant contributors are neither shamed not coerced, and if older, may wish to contribute in writing after the meeting. The blended family meeting is a 1-hour a week unifying event, that continues to lay the foundation for a harmonious family dynamic.

8) Unrelated hypotheticals: We recently worked with a blended family who struggled with communication with their five kids. Not wanting to always be the heavy with lectures, the blended family couple searched for other ways to reach their kids in a meaningful and loving way. We suggested they tell stories while driving in the car, of a time when they became upset by an adult friend or co-worker. (When they felt excluded or someone took credit for their work.)

Consider chronicling the thoughts of the event, insert the emotions felt, and pause. Then for a powerful finish, ask the children what they would have done or said. This not only gives the opportunity for the kids to relate the incident to their own lives, it also empowers them to actively practice problem-solving.

9) No exes under the bus: In our article, 5 Secrets Not to Forsake the Ex for the Sake of the Kids, we ask people to be mindful of past triggers, unresolved challenges, and their old stories. If children believe that their parent has been betrayed in some way, the may bring feelings of protection for the wronged parent (and resentment for the new stepparent) into the blended family.

Sometimes the parent-child dynamic was wobbly before the previous marriage ended, so it is unreasonable to expect that the kids are going to be on board right away in a new relationship. We would suggest giving the focus on the kids a priority. If there is conflict with the ex, and the wellbeing of the kids is compromised, consider counseling or a parenting class, so you can reclaim a healthy relationship with the children.

Lastly, while the tendency is great to vent (okay, rant) about the Disney Dad ex who is late on visitation drop offs, we encourage parents to try our 17-second mirror exercise, where they say, “He/she is the father/mother of my child. Half of my child comes from this person, and I love my child 100%. I only have room in my heart for love, patience and acceptance.”

Whether the parents and/or children in the blended family are resistant to ideas that aren’t familiar to them, we encourage families to utilize these new ways to bring connection to the blended family unit. Expect that mistakes will happen, and you’ll fall off the figurative bike. Hop back on. You’ve got this.

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