"My Blended Family Won't
Blend-Help!": How You And Your Spouse Can Get On The Same Page
"I don't know what to do anymore," said
Jill, stepmother to two teen
girls and mom to one biological son, aged 10. "My stepdaughters don't
respect me. I'm the evil stepmother to them-and pretty much ignore
whatever I say. And my son is constantly telling me that my husband isn't fair, and that he treats him differently than he treats his two
girls. Sometimes I get so exhausted by the whole thing I just want to get up and
We often jokingly say, "You don't get a manual on
how to parent kids." But each adult in a blended family brings a set of ideas
about parenting with them, in addition to their own prior experiences. This
often makes for a very complex situation, and it's one of the reasons why
parents in a blended family can get stuck in some disappointing and frustrating
cycles of behavior. Look at it this way: there are so many different points of
view and aspects to this relationship that it can naturally be very confusing
for everyone. The children also have different experiences and perceptions of
the parent-child relationship-and because of the very fact that they are
children, they will not surrender those ideas easily. Remember, the secret to
having a blended family is having blended adults. The kids just have a
responsibility to live with each other respectfully and to respect the other
I think the first question that has to be asked is "What does blended mean?"
Does it mean everyone calls the woman Mommy and the man Daddy?" Does blended
mean each parent supports the other parent no matter what? Or does blended mean
that a couple comes to a series of decisions together about their expectations
and thoughts regarding the development of children-and then they operationalize
those ideas in how they treat their kids and what they expect from them?
I believe that blending two families is the most perplexing and difficult job
two adults can take on. There are no quick answers or easy solutions. But there
are some guidelines and suggestions I can give you to help you think about the
scope and nature of some of the common problems that surface within your
family-and how to solve them.
How to Get on the Same Page with Your Spouse
Before You Get Married: Establish Roles and
Resolve the Conflicts You Can Resolve
One type of conflict that occurs between parents
in a blended family is having a difference of opinion about general parenting ideas. This might include when bedtime should be, how homework is done, and how
much TV is allowed in the house. Many of these differences can be talked about
and resolved before you get married.
If your spouse parents differently than you do, talk about that openly-hopefully
before you get married. Often people fall in love and don't face those kinds of
issues. They think it will all work out on its own-but the truth is, things
usually don't work out unless the people working them out have the skills to
make that happen. Even if you are already married, I suggest you sit down and
start talking about the parenting issues that are important to you today.
But don't kid yourself, although you may agree to things and work them out ahead
of time, as stressors and different situations happen, realize that it's common
for both you and your spouse to react in ways you didn't anticipate. This is
because family dynamics change, kids change, circumstances outside the family
change. To put it plainly, it's impossible to plan for everything.
The key is to be adult and understanding of each other. For example,
uncommon for Democrats and Republicans to be happily married to one another. In
the same way, if you're in a blended family situation, you have to find a way to
live with your partner by respecting the other person's point of view when it
comes to decisions about how to raise the kids in the family, too.
Recognize the Importance of the Birth Parent
It's very important to establish the importance of the birth parent. This means
that the birth parent is the primary parent. Think of it this way: marriages
break up sometimes, but the birth parent-birth child relationship is never going
to dissolve. Because of the birth parent-child connection, the birth parent
should be the decision maker of last resort for their biological child, as long
as the decision around that child protects the emotional and physical safety of
everyone else in the family. What that means is that when we have conflicts, the
birth parent will make the final decision, but that doesn't mean the child
should be abusive or hurtful.
That way when your stepchild is saying,
"You're not my father," the answer is "You're right, I'm not. But these are the expectations that your mother and I
have, and if you don't follow through you will be held accountable." It allows
you to avoid getting into those kinds of power struggles with your stepchild.
If your spouse isn't parenting your child the way you think they should be, you
need to be able to communicate with them about that and work things out. If
there's a disagreement, the birth parent's decision takes primacy and the
stepparent has to be mature enough and trusting enough in the relationship to go
along with it, without a lot of pouting and self-pity.
Communicate Constantly and Present a United
I can't stress this enough: the foundation for blended families rests on the
principles of communication and cooperation between both adults. Compromise is
the name of the game. And adults have to communicate, communicate, communicate.
In a blended family, there is an absolute necessity for both adults to be on the
same page. These two adults, when they decide to get together and marry, have to
make a decision that they're going to communicate about things in private, away
from the kids.
The rule has to be, ?Whatever agreement we come up with, we have to present a
united front on it. And if we disagree, the birth parent should have the right
to say, "This is my choice, this is my decision.? And in fact, the common theme
in the family should be that Mom and Dad talk things out, that they look into
things and work things out together.
Don't Throw Labels Around
Labels are one of the biggest roadblocks to
communication, because once you start labeling somebody, communication is
over-you've effectively cut it off. If one parent labels the other as being too
soft, or too hardline, those labels interfere with solving the problem. And by
the way, that's why people do label. Genuine communication is very difficult
emotionally, and if both people aren't on the same page, they often avoid it.
How do they avoid it? By arguing, fighting, blaming, and labeling.
Let's say there's a dispute over the amount of time the kids in the family are
spending on video games. You want to limit their game time, but your spouse
thinks the kids should be allowed to play as much as they want. It doesn't help
when one adult says to the other, "You're too soft on them," or "You're too
rigid." Again, that's just labeling the other person. Instead, you need to sit
down and ask investigative questions like, "What are you trying to accomplish by
letting the kids play video games without putting a time limit on them?" So the
question becomes, "What is your goal here?" And your spouse might respond, "I
want them to feel like home is a place where they can relax and do the things
they enjoy as much as they want, as long as they take care of their
responsibilities." And they should be asking you, "What are you trying to
accomplish by limiting the video game time?" You might say, "I want them to have
some structure in their lives. I think video games have their place, but they
should not be our kids' main source of entertainment. I'm worried that if we let
them play as much as they want, it'll become a cop-out and they'll play video
games instead of doing other things."
Now both of these people have a legitimate perspective. The challenge is for
them to come up with some kind of compromise. You do this by figuring out what
you're trying to accomplish or avoid. Once you do that-and can come up with a
compromise instead of arguing or labeling the other person-you're really
communicating. Remember, basing decisions on what you're trying to accomplish is
often much more effective than basing them on ?the way things were on when you
were a kid.?
Remember, the key to finding harmony in a blended family is communication and
maturity on the part of the parents. One important thing to realize is that the
kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully.
Again, the people who really have to blend are the parents. And blending as
adults means seeing your spouse as a partner, not as an obstacle.
Believe me, I know that this advice is easy to read but difficult to do. Know
that although a lot of emotional labor has to take place, the fruits of your
efforts will translate into much more peace in your home. (My Blended Family
Won't Blend: Help! How You And Your Spouse Can Get On The Same Page
reprinted with permission from
What To Do When
Your Step Kids Disrespect You,
by James Lehman, MSW
For three decades, behavioral therapist James
Lehman, MSW, worked with troubled teens and children with behavior problems.
He developed a practical, real-life approach to managing children and
adolescents that teaches them how to solve social problems. He has taught his
approach to parents, teachers, state agencies and treatment centers in private
practice and now through
The Total Transformation -- a comprehensive
step-by-step, multi-media program that makes learning James' techniques
remarkably easy and helps you change your child's behavior.