How can we adjust to our blended family?

All families have to work at living in harmony. Blended families, especially ones with ten- to thirteen-year-olds, have to try particularly hard. Kids these ages go through tremendous physical and emotional changes as they form their adolescent identities. In the midst of their internal upheavals, they often react quite negatively to a new step-family. And new stepparents may have negative feelings of their own. They rarely feel the same bond with a stepchild that they do with their natural children. Adjusting to life in a blended family requires much commitment, patience, and understanding from all members.

Parents may have an easier time if they understand the child’s point of view. Because he may still be sad about his parents’ divorce, he may fear attachment to another adult who might leave. He also may worry about losing the love and attention of his newly married parent, seeing the stepparent as an intruder and rival.

The stepparent is another authority figure, and a pre- or early adolescent will resent new or different rules and restrictions. He doesn’t want his natural parent to give up control: “If he didn’t live with us, you wouldn’t make me clean my room so much!” “Why do I have to go to bed early just because Margaret said so?”

When a stepparent joins a family, many rituals and routines change, and a ten- to thirteen-year-old finds that upsetting. He doesn’t want his natural parent to act differently, and he doesn’t want to alter the patterns of everyday life.

A child who resents a stepparent may act on his feelings in a number of ways. He may try to sabotage the new marriage by being intentionally uncooperative and belligerent. He may fantasize that his actions will bring his natural parents together again.

He may use his stepparent as a target for all his frustration and anger: “It’s Jim’s fault I didn’t do well on the test. I can’t study when he’s around.” ‘It’s never fun going to dinner anymore because of Ellen and her dumb kids.” He feels safe doing this because he has little to lose – he doesn’t necessarily care what his stepparent thinks of him.

One reason a child may focus so much blame on the stepparent is because he wants his natural parent to be the “good” one. If he gets upset at him or her, he risks feeling guilty, losing his parent’s love, and facing his mother or father’s anger.

Another complication in blended families is the presence of stepsiblings. At these ages, kids don’t want to be told whom to like. Yet, in a blended family they’re thrown together with new siblings and forced to socialize, have their weekends interrupted by visits from each other, share possessions and perhaps even a bedroom, and compete for attention from parents. It’s natural that stepsiblings feel resentment about perceived unfairness. And if the parents in a remarriage have different discipline standards, stepsiblings will argue about who has to listen to which adult.

In spite of the difficulties, blended families can succeed. To help your family during its adjustment, look for stepfamily social or support groups in your area. They offer an opportunity to talk about concerns, hear tips on getting along, and listen to other families’ experiences. You also might consider using a therapist to help improve your family’s relationships.

Talk often at home. Hold family meetings, allowing each member to speak without interruption about troubling issues. To avoid angry outbursts, set ground rules – no put-downs or criticism and no yelling. Such meetings can create a positive atmosphere and clear up misunderstandings.

If you are a stepparent, be patient as you get to know your stepchild. Ask him about his activities and interests, go to his games, and help him with his hobbies. Don’t create or enforce rules unless you have a good relationship with him, and don’t try to replace his absent natural parent. If he rejects you, look for possible openings. Will he let you help with homework? Can you play tennis, cook, bike, garden, sing, or read together?

If you’re the natural parent, spend time alone with your child, reinforcing your relationship. Praise him when he tries to get along with his stepfamily: “I know it’s hard sometimes. Thanks for trying.” Be realistic in your expectations for the relationship between him and your child. Tell him how you’d like him to act and remind him, if necessary, that disrespectful behavior is not acceptable: “We don’t treat you that way and we don’t want you treating us that way.” Take on the role of disciplinarian for him, rather than leaving that responsibility to your new spouse.

Be sensitive to the difficulty stepsiblings have with their arrangements. It takes time for kids to adjust to each other. Sometimes ask them for suggestions about getting along and dealing with conflicts.

As you adjust to your blended family, it’s important that your marriage remain loving and stable. Remarriages are often difficult, and stepfamily tension coupled with everyday stress can be very disruptive. If you put time and effort into your relationship with your spouse, you will not only strengthen the bonds of your marriage, but your bonds with your child as well. When he sees that you love and enjoy each other, he may try harder to accept his situation. And he may realize that his anger and stubbornness are causing him to miss out on a satisfying family life.

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