Many blended families may look like the modern Brady Bunch, but behind closed doors, they probably act more like the Simpsons. Merging daily routines and annual traditions with the variant personalities, cultures and ages of two separate families is challenging -- on the best of days. About 65 percent of marriages involve children from a previous relationship, according to WinningStepfamilies.com, with the result that blended families are quickly becoming the most common family structure in America. Despite its frequency, the upheaval creates an uncertainty that has an enormous effect on parental and sibling dynamics.
Progress Requires Patience
Even if the kids stand up at the ceremony and proclaim, “We do, too!” experts estimate that it takes step-families at least four years to find its own unique rhythm. Living together successfully requires a tremendous learning curve for everybody, as the family members navigate parenting differences, lifestyle changes, new rules and peculiar habits. Getting everyone to march to the beat of the same drummer may require you to lower your expectations -- and for some children who have few common interests or large age gaps -- the best you can hope for is mutual toleration.
Blending Two Cultures
Someone will always store the cereal on the wrong shelf and someone will always hang the toilet paper roll facing in the wrong direction -- and the Christmas lights will always be the wrong size. The rituals that once made your family unique will change -- so it's important that you honor both sides, as well as create new traditions as a family. Make compromises where you can, such as alternating dangling icicle strands one year, with vintage oversized bulbs the following year. Blended families that come from different ethnic backgrounds will face unique challenges. Cook special cultural dishes every other weekend, and once a month, throw a multicultural celebration that features favorite dishes from both sides.
Open the Communication Channels
Along with excitement about the upcoming changes, your children will have questions. With proper guidance, kids as young as two can express their emotions. Concerns may be as simple as “Who will read me bedtime stories?” to larger issues like “Will you still love me?” Before the families merge, it is critical that you talk about any anxieties privately with your own child, and again as a new family. In addition to letting your children know that you understand how they feel, it is important that everyone makes a real effort to get to know each other. Family trust is built in experiencing real life together, so plan those outings to the park, weekend-long camping trips and game nights. Even resistant children will eventually want to join in the fun.
Bridging the Age Divide
Because preschoolers are adaptable, they have the easiest time transitioning into a blended family. Older kids unfamiliar with having younger siblings around may get jealous about the attention your toddler gets, and a previously only-child preschooler may feel that she needs to compete for your attention. Immediately addressing sibling rivalry issues in a loving, yet firm manner often prevents tense situations from spinning out of control. This may be more difficult if you're blending a family that spans preschoolers to teenagers – after all, the emotional needs of your 4-year-old are quite different from those of a 14-year-old – but you can still make it clear that disrespect and ultimatums are not tolerated.