Healthy relationships within a blended family can exist when the parents work towards fostering positive relationships. To help understand some challenges that blended families face and how blended families can foster positive relationships, I have interviewed therapist Denan Burke LMFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and Child/Play Therapy. I also have several years of experience running groups for children and parents of divorce. My practice is dedicated to increasing understanding and strengthening relationships, in adults, couples and families, which create the possibility for positive, lasting change.”
What are some challenges that blended families face?
“Both adults and children may face challenges when adjusting to living in a blended family. The most common issues for children include difficulties getting along with step-siblings and step-parents, less time with their biological parent, adjusting to new rules and rituals, worry of losing another parent figure if the new marriage dissolves, loyalty conflicts (i.e. feeling guilty for liking a new step-parent) and fear that the new step-parent won’t like the child. Adults may also face challenges such as conflict with their step-children that leads to conflict in the marital relationship, parents feeling unsure of where they fit into the new family, disagreements about how to handle discipline, differences regarding parenting styles and trying to find the time and energy to build and strengthen a new marital relationship.”
What type of impact can those challenges have on family relationships?
“The many challenges that blended families might experience can lead to feelings of stress, confusion, frustration, resentment and sometimes disconnection from one another. Children may feel sad, lonely or resentful and be even more reluctant to building new family relationships. Adults may feel overwhelmed, frustrated and unsure of how to proceed. If the disconnect is not attended to, the stress may lead to a separation or divorce. Second marriages have a much higher divorce rate than first marriages. The good news is that if couples are able to pay attention to difficulty and seek support if necessary, second marriages and blended families offer an opportunity for children to witness a healthy marriage and experience the love and support that a blended family can provide.”
How can blended families foster positive relationships?
“Research suggests that parents wait 2-3 years following divorce or the death of your spouse before seriously dating to allow adults and children to fully grieve and process through the loss of the original family unit. Remember, children often fantasize that their parents will reunite, even years after a divorce and a remarriage only solidifies the idea that this will not happen. Be sensitive to the feelings of loss for your children.
Focus on building a secure, trusting relationship between step-parent and step-child without the pressure of a timetable. Allow children to warm up to their new step-parent in their own time. Do not ever force children to say, “I love you” or to call the other parent Mom or Dad. This will only create loyalty conflicts and feelings of resentment between child and all adults involved. Instead, explain that step-parent is not there to replace a parental figure, but instead as another adult to offer love and support.
It is important to provide opportunities for open communication. You may want to implement a weekly family meeting in which both positives and challenges are addressed. This is not a “bash” session but rather a place to acknowledge areas that are working and areas that need improvement (i.e. sharing the bathroom, chores, etc). You might want to start and end these meetings by naming something you like about each other person, or something that went well that week.
Another way to strengthen relationships is to develop family rituals. This can be as simple as eating together every night at the dinner table, having pizza/movie Friday or Sunday family hikes. Rituals provide predictability and consistency for children, which allows them to feel more relaxed and at ease. It also sends the message that the family unit is important enough to be on the calendar every week.
The literature recommends that new step-parents wait at least a year before entering into a disciplinary role. Plan to establish the new stepparent as more of a friend than a disciplinarian. The biological parent should remain the main disciplinarian until there is a stronger relationship between stepparent and child. Create and post a list of family rules and consequences to decrease possible conflict between stepparent and child.
It is also very important to dedicate energy and time to maintaining marriage quality. The stronger the marital bond, the happier the couple, and the more relaxed and secure children will feel in the family. Try to schedule date nights, or even a walk around the block a couple of nights a week. This time alone in which you can attend to and nourish the marriage will allow the couple to attend to and care for the family.
Respect, trust and love grow with time and experience with one another. Stepparents should be ready to invest a lot of time, energy, dedication and affection without much return, at least initially. This may feel unfair, but again, this is an invaluable part of building a secure, trusting relationship with the child.
The best way to foster positive relationships is to have realistic expectations, patience and commitment to the process. On average, it takes a blended family about 5-7 years to come together with a sense of unity, security, and appreciation for one another, and family identity.”
What type of professional help is available for a blended family who is having a difficult time in fostering positive relationships?
“Depending on the situation it might be helpful to seek couples, family and/or child therapy. These services are typically offered by Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Licensed Psychologists and Licensed Professional Counselors.”
Thank you Denan for doing the interview on fostering positive relationships in blended families. For more information on Denan Burke or her work you can check out her website on http://www.denanburke.com/Family-Therapy.html.
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