Blended Family: A family consisting of a couple and their children from this and all previous relationships.
In my Family Social Science class I learned that by 2000 there would be more stepfamilies than families of orientation. What images are created in people’s mind when they think of a blended family, the Brady Bunch? Do blended families become “a new family”? Do stepsiblings feel connections to their stepsisters and brothers? How do parents really feel about their stepchildren? Can spouses be honest with each other about their stepchildren’s behavior and the impact it might have on the members of the family?
Contributed by Shari Davis, MSW, LISW
In 2003 my 20-year marriage ended. In 2006, I met my soul mate. He asked me to marry him. At that time he had children ages 18, 16 and 8. My children were 21 and 17. My friends questioned me. “An 8 year old?” We waited until my youngest graduated high school and were married in 2008, creating the blended family I never expected to have.
Traditional Norms and Expectations of Familial Status
When I was an undergraduate student in Family Social Sciences and then a graduate student in a MSW program it never occurred to me that I might be a part of a blended family. I was sure I would get married and stay married. I didn’t expect to marry someone with children either. I had a blue print in my mind of how my life was going to be.
Supporting Blended Families as a Social Worker
As a social worker, I worked with many families struggling to come together as a blended family. Many families were formed out of men and women meeting people on the Internet and transporting their children and themselves to new cities and new schools prior to even meeting (Spoiler alert: That scenario was not a recipe for success). Rarely did I find that to work out for the parents or the children. The teenagers I saw were angry with their biological parent and usually hostile towards their stepparent.
Some other common observances I found include:
- Adolescents are trying to form their own identity and separate from their parents.
- Introducing a new parent figure and one who behaves like a parent makes it more difficult for that teenager to launch in a normal developmental pattern.
- Younger children adapt better than adolescents.
- The child’s other parent’s mental, physical health and location also makes a difference in how the child copes and adjusts to the blended family.
Becoming a Blended Family – a Step Parent – as a Social Worker
Having experienced a blended family for the last 10 years, or as a friend calls it “the blender”, these are some of the things I have learned:
- Your biological/adopted children are your children.
- One can love and admire stepchildren but it is not the same as your own — unless they are very small when they become stepchildren or perhaps if one has never had biological/adopted children.
- It’s ok — your spouse feels the same way.
- Talking about your feelings is very important however, be mindful that parents will be defensive and protective of their biological children.
- A stepparent is another loving adult in the stepchild’s life. If a stepchild has a biological/adopted parent (mom/dad) who is present then that is their parent!
- Always say positive things about the child’s biological/adopted parent or if that is difficult then say nothing at all.
The Reality of Life Inside the “Blender”
Children do better when they have contact with each of their biological/adopted parents. Stepsiblings can make good friends, but again, don’t expect the same connection as natural siblings. If possible, it can be helpful to have large family gatherings where ex-spouses and current spouses are all together re-defining the idea of extended family.
Time makes all the difference in the world.
Instant positive feelings are a myth. Making assumptions that a blended family feels like a family of orientation can be a disappointment. I am pretty sure now, when I look back at our wedding with all 5 children standing by our side, that my stepdaughter’s (age 10 at the time) near fainting spell was letting me know – get ready for some ups and downs.
Blended families take time to develop and grow and when it works, as ours has, it is a beautiful thing like a garden that takes lots of care and nurturing and a lot of weed pulling.
Contributed by Shari Davis, MSW, LISW
Shari Davis, MSW, LISW has 31 years of working in school social work with elementary and high school students. Shari’s expertise includes groups, individuals, parenting and serving on IEP teams, as well as, being a case manager for children on an IEP. Shari’s areas of expertise include: anxiety, depression, ASD, grief, social skills, LGBT groups, family change, classroom management, children in foster care, trauma and other mental health issues as they affect children and parents.