Blended Families- The Good, the Bad, and the NOT so Ugly
Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, my experience growing up in the middle- class suburbs of north-west Sydney of blended families (or stepfamilies) amounted to watching the Brady Bunch and the Parent Trap, and the occasional person in high school who had a stepfather or mother. As a younger child I grew up on Disney movies who characterised stepmothers generally as the evil woman who favoured their own children and treated their stepchildren as worthless (Think Cinderella), and Stepfathers who were mostly absent and at times cruel.
Fast Forward to 2020. 1 in 3 marriages in Australia end in divorce, and 77 % of partner cohabitate before marriage. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, most children still live with both parents, however there is a growing percentage of children either living with only one parent or are in blended families.
When children and parents begin living in blended family situation, they bring with it a variety of complex issues that need to be addressed and navigated to create (fairly) harmonious living arrangements.
Firstly, expectations need to be managed by both adults entering into the partnership. As one person I know stated: “When you get married you are mindful of your relationship with in- laws, but no one tells you about living with teenage children, that are not blood related” At least with the in laws, they are not fuelled with hormones, and basing decisions on these and overwhelming emotions. The partner coming into the relationship has to navigate a minefield of complex relationships, built up before their time, as well as possible simmering resentment, that they believe the partner is replacing a parent.
How do you stop stepping on the bomb/s that are in the minefield? The first thing NOT to do is barge in and start enforcing your own rules, changing rules, or changing the furniture. If you do this that Bomb is going to explode- maybe not the same day but within the first few months, and no one is coming out unscathed.
Instead, most experts advise the softly, softly approach. Sit back, observe and let the biological parent deal with the discipline, and consequences of children.
Build, Build those relationships. Connect with the children/teens who are now your stepchildren. Watch TV together, play an X box game together, kick a ball, take them to a footy game, cook with them, take the dog for a walk, ANYTHING that is positive and builds relationships. Teenagers are tricky and are often particularly protective of their birth parent/s. Respect it- and you will often have to keep trying for months – maybe a few years before they thaw, with little reward.
KUDOS to those parents who keep turning up and keep getting up when teenagers keep throwing those verbal punches. At times, it can be disheartening and frustrating, and at times stepparents often want to give up. But then- they give you a little ray of hope, and you keep going.
From experience it is worth the hard-work, and knockbacks to have a good relationship. It means a more harmonious couple and family relationship overall.
There is very little research or books around blended families in Australian 21st century, and although they are on the rise, there is very little information or self-help books.
If you and your partner are struggling with the blended family, a psychologist, who works with families and couples can help give advice and tips.
Experts say it can take 12- 18 months to settle and know a new job, 12 -24 months to get used to retirement, I think for most families, new blended families need to give themselves permission and time to ask/seek and get used to a new way of living.