Blended families come with significant challenges. The success rate for blended families gives evidence of those challenges, with a failure rate of over 60%. Although much of the challenges relate to unfinished business from previous relationships, some is undoubtedly related to the stress of learning to blend a new family.
The new marriage has to mesh the traditions and parenting styles of two different families, often with the ex-spouses still in the periphery and within a pressure cooker of emotions. Marriage is tricky enough by itself and exponentially so when trying to become a new co-parent for half-grown children. So here's some thoughts on parenting in blended families:
After the heartbreaks that often precede the blending of families, a parent might be tempted to become more of a friend or buddy to their kids than a parent. But that's not what you are, nor is it what God calls you to be. Your child, even in the teen years, needs to be protected and pruned. You are the gardener and they are the plants. You nurture them of course, but also pull weeds and prune the problems. God has given you authority and calls you to use it to help your children be safe from predators and be strong in the their character.
Similarly, a parent might be tempted to worry first about their child's happiness and second about the health of their new marriage. But marriage ideally is supposed to last a lifetime, but childhood is temporary. Someday soon, your child will leave your household and go into the world, and hopefully you will remain in a thriving marriage. You can serve your whole family well by investing in your marriage.
As a married couple, strive to keep a united front and work together. Be unified in front of your children and other family. You'll need excellent communication between spouses in order to parent as a team. If you disagree, do so behind closed doors and not in front of the kids; parents need to support each other in front of the kids. Disunity will undermine both the marriage relationship and the parenting if one parent rescues their children from discipline rather than following through with the consequences that you established together.
The biological parent should take the lead in discipline. It's much harder for the step-parent to be the enforcer when their relationship with the child is still growing roots.
As the primary parent, you'll need to check your own biases. It can be difficult to support your new spouse if you have an enmeshed relationship with your biological children. Parents who are too close to their kids can endanger their marriage by supporting their kids over their spouse.
Furthermore, the child will more readily accept rules when they are established and reinforced by the biological parent who already has a well-rooted loving relationship with them. Trying to create or enforce rules outside the context of a deep relationship is much more difficult. The step parent needs to be empowered to act as parent and intervene when needed, but as much as possible allow the biological parent to take the lead with discipline. Having the biological parent handle discipline will limit the new step parent being vilified as the bad guy.
Since discipline is better received within the context of the relationship where trust has already been established, let the step-parent take time to invest in the children and their interests so trust can be built. Listen to your step-children's fears and concerns about the new family structure.
Consistency is important for discipline to be effective. Parents need to be on the same page about how they are going to handle discipline. Discipline should be discussed prior to entering into a relationship together to assure you have compatible parenting philosophies. If one parent is strict and another is a push over, work out a compromise so all children have consistency to feel secure. Be careful to enforce the rules for all kids at an age-appropriate level. If the rules are always changing, children never know where they stand, producing much anxiety about the family. And obviously, don't be harder on one spouse's kids over the other's.
Prayer will be an essential ingredient for success within your relationships. Prayer is a powerful tool for impacting our marriages and families. Prayer guides us to turn over to God the things that we are unable to change. God can soften hearts, build bridges, and impact things outside of our control. We free ourselves, when we give God control. Prayer is also very beneficial to our marriages. Couples who pray together significantly reduce their risk of divorce. Praying together for your children will unite your heart with that of your spouse. We are blessed when we can share the concerns on our hearts with God and with one another.
Seeking support from a trained counselor can be very beneficial in managing the delicate balance in blended families. Couples need to seek support early on in the relationship before animosity is burned into the fibers of the relationship. Children and parents enter these marriages still carrying the baggage from the previous relationships and benefit from professionals guiding them through the unpacking.
In short, the rules for parenting are not fundamentally different for blended families (unity, consistency, relationship), but the webs of blended relationship require prayerful and grace-filled responses.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra