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December 7, 2010

More American families experience divorce now than ever before in history. Because nearly 40 percent of marriages end in divorce and people remarry, children of divorced parents are forced to cope with a new blended family.

The blended family is a very complicated situation to navigate for a parent who wants to create a happy home -- both for their child and themselves.

Making the transition into a blended family can sometimes breed conflict and resentments -- children may be uncomfortable with their new step-parent's disciplining techniques or they might fight incessantly with their new step-siblings. Other children may withdraw and turn inwards rejecting your help.

To offer support for parents of blended families, The Survivors Club has asked Amy Klein, a psychotherapist specializing in family care for over 15 years, to offer seven straightforward tips to help newly blended families cope with the changes.

  1. Be Patient

    Many parents want to see their children and step-children get along so much that the situation can become forced and unnatural. "The most important piece of advice I can give is to take things slowly," Klein says. "Often parents are so anxious to make everything feel right or good that they push the kids together." Allow your children space to feel out the situation for themselves. As a parent, discover what common interests your children share with their step-siblings and try to organize a fun activity. However, don't "plan too many joint activities or try to "pretend" like they are one big happy family. This is uncomfortable for the kids typically and especially if they're teenagers," Klein emphasizes.

  2. Include Your Children in the Process

    If the other half of the family is moving into your home, make sure your child has a voice regarding his/her bedroom. "If an 'original' parent suddenly says to their own child, 'you will be sharing your room with Susie every other weekend,' that can create a problem for the two kids right away," Klein says. Talk with your child before making a decision on the living arrangements and listen to their opinion. It is important for your children to feel like you will still listen to them especially since the family living arrangement is dramatically shifting. Reassure them through your act of listening that you still love them as much as ever.

  3. Organize a Fun House Tour

    Talk to you children about how they would like to welcome their step-siblings into the home. Make sure to get their input and try some of their suggestions. "Have them help set things up," Klein says. "That way they're buying into the whole process. The child who has lived in that house can help plan an intro day for the new children or a welcome event." You can plan a fun house tour and decorate the space. Afterwards, the whole blended family can go out and get ice cream or see a movie or other age appropriate activity.

  4. Keep The Connection Between Biological Family Strong

    When new family members are moving into the house, a child may feel like he/she is losing affection from the original parent. "It is imperative that the lines of communication are open so that the biological children of each parent feels that they still have their parent to speak to without having to share their thoughts with both parents -- new and old," Klein says. A child wants to have access to their parent "without needing to share all with their step-parent."

  5. Integrate the Blended Family Appropriately

    Although a distinction is important between parent and step-parent, a blended family works best when both adults play an important role in all the children's lives. "When appropriate, new parents should have a role in their step-children's lives such as going to school plays, picking up at school or an activity, helping with homework," Klein says.

    Discipline on the other hand can be a sticky issue. "New parents should not be disciplining their new step-children when they start living together. This will not make for a smooth transition." Establish household rules that apply to everyone. Start this by organizing a fun evening with food and then hold a family meeting afterwards to go over all the household rules and chores. With a family meeting "everyone is up on all the household guidelines and there are no secrets, nobody gets special consideration."

  6. Offer Support to Children Living in Two Separate Households

    "Going back and forth for kids is always difficult, they ostensibly live in two houses and often have to deal with two sets of step-siblings," Klein explains. "Every effort should be made to ease this transition."

    In addition, "parents should talk to their kids the night before they leave for the other house, to ask them how they're feeling, if they need help packing anything or if anything is coming up in the next few days, that they may need to speak to them about. Often kids worry that they will be missing out on some fun that their step-siblings will be having while they're at their other parents house for the weekend. This is all a tricky balance and it's incumbent upon the parents to keep checking in with the kids to see how they're doing, don't assume all is fine. This is not a time for that! Living transitions can take a long time to master, parents have to be patient, think outside the box."

  7. Get Creative!

    Remember having a blended family can be fun, but if there are problems in the household, sometimes there can be some creative solutions such as "a suggestion box in the house or a time for the step-siblings to all get together," Klein suggests. This provides your children with a voice and a fun environment to get to know their new siblings better. There are many things that can be done to help ease the stress of such huge life transitions and nothing works better than a fun, creative solution that involves the whole family.

Common Mistakes Parents Make
  • Parents can be overzealous to make all children "get along"
  • Many parents immediately start disciplining each other's kids - ease into this role.
  • Parents often underestimate the stress their children feel while switching houses - talk to them about it the night before.
  • Parents will sometimes bring up an embarrassing subject in front of new siblings or new parents - be considerate about when and where topics are to be discussed.
  • Parents should avoid talking about their "ex" disparagingly in front of others.

How did you work with your blended family situation or are you surviving it right now? Please share your story with the Survivors Club community of survivors.

What has helped your children ease into the process of a blended family? Please contribute your valuable comments to the ongoing discussion below.
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