Blended Families
By Dr. Maryann Rosenthal

Marriages sometimes end, but families do not. Although you may cease being a spouse, you’ll be a parent for the rest of your life. And you may end up being a step-parent, too. And that’s when the challenges really begin.

At best, the kids feel divided loyalties when a parent divorces and remarries, and at worst, the step-family dissolves into armed camps. If you’re old enough to remember the old TV shows “The Brady Bunch” and “Eight is Enough,” you saw large step-families merge seamlessly into cozy, comfortable lives with occasional dilemmas but mostly with fun and games. Were it only true! Actually, while half of all marriages end in divorce, two-thirds of all second marriages do.

It’s common in a step-family or a “blended” family, as it’s sometimes called when one or both partners bring children from a previous relationship, for youngsters to see the  step-parent as an intruder, a blight on the memory of their departed mother or father. Thus, it’s hard for them to welcome the adult newcomer.

In fact, the child may try to move into the void left by the departing parent and act as an equal. Or, the children also may seek to exploit conflicts to gain advantage over their siblings or stepsiblings. And, naturally, the biological parent has a longer parent/child relationship than he or she does with the new spouse. This often makes the incoming parent feel like an outsider.

Thus, “blended” is a hopeful term; more accurately, perhaps, the two families are “mixed” but not really blended. What to do? Research shows that it’s important that a child be given permission by the parent and/or step-parent to love the other biological parent. And conversely, he needs to be given permission by the biological parents to like the step-parent. Otherwise, the children are put in a no-win situation.

For two-home families, it’s important to develop a working, civil relationship where all the parents and step-parents can communicate and control their feelings. It’s especially crucial that children not be used as messengers (“Tell your father he’s too cheap; I need more money.”) between households or as pawns (“You’ve got to spend Christmas Day with us, no matter what.”) in a power struggle.

Blending two families is a lot like merging two businesses. Such a merger would never happen without team meetings and discussions of goals.. Especially at the beginning, discipline should probably come from the biological parent. That means it’s imperative that the parent and stepparent confer and decide on the rules together—but the biological person announces and enforces those rules. The ritual of a family meeting would seem a perfect forum for talking about those rules and the consequences for breaking them. Later, after relationships have had a chance to blossom, the stepparent may become more visibly involved in setting boundaries and the penalties.

Blended families essentially start from scratch in developing cohesiveness. Children of divorce yearn even more than most for structure and consistency.  The eventual goal, of course, is family integration: Developing a sense of unity while ever mindful that this is not, and will never be, a biological family.


Dr. Maryann Rosenthal’s new book “Be A Parent Not a Pushover is available in bookstores everywhere. Dr. Maryann tells how to find a balance between loving your children and setting limits for them, to generate trust, confidence, resilience, and integrity.

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