Blended families can be both challenging and exceptionally rewarding. When I met my husband, I had four children from my previous marriage, ages two, four, six, and eight, while he had one child on the way. By the time we married, we had five children altogether. One year into our marriage, I gave birth to our son. Make no mistake about it; we are a fully blended family. 

Defining a blended family 

The simplified definition of a blended family is one where “the parents have children from previous relationships, and all the members come together as one unit.” Conversely, a step-family is defined as when one parent has a child or children that are not biologically related to their spouse and usually from a previous relationship or adoption. This applies to biological or adopted children.

Common challenges of a blended family 

While there aren’t prescribed challenges for blended families, there are a common set of obstacles. Common challenges may include discipline, consistency per child, trouble collaborating as co-parents, maintaining an equal connection with each child, and creating cohesion within the new family environment. Let’s tackle each challenge one by one. 

Consistency: Handling discipline

How we discipline our “own” child/children versus our partner’s child/children is the source of many disagreements. How do we handle discipline? Who handles what? Or rather, who handles who? Do we only discipline our “own” children? It becomes tricky when clients approach a step-parent discipline with uncertainty. Even though we suggest parents present as a united front, each biological parent should take the lead as the primary disciplinarian of their own children with their spouse as a backup supporter. 

Not only will parents often have different parenting styles but also, each parent may have different parenting styles for their children versus their partner’s children. The four parenting styles are based on the work of Diana Baumrind:

  1. The Permissive Parent
  2. The Authoritative Parent
  3. The Neglectful Parent
  4. The Authoritarian Parent

Collaboration: Connecting with co-parents

In addition to learning how to parent with our new partner, many blended family parents are still navigating co-parenting with their ex-partner. And to only complicate things, parents are adjusting to another adult, most of whom they do not know, now parenting or raising their child or children. This team mentality is a new perspective for most parents. Parents, co-parents, and stepparents are all the same team. In family therapy, we begin to define these new roles and the responsibilities of each player. 

Aligning with co-parents and their household structures on big-ticket issues is critical, such as issues with discipline, technology, safety, mental/social wellness, etc. As a therapist, I begin to assist parents, step, or co-parents, to align with each other and different households on these more significant issues. 

Connection: Addressing perceived favoritism

A blended family can create an experience of perceived favoritism. Parents should prioritize check-ins with each child, particularly during the early transitional periods of blending the family. Additionally, some blended families will struggle with sibling rivalry, especially if the new family unit includes stepchildren from each parent. It’s essential to give space to each child to express their emotions during this time. Strong communication between parents and their biological children becomes necessary for family harmony.

A thoughtful way to address this is to schedule time and outings with each child. These outings help each child feel like they have the opportunity to be seen by both parents. This individual attention becomes even more critical with recreational activities such as basketball games, dance recitals, etc.

Cohesion: Cultivating a united front

Creating cohesion with your partner will set the foundation for a united family front. The children begin to feel the togetherness from the new parent unit, which builds security and oneness within the family. 

The importance of creating shared family time is essential to a blended family. Recreating new traditions, taking family trips, and having game night are just a few things that enhance and strengthen a blended family. 

One suggestion is to hold a consistent “family meeting”. These family meetings would follow a discussion between parents surrounding household rules and boundaries, and the parents would share the expectations with their children. These family meetings allow the children to be a part of the discussion and give everyone a voice within the family unit, strengthening the family bond.

Need a bit more help?

Creating and nurturing a blended family is hard work. If you’re seeking support in aligning your parenting styles and learning how to navigate the blending of your family unit, schedule an appointment today. Our therapists are available if you live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started. We offer virtual and in-person sessions.