, Gloucester, MA

July 26, 2013

Personal Matters: Navigating the challenges of a 'blended family'

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — Although one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, Americans often marry again.

If there are children, a new, “blended” family is created.

Blended families are much more complicated than biological families. The new couple are in love and committed to creating a new life together, but the children of each find themselves in this new life not out of their own choosing.

In order to navigate the enormous emotional challenges of blending two families with children together, it is important to understand the internal adaptations that are required to evolve into one cohesive family group. According to the Stepfamily Association of America, blended families typically experience specific stages of emotions and behaviors before they achieve a healthy, well-functioning family unit.

Stages of Growth of the blended family include:

Fantasy. In this stage, the new, unprepared couple expects instant love and adjustment among family members. The children, though, hope that the step-parent will ‘just go away’ so that their biological parents can magically get back together again.

Pseudo-Assimilation. In this phase, the fantasy begins to be challenged. When difficulties arise, family members tend to split along biological lines. The atmosphere becomes tense, and the step-parents blame themselves, feeling that they may be the problem.

Awareness. The fantasy of instant compatibility is now completely gone, and the step-parents recognize that changes in the functioning of the family must take place. Each of the biological parents feels pulled between their own children and the new spouse. The children become aware of the tensions between the couple, and often try to exploit them to their advantage.

Mobilization. A “reaching out” stage. Frustrated with the situation, strong emotions are expressed by all family members most often culminating in fierce arguing. Each of the parents is afraid of what this new situation is creating, and feels overwhelmed. At this point, most couples reach out to self-help books, support groups, to family therapy.

Action. As a result of educating themselves through books and/or family therapy, the couple is able to work together to find solutions. They make schedule changes, and set boundaries which, at first, the children attempt to resist.

Contact. The couple is now working well as a team, keeping a united front. The boundaries and expectations are clear. There is closer bonding between the step-parents and all the children, and among the children themselves.

Resolution. The blended family has meshed. Sometimes they may regress to earlier stages, but they usually get back on track quickly.

In my view, unless the parents in this situation already understand how to set boundaries – both emotional (no yelling or hitting, no name-calling, learning to ask for what you want respectfully, helping each other, etc.) and structural (everyone takes responsibility for various household chores, proper scheduling of activities with a large calendar for everyone’s use, regular, weekly family meetings where requests, appreciation for jobs well done, and complaints are addressed), and process intra-family communication successfully, they should seek family coaching/therapy.

The benefit of family therapy is not simply that it helps the blended family to manage the stages of growth better, but also teaches them how to set and realize healthy emotional goals by reassessing past emotional choices, looking at current ones, and planning more productive choices for the future.

Children in this blended family situation need to be supported in openly grieving for their past and the loss of direct daily contact with their other biological parent. I would suggest frequent Skype and phone visits in addition to regularly scheduled weekend or vacation visitations if appropriate to the situation.

Children also need to express their feelings of insecurity about the huge changes in their lives. Counseling can

help them learn to talk it out rather than act it out in some negative way.

With therapy and coaching, blended families learn the skills to allow differences and distances. To let children be who they are, and to come to terms with the new arrangement in their own time. It will also help them learn how to adjust their expectations by not comparing a blended family to a biological family understanding that they are quite different situations.

Counseling also facilitates the realization of family goals by encouraging the setting of regular, designated couple-times for fun and discussion, as well as special time for each parent with all of the children individually. And at family meetings, more open discussion of problems with more input from the kids, and suggestions for creating new family traditions.

The real value of family therapy is that it helps all family members recognize what they are now: a new family.

Based in Rockport, psychotherapist and life coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former university director of counseling and career services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at and by telephone 978 546-9431.