The challenges of stepfamilies are great but aren’t necessarily any greater than the challenges of any family.
There are so many different variables in contemporary family life, that it is impossible to generalize much at all about the challenges each stepfamily faces. Statements such as “Raising a blended family is one of the most difficult jobs parents will ever face,” are no longer (and never were) true. All families have challenges of infinite varieties, but blended families (or the older and interchangeable term, stepfamilies) present some unique ones.
Let’s take a look at those, and see what some experts say.
Let the facts speak for themselves
But first: what percentage of marriages do you think end in divorce? Let’s break this down and see what percentages we are dealing with.
What percentage of marriages do you think end in divorce?
You are probably thinking over half because that is what you have always heard bandied about in the past. Wrong! The rate of marriages ending in divorce reached its peak in 1980 at about 40% according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth. (Follow the link for additional information on the government website.) And of that percentage, how many new “blended” families have children for either or both first marriages. About 40% of the couples who divorce have children, so in fact, being childless increases your chances for a divorce in a first marriage.
Of course, it does. We all tackle problems differently depending on our own ages and experiences, and the ages also of our children.
Younger step-parents may find completely different solutions for some of the parenting challenges than do older step-parents.
Younger parents generally are not as financially well off as older parents are, and older step-parents may throw money on a problem, whereas younger step-parents do not have the option. For example, summer (and no school) comes and the kids are bored and arguing morning, noon and night. Older wealthier parents have a ready solution–camp! Younger parents must look for other options. The ages of the children too are a variable.
Generally, younger children will adapt to a new step-parent and new siblings easier than older children in the same situation. This is because younger children’s memories do not stretch that far back so they accept whatever comes their way.
When blended families are created when the kids are grown and out of the house, challenges are much fewer and generally less serious.
What are some of the unique challenges which stepfamilies face?
There indeed are differences between first-time families and stepfamilies, and it is best to acknowledge the differences instead of sweeping them under the rug and pretending that this bigger new family is inherently better than whatever came before.
For example, first-time families develop their own traditions and rituals–how birthdays and holidays are celebrated, how discipline is handled (time-outs? counting? being sent to the child’s room? etc.) what the new stepfamily places value on, etc.
Another challenge which may arise when people are considering marrying for the second time and creating a step-family is that of religion.
If people of different faiths are marrying a second time, the question of which religion (or both) should be settled early on once the relationship is serious. With a stepfamily, you may want to discuss all of these differences and other challenges well before actually marrying, so the transitions for all will be smoother.
What do you call everyone?
Another challenge is very basic. What will children call the new parent figure in their lives? Nomenclature (what will the kids call the stepfather or stepmother?) should be agreed upon.
Many children feel naturally uncomfortable about calling the newer parent “Mommy” or “Daddy”, and first-naming the new parent also may not be a satisfactory answer.
It is up to the parent to figure this one out. Kelly Gates, the stepmother to two children along with one of her own, came up with a unique name: the bonus dad, or as the kids call him “Bo-dad”. As Kelly says, “Everybody loves it when they hear the name, and the kids think it’s sweet.”
Geography is always a challenge
When a step-family is created, children will begin to know new places, be it a new home, new school, new town or different state. And even if children will stay in the same home, the biological parent they are not staying with for the majority of the time probably does not live next door, so time must be spent shuttling children between homes.
If one parent lives at a considerable difference, plane tickets and escorts become part and parcel of life, and the costs have to be figured into budgets.
Needless to say, parents should be sensitive to how their children may feel dislocated for quite some time. One practical solution if children are feeling displaced, is to take them to those chain stores and restaurants they are familiar with from their previous home.
A trip to Target followed by lunch or dinner at Applebee’s or The Olive Garden (or wherever their favorite restaurant was in their old town). This will go a long way in helping them acclimate to their new familial and geographical terrain.
Jealousy rears its ugly head
One huge challenge that stepfamilies universally experience is jealousy between step-siblings, but this is different than the usual jealousy that siblings who have the same parents engage in. Sometimes this jealousy comes about because the parent(s) have not fully explained the new family dynamics.
The biological parent must make sure that the child gets the time, affection and explanations they need to realize that this now is their family.
The day will come
It may not seem like it, but the day will come when things will normalize; the step-siblings are getting along, nobody feels dislocated anymore, and the challenges no longer feel like ascending Mt. Everest in tennis shoes (possible but not probable), but more like a walk in the park with the occasional puddle to jump over. In other words, it gets better and becomes the new normal. Researcher says that it takes between three to five years before all members of the blended family all feel a sense of belonging.