Common Problems with Blended Families

The Three Biggest Parenting Mistakes in Blended Families

Divorce and remarriage are significant life events, and when those changes also involve kids, the stakes multiply for everyone. Many couples, of course, create happy blended families with lasting bonds, while others face challenges their marriage cannot withstand. What’s the difference?

Learn about the three most common and biggest mistakes parents make when blending their new families, and what it takes to avoid them.

Mistake #1:

Allowing step-parents to discipline their step-kids

Overstepping disciplinary boundaries is, by far, one of the most common problems with blended families that I see. In some cases, parents want the blended family to function just as the original family did. In others, biological parents feel overwhelmed by the demands of parenting and want a partner to share the responsibility. Some others worry that if a parent does not discipline a child, the child will not respect them.

But here’s the bottom line:

Disciplinary decisions are the sole responsibility of the child’s biological parents. Step-parents have no disciplinary role.

Here’s why:

By the time we start disciplining our biological kids, we’ve had years to develop a relationship with them. Over the years, that closeness helps balance the inevitable distancing that follows discipline. In other words, a healthy relationship helps cushion the blow of discipline.

When a step-parent disciplines a step-child without that relationship cushion, they are bound to alienate that child forever. The parent-child relationship required for healthy and effective discipline takes years to develop and cannot be rushed.

Mistake #2:

“Pushing” relationships

It’s a natural instinct to try and force the new family members to like each other. A divorced mother wants her kids to like her new husband. A divorced dad wants his kids to like their new step-siblings. A new step-father wants his wife’s kids to like him. However, parents must remember they cannot force their kids to like anyone, including a step-parent, step-sibling, or an ex-spouse. After all, this change in family circumstance was not the child’s choice.

Instead of pushing relationships, maintain as many of the old family routines as possible while everyone learns to adjust. Emphasize respect and allow relationships to grow at their own speed. Blending new families can be a long process. It is filled with trial and error. The more parents can maintain stability for their kids, the better it is for everyone to adjust in both the near-term and the long-term. Preserving a functional and respectful relationship with the other parent, avoiding disciplinary confusion, and not “forcing” them into new relationships too quickly.

Mistake #3:

Inappropriate boundaries between the ex-spouses and the newly blended family

Parents should revise their relationship boundaries before the new family blends. If not, they need to be settled as soon as possible.

Here are the basic boundary rules:

1. There should be minimal contact between ex-spouses.

Communication between former spouses should be limited to one topic: their kids. Ex-spouses should only discuss the kids’ physical and emotional health, logistics (who will be where, when, and how), and discipline (agreement on discipline and specific disciplinary events). Everything else is out-of-bounds.

2. Contact between ex-spouses happens only at specified times.

Contact between ex-spouses is best when it occurs only at expected and mutually agreed upon times. Such as pick-up and drop-off, weekly planning calls, etc. In contrast, discussions about the kids should not happen in public, such as social events, sporting events, etc. Impromptu discussions present a higher risk of disagreement, and when conflict occurs, it occurs publicly.

3. There should be little or no contact between the ex and the new step-parent.

If ex-spouses manage their parenting responsibilities and boundaries appropriately, there is almost no reason for the ex-spouse and the new step-parent to interact. The exes handle all the parenting decisions, and the step-parent has no disciplinary role. However, sometimes contact is unavoidable, for example, at a child’s birthday party. In these cases, the interactions should be cordial and brief.

4. Both couples must be vigilant not to put the child in the middle

Above all, a child must be allowed to relax and be a child. They should not, under any circumstances, be
expected to navigate their parents’ relationships.

This means:

  • No talking badly about the other parent or the step-parent.
  • Whining, moping, or griping is off limits if the child reaches out to the other parent.
  • No discussing parenting grievances or disagreements in public.

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