It’s not easy to combine two families into a brand-new unit. But with local divorce rates increasing every year ― a record 7,522 marriages were dissolved in 2015, a 2.9 increase from the year before where 7,307 marriages ended ― blended families are fast becoming a regular occurrence in Singapore.
Step-parents are no longer the “big bad wolves” they were once perceived to be. However, plenty of things can still go wrong when you invite virtual strangers into your family.
“It can be confusing for all members when a blended [step] family first forms as adjustment to new living spaces and routines can be challenging,” notes marriage and family therapist Anoushka Beh.
As the new spouses have to learn how to co-parent, this can trigger conflict as both sides will need to work out what roles you’ll each play.
Beh warns. “Children may also feel de-stabilised and insecure in response to these changes and respond in a variety of ways which can include temper tantrums, developmental regression, sleep disruption and other behavioural issues.”
If you’ve recently become part of a blended family or are thinking of remarrying, Beh suggests strategies to ensure that your dream of creating a peaceful and loving home comes true.
#1 Start talking to your child early about the possibility of blending your family
This is good because… Beh notes, “It creates transparency and helps children to feel safe about what to expect if their parent is planning on merging into a blended family.” It’s also a sign that things are getting serious, which means your child will feel more inspired to bond with their step-parent and to trust in the stability of that relationship.
How to do it… Speak with your spouse-to-be first and agree on an approach. Then share this news with the kids. “Children should be given age-specific information about when and what to expect in terms of their living environment, routines and school,” she says. “It’s important they know what will be changing and what be staying the same.” Depending on the age of the child, you can also give them varying amounts of freedom to have some input on some of these changes. After breaking the news, find out what junior’s feelings and reactions are. Do this at different intervals throughout the transition.
“All members of the family should feel that their history and previous experiences are valid and important and not taboo just because they are now part of a new family.”
#2 Don’t expect new relationships to form overnight and don’t force it.
Why you should do this… With so much changing, children are likely to already feel quite de-stabilised and lacking in control during the transition. “Forcing them to ‘feel’ a certain way about a new member entering into the family may feel anywhere from awkward to impossible, depending on the child,” Beh notes. “This could also heighten feelings of powerlessness and cause resentment.”
How to do it… If you are trying to bond with a step-child, engage in some activities together with that child, such as eating together or playing a sport. Do this regularly to cultivate a rhythm, so that the child will feel safe. Highlight individual interests of each family member and see if others may be interested in exploring some of these together. “Also, don’t forget to compliment and encourage efforts they make to connect, while validating the challenges that the child or your partner may also face in establishing this new relationship,” advises Beh. By the way, as you form new memories, don’t forget to cherish the old ones. “All members of the family should feel that their history and previous experiences are valid and important and not taboo just because they are now part of a new family,” adds Beh.
#3 Establish new family traditions while maintaining important current traditions
Why you should this… “This will help to establish continuity and maintain stability whilst also helping new members forge their own family culture, unique connection and group identity,” Beh explains.
How to do it… Introduce traditions from everyone’s past, such as favourite foods, festive practices and selected activities. This will give each individual a way to connect with their past. “As the family grows together, new practices and rhythms will also naturally emerge and these can be repeated if they are positive, enjoyable and inclusive,” Beh points out.
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#4 Maintain a unified parenting approach
Why you should do this… Collaborative co-parenting is key in helping children adjust to new transitions as smoothly as possible. Notes Beh, “Overly conflicting approaches can cause rifts between the couples and also lead to disorientation and a lack of stability for the children.”
How to do it… This will be largely trial and error, so keep the communication lines open and supportive. From Day One, discuss your core parenting values, vision for the family and expectations for the children. Talk about how you both can work together to achieve this. “Stay on the same side, remember you are a team (albeit a new team member) even when differences arise, and allow space for each other to learn,” adds Beh.
#5 Look after your marriage
Why you should do this… “Your partnership is the battery pack of the family. If it runs out of power, you won’t have fuel to keep anything going,” says Beh. When you’re part of a blended family, you and your spouse won’t have the same amount of private, quality bonding time that couples without children have. So, it’s even more important to work on making time to strengthen and maintain this primary bond.
How to do it… “Make time for just the two of you, have open and transparent discussions about the family, but also about each other – your dreams, day to day experiences and struggles,” suggests Beh. Reach out to family and trusted friends or engage a nanny to help watch the kid, so you both can get regular date nights. Getting someone to help with housework or running errands will also help to ensure you’re not stretched too thin.
“Your partnership is the battery pack of the family. If it runs out of power, you won’t have fuel to keep anything going.”
#6 Spend some time alone with each child
Why you should do this… Within the family, members also need to feel that they can establish relationships with each individual that are unique, secure and respected.
How to do it… “Make time each week to engage in activities with each child that they are particularly fond of, or is appreciated by the both of you,” suggests Beh. When doing this, ensure that the other kids have a care-support plan in place or are otherwise occupied, so that you can devote all your attention to the child you’re with.
#7 Involve all parents when making parenting decisions
Why you should do this… “This helps to unify parents as a team and also displays to the children that parents are mutually supportive and working together,” says Beh. Also, be respectful when speaking of yours and your spouse’s ex, as the kids are always watching and will take their emotional cues from you.
How to do it… Put whatever pain or betrayal you experienced with your ex aside when it comes to the kids. While you don’t have to become BFFs, remaining cordial and polite is important. Remember that the kids are also getting first-hand experience on navigating a broken relationship when they see how you and your ex-spouse handle the situations. Consult your ex on all matters pertaining to the kids ― from academics and behavioural issues to soccer games and ballet recitals. Make sure they see the both of you working together as a team. While their step-parent can also weigh in on these matters, make sure the kids’ biological parents make bulk of the decisions.
#8 Bond as a family by doing activities that unite everyone
Why you should do this… “Again this is about creating a sense of belonging and group membership,” notes Beh. “This is especially important in the beginning when everyone is still finding their foothold and all members feel included and important.”
How to do it… Suggest a variety of fun things to do as a family. Kids and parents can even put suggestions into a bowl and each week one activity can be selected. Do online research together to see what activities are happening in your local area in the upcoming weeks. “Parents should involve children in the exploration and selection part of this if possible and stay attuned to feedback and interest levels of everyone,” adds Beh.
Your role as a new co-parent is to facilitate security, stability and also a sense of inclusivity for all members who are going through this transition.
#9 Don’t make your spouse choose between his child and you
Why you should do this… Your role as a new co-parent is to facilitate security, stability and also a sense of inclusivity for all members who are going through this transition. Making your spouse choose between you and his child will jeopardise this. “Also, it introduces a possible power struggle, which could erode the foundations of the whole family and cause major resentment and rifts in the future, not only between you and your new step-child, but also you and your spouse,” Beh explains.
How to do it… If you find yourself in a position where you feel like you’re competing with your spouse’s child ― whether for input or attention ― reflect on where these feelings are coming from and what’s going on with you. Is this about the child or merely an indication of a blip in your relationship with your spouse? Is there anything else going on in your own personal life which is intensifying or triggering new insecurities? “When you have cleared your head and are able to discuss your concerns with your spouse, perhaps it’s a good time to broach what you discovered in these reflections. Then suggest how he can best help you personally,” Beh adds.
#10 Get expert help if you think you’ve tried everything, but it’s not working
Why you should do this… Blended families are tricky things. It’s understandable if you feel that the challenges are outside your scope of experience and if you aren’t sure that you can manage it effectively. “Rather than getting to the stage where frustrations start becoming toxic and potentially destabilising the health of the family system, professional help from someone who can troubleshoot and lead you through what to expect can be very helpful,” says Beh.
How to do it… Ask friends and family for referrals to a family therapist, social worker or counsellor trained in working with families. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and its partners run regular marriage preparation and enrichment programmes for couples, tackling all types of marital issues. “Alternatively, you can go online and research specific issues you are facing to see what experts in the field may be best suited to support you at this juncture,” Beh adds.
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