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If our custody schedules align and all of us are at home, I wake up with the kids and make smoothies for breakfast. Into the blender go frozen strawberries, yogourt, a fresh banana and some juice; my beloved Vitamix blends it all into a unified whole.
My household, on the other hand, is far from a unified whole, even after four years of cohabiting with my spouse. My daughter, who’s seven, and my stepdaughter, who’s also seven, have embraced each other as sisters (thankfully!), but neither has fully accepted their step-parent. And both complain about unequal treatment, which is no surprise, as two sets of expectations have emerged. Take bedtime, for example. Usually, my spouse sends her daughter to bed with a big hug and her tablet (she falls asleep to cake-decorating videos) and she’s asleep in 20 minutes. My daughter and I, on the other hand, cozy up in bed with the dog, where we draw in our sketchbooks, read together and snuggle until she falls asleep (she hasn’t fallen asleep on her own in years). This elaborate routine can take up to 90 minutes, to the chagrin of my poor partner.
Most of the time, I feel like we are two parent-kid units orbiting each other; on my worst days, we’re a doomed Franken-family made of heartbreak, loss and confusion. There’s a lot working against us, like mismatched custody schedules, different approaches to co-parenting with exes, and the fact that our kids still grieve the loss of their original families.
Across Canada, blended families—and blended-family woes—are becoming more commonplace. The number of stepfamilies grew from 464,000 in 2011 to 518,000 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Put a different way, blended families make up 12 percent of two-parent households with kids under 25.
At the same time, second marriages with children are more likely than first marriages to break up. Statistics Canada stopped publishing annual data about divorces in 2008, so we can’t know just how many stepfamilies disband these days. But in the US, census data shows that about 66 percent of re-partnered couples break up when children are involved. I wonder how many of these couples were blindsided by the reality of family blending.
“I think people have an idea that it’ll be different [from], but I don’t think we realize all of the little things to it,” says Megan Vandersluys, a registered clinical counsellor in Nanaimo, BC. “We’re not prepared for how intense it can get.” Like me, she wandered into a blended family rather naively (she and her husband have two kids from their union and two from her husband’s first marriage). Now a stepfamily veteran, she specializes in helping blended families of all kinds—from so-called “simple” blended families (an original parent, children and new step-parent) to “complex” blended families like mine (in which both adults have kids and maybe add new ones to the mix).
While there are tons of challenges for stepfamilies, there’s plenty you can do to foster household harmony (and beat the divorce odds). Here’s what experts like Vandersluys have to say about some of the biggest barriers to blending.
COVID-19 has shone a 4,000-lumen spotlight on the parenting differences between my spouse and me—everything from how we feed the kids (I’m all about sit-down meals; my spouse lets the kids graze) to how we tidy (I’m fine with toy messes; my spouse needs things put away). Homeschooling is no exception. My spouse encourages schoolwork, but when kiddo has a hard time, she accepts defeat and takes her kite-flying. I, on the other hand, have been locking horns with my daughter over assignments and for two weeks resorted to bribing her with toys (it didn’t work).
Of course, when we began cohabiting, I hadn’t banked on being the rule-setting disciplinarian to her easygoing, hippie parent. I thought I was pretty laid back, but compared with my spouse’s more fluid way of parenting, I’ve learned I’m a stickler for routine and definitely a control freak about nutrition and sleep.
According to Dyan Eybergen, a registered nurse and certified parent coach in Edmonton, we really should have talked about parenting before we blended. “Rarely do couples sit down and talk about what their parenting styles are before starting or blending a family,” she says. Couples need to understand each other’s approaches to find compromises. “Not being on the same page about how to parent a child is the crux of so many challenges.”
Vandersluys agrees and urges parents to reflect upon how they were parented, how they want to parent and what their parenting philosophy might look like. It’s helpful to learn about how a child’s brain develops and how they form emotional attachments with caregivers. Then, couples can come up with a plan that clarifies roles and expectations.
“Maybe that means the step-parent isn’t doing the parenting [of], but at least they’ll know why their spouse is handling things a certain way so they don’t feel the need to step in,” she says. That said, in complex blended families with kids on both sides, it’s better to create common rules and expectations for everyone. For example, how do you explain to your child that maybe their older sister can play Fortnite for four hours, but that they aren’t allowed? Different rules for different kids can breed conflict.
Couples also need to come to agreements about discipline—a hot-button issue for many stepfamilies. Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, thinks the solution lies in how we frame things. Instead of negotiating your opinions on specific behavioural expectations and punishments, she says, it’s about recasting your role as a parent, to that of a coach, mentor and role model. She doesn’t even use the word “discipline”—instead, she talks about managing and guiding. “Once you reframe your role as a parent as creating opportunities for kids to grow and learn, and become the best possible selves they can become, then you’ve changed everything,” she says. This approach fosters teamwork between spouses and helps tame the inner Mama or Papa Bear who may emerge when your spouse disciplines your cub.
Instead of rushing to give a time out or consequence, Spinks says that our focus should be behaviour guidance, redirection, learning, and modelling desired outcomes. She also prefers “time ins” over time outs to help kids learn to calm down and assess what led to the blowup or conflict. (All a time out does, she explains, is teach the kid that when they feel angry or upset and display it, they’ll be sent away to isolate—when what they really need to learn is the self-regulation that will help them avoid the situation in the future.)
Dilcio Guedes, a registered psychotherapist with Family Service Toronto, says many of the blended families he sees are dealing with delayed bonding between step-parents and stepkids. This can happen if blending happens too quickly, a step-parent doesn’t engage emotionally with the child, or an ex-spouse badmouths the step-parent.
Thankfully, it’s never too late to forge a connection, says Guedes. “I know a lot of families that were able to form strong and beautiful relationships at their own pace.” On the other hand, step-parents need to put in the effort. “You can’t sit on your chair and expect children to come and get to know you.”
One way to facilitate the connection is with “special time”—that is, spending one-on-one time with the child and doing an activity of their choice, says Julie Johnson, a parenting coach and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. This time should be uninterrupted; that means no texting, scrolling or cleaning the kitchen while you hang out. Ten minutes a day might be good for a toddler, but for a tween, for example, a longer session, such as an hour a week, is needed to connect. Johnson did this with her stepdaughter, who was four years old when she and her husband wed. At the time, the stepdaughter was struggling with behavioural problems and acting out, which made their hangouts extra tough. “But the thing is, in acting out, they’re asking for extra attention,” she says.
Toronto child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari thinks bonding can also be helped by having the step-parent do only the “soft parenting” (like helping with projects or playing with toys), with the original parent doing any “hard parenting” (like setting limits or boundaries), for a period of time—ideally the first six to 12 months of cohabiting. “That gives the child time to adjust to any guilt they may be feeling about liking the step-parent,” she says.
Kolari notes that guilt is sometimes why stepkids lash out, because subconsciously they’re provoking the ire of their step-parent to justify not liking them or having confusing emotions about them. Kids may also act out to test their step-parent, specifically: whether they are willing to set limits, if they’ll still like the child after they’ve acted out, and if the adult is someone they can feel safe and comfortable with. Even if a child doesn’t understand the complex emotions behind it, they may, subconsciously, be misbehaving to ask, “If I am bad, will you still like me?”
Kolari also suggests that step-parents tell their stepchildren that they’re not looking to replace anyone. And if a co-parent is speaking ill of you or your spouse, don’t counter what they say—it won’t convince the child you’re not the enemy. Instead, express compassion for the other parent or ex-spouse and focus on parenting the child from a place of love. Your child will pick up on which house is the more positive environment, with reassuring routines and clear expectations that make more sense, she explains.
All siblings fight, but the stakes are higher for stepsiblings building relationships. A sense of unfairness can contribute to sibling rivalry, says Vandersluys, so it helps if couples keep rules and expectations the same across the board (with some variations for age differences and maturity levels).
“Nothing good comes from having different rules for kids,” she says. If one child has privileges the other doesn’t have—like a later bedtime or more screen time—the other may feel less cared for than their stepsibling. It can also cause rifts between stepsiblings and with a step-parent.
Sometimes kids perceive favouritism anyway—even if it isn’t happening, says Kolari. The reason for this is complicated, and it concerns a part of our brains called the reticular activating system. Essentially, this system tends to filter out information from our awareness that contradicts what we already believe. So if a child believes their stepsibling is the favourite, their brain won’t remember the times their sibling got in trouble and they didn’t.
Resist the urge to argue with your child. Instead, acknowledge their feelings empathetically, says Kolari. “But then you say, ‘Let’s try an experiment for a few days. How about we just pay attention to the times that your stepmom or dad has done something for you?’” This can help a child shift their perspective, although you should expect that to take a bit of time.
Just having fun together can also help, says Johnson. She suggests family games in which kids on both sides play against their seemingly inept parents, win, and, in the process, connect with each other. In her family, it’s all about playful sock fights, which can involve anything from “stealing” someone’s socks while they’re still wearing them to throwing socks at each other. Hide-and-seek or games of chase work well for wee ones. “The point is that the adult should be the goofy, bumbling one who can’t quite do it, so the kids can gang up on the adult,” she says.
Many divorced or separated parents are sharing custody and co-parenting with exes—some quite amicably. But if you’ve blended families with a new spouse, experts say it’s best to limit your ex’s influence on parenting matters in your own household.
“Every family, because they have different identities, will have a different internal ‘culture,’” says Guedes. “They need rules that are adapted to their culture.” By making parenting decisions for your household with your new partner, you ensure everyone in your household feels included, which is important when you’re creating a new family unit.
Kolari agrees, and suggests parents consider their ex’s household “a black box,” with the exception of rules around safety, which she thinks should be consistent across households. “But if it’s nuances around screen time or sugar or anything like that, you have to trust your child will still be OK if [your] does it another way.”
Even those who decide to primarily co-parent with an ex can and should involve their current partner, says Eybergen. It can be as simple as asking your partner for their thoughts on certain parenting matters before having an upcoming conversation with your former spouse.
“This will make them feel like part of the family unit. It also secures your relationship with them—it shows you obviously value their input,” she says.
Of course, if a couple struggles to resolve any blended-family challenges, they can always turn to therapy, says Kolari. “In those situations it’s best to get a really good, competent professional with a really objective view to help you.”
Thanks to the miracle of telehealth during COVID-19, my partner and I have recently turned to a professional psychologist for online couples counselling help. I’m realizing that our blended-family woes aren’t just the product of things like stepfamily logistics and parenting styles; they also relate to deeper issues in our relationship, like differing ideas about what family means. It’s going to take time to figure out what we each want and what’s possible. For now, we’re trying new things, like setting house rules for the kids (which seems to bring the kids together while relaxing the grown-ups). Maybe we’ll try one-on-one special time with each kid next. We certainly have spent a lot more time at home with our family this past spring and summer, and it’s entirely possible we may log much more in the months to come.