Navigating the Challenges of Blended Families

In 2016, one in ten children in Canada aged zero to 14 were living in a stepfamily. In the United States, one third of children will be part of a stepfamily by the time they turn 18. So, what does this mean for families?

It means that more families are restructuring, changing and growing. Parenting is challenging at the best of times, but stepparents face unique challenges.

When families blend they have to deal with a number of issues, such as deciding where to live, how their home will be run; and what the rules will be; how to discipline, how to manage money; and how to best establish relationships with new family members. Experts suggest that couples discuss their values and ideas about family, parenting, gender roles, and the division of household labour. For some couples, this may also mean rethinking long held notions of what a family looks like.

While many stepfamilies face similar challenges, each family situation is unique. For example, a single man with no children who is marrying a divorced woman with a toddler (a simple stepfamily) will have different challenges than a newly married couple, each with their own adolescent children (a complex stepfamily). In 2016, almost half of children in stepfamilies lived in complex stepfamilies, up from 39 per cent in 1995. When both partners have children, incorporating elements of both families into the new the household can help ease the transition. With all stepfamilies, biological parents need to be their children’s main disciplinarian and nurturer, and new stepparents need to maintain their independence and interests outside of the stepfamily.

The younger children are, the easier it is for them to adapt to changes in family structure. Younger children are often interested in forming new relationships with adults whereas teenagers may not be as interested. As a general rule of thumb, experts suggest that it takes about the same number of years as a child’s age for the stepparent-stepchild relationship to develop and solidify. For example, if a child is two years old when they first meet their new stepparent, it may take two years to fully accept them as a parent, whereas if a child meets their new stepparent when they’re 10, it make take 10 years.

Blending families takes time and effort on the part of both partners — new relationships do not develop overnight. Research shows that when stepparents have a strong and affectionate relationship with each other, the transition and adjustment period is easier for the children. Further, when stepparents make extraordinary efforts to connect with their new stepchildren, they are more likely to have positive relationships. These extra efforts can include spending quality one-on-one time together; taking time to get to know each other; and finding common interests. Patience and perseverance is key to surviving and thriving as a stepfamily.

The BC Council for Families recently updated Building Your Stepfamily, a booklet written by Susan Gamache, Pd.D, a Registered Psychologist and Clinical Fellow in Marriage and Family Therapy. The booklet explains the dynamics of building a stepfamily and provides information and tips on combining households, covering topics such as rituals and traditions, values, money management, former partners and grandparents. Take a look

Erica Simmonds enjoys writing and promoting healthy families in healthy communities through our website, publications and social media. She has a Bachelor of Journalism and Social Anthropology, and a Certificate in Creative Writing. Erica believes that supporting families leads to a stronger and more vibrant society.

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