Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Putting Two Families Together Can Be A Daunting Task

June 10, 2002

For those of you facing the daunting challenge of putting two families together, here are some ideas to help you keep your sanity.

It's hard enough getting two adults, both going into a second marriage, to merge their ideas, backgrounds, traditions and differences. They love each other. They want something better than what they had before. They are full of hope and are willing to work out the problems.

Challenges for children. The children from the re-marriage also have different backgrounds, ideas, traditions and differences. Putting two families together isn't their idea. Their world is being turned topsy-turvy again.

For children, the remarriage of their parents represents the loss of their illusion that their biological parents will get back together. In addition, children have to adjust to a step-parent in their lives and the loyalty issues this causes. To complicate things further, they have to form relationships with step-siblings and find their place in a new family.

The family structure also changes when the non-custodial children come for visits, holidays and vacations. There is not enough time, space, money or bathrooms to accommodate the elastic growth of the family.

What can you do to help make life better?

1. Be patient. Give the children permission not to like each other right away. Don't expect closeness. It takes time to get to know one another and to develop a relationship. They need time to learn each other's mannerisms, language, gestures, facial expressions and reactions.

The non-custodial step-parent may have the hardest time because of the shortness of the visits and the length of time it takes for step-children to assimilate the rules of the house and to form relationships. Expectations have to be reduced when you have the children only a few days a month.

2. Make a place for each child. Each child needs his or her own personal space and privacy. Children need a place to go to be by themselves. It is important to have their own things in their own closet and drawer space, even when they are not there. It helps them feel like they really belong.

Modesty is important for adolescent step-siblings of the opposite sex. Clear guidelines need to be established regarding family dress codes, privacy and behavior.

3. Make individual time a priority. Children need time alone with their parent and away from the step-children. Don't do everything as a group. The one-to-one time gives an opportunity for the other parent to spend individual time with his or her own children. Don’t be jealous of the time he or she spends with their own children.

The issue of time spent with the visiting children and their needs should be discussed in advance. The residential children need to understand this so they don't feel slighted during these visits. There needs to be a balance between the kind of activities done with non-residential and residential children. If not, children from one parent or the other will pick up on the disparity.

4. Children expect fairness. Work out clear expectations and rules with input from the children. Rules are especially important for children who come a few days a month. The tendency is to not discipline them. Having one set of rules keeps things fair between step-siblings.

When a child misbehaves, it is easiest to fall back on principles that the whole family has developed together that apply to everyone. Having consistent rules keeps unconscious favoritism from becoming a problem. Involve the kids in determining household chores and let them work out the fairness issues. They can learn to cooperate and work together.

Let them work through their conflicts and solve their differences. Also, don't give older children too much responsibility for taking care of younger step-siblings.

5. Start your own traditions. Be careful to incorporate traditions from both family backgrounds. If a step-parent is too successful in imposing his or her previous traditions, the step-children will feel slighted and second class. Having a balance of traditions from both families reinforces the value in each family's history.

Adolescents will be less flexible about changes in traditions. They have already developed strong feelings about the way things are "supposed to be done."

Have a family meeting and openly discuss backgrounds and traditions. Establish new traditions and consciously choose from among the old ones. With time, a step-family can build its own identity by creating its own memories, by doing fun things together and by starting new traditions. With time, step-siblings can become friends and real brothers and sisters.

The new family ties can last a lifetime. Being part of a step-family may not be what everyone had in mind, but it can still turn out very well.