Three Ways to Help Children Adjust in Blended Families

Fifty percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce. Research suggests that two-thirds of second marriages, that include children from previous marriages fail. As a result, stepfamilies or “blended families” are becoming increasingly common with mounting challenges for both parents and children.

With the blending of a family, children may find it difficult to adjust to new parents. Their roles and relationships are often affected by the new structures which can easily cause stress, especially when multiple changes occur at once. Children and adolescents may struggle to adjust due to feelings of replacement, abandonment, or grief, as well as with alternating patterns, lack of routines, and confusion that can emerge from this uprooting. These children may also experience guilt, loss of identity, and a lack of acceptance throughout the process, resulting in physical and emotional behaviors.

Blended families may experience decreased monitoring and supervision of child behavior, have unrealistic expectations for their child’s behavior, a lack of clearly agreed upon and enforced house rules, inconsistent and ineffective discipline, and low rates of positive interactions between parent/step-parent, as well as withdrawal from parenting roles or emotional withdrawal from the child.

Given the complexity of blended families, a relational, solution-focused, and multidimensional therapeutic approach focusing on communication between parents and children may help manage the transition. In addition, developing coping skills, enabling conflict management and resolution, and promoting positive co-parenting skills should provide effective interventions when working with such families.

In some cases, family stabilization may likely be the most pressing concern, and as a result, child behavior management may be the most appropriate intervention, whereby the parents can be educated in the principles of behavior management and child development. Furthermore, the parents can be provided additional training in accurate observation of child behavior, setting fair, specific, and enforceable house rules, the use and reinforcement of pro-social behavior (such as behavior charts, coin systems), and the use of effective contingencies such as time-outs and response cost contingencies.

Families should also be provided with problem solving and communication skills training. Since children may display the disfunction of the family through behaviors, the second step in addressing the challenges of stepfamilies focuses on family-wide problem-solving and communication skills. When encountering high levels of family stress and conflict, a lack of shared expectations of family roles and interactions, an absence of agreed upon household rules, and a lack of step-parent involvement in family decision making, communication skills training enables a structured approach to effective resolution to everyday problems, avoiding coercive escalation and holding family meetings for joint decision making.

It will most likely take time for all individuals to adjust to the new family dynamics and structures. At the Annual Conference, we will explore how co-parenting, behavior management, communication, and consistency, can limit the likelihood of negative social and psychological effects in the short and longer term for children, parents, and their blended families.

Anna Svetchnikov, LSW, LMFT, is the founder and executive director of Longwood Care, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit focused on empowerment, advocacy, inclusion, collaboration, and education via accessible child centered, parent focused behavioral health services.

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