The Cultural Revolution, which began in the 20th century, has gradually undermined the survival of the family as a unit. Blended families are torn apart through divorce, death or abandonment. A balanced family environment, which is essential for the normal development of children, is threatened. Modern society views marriage with bitter cynicism and adds to its instability. In such a milieu, “blended families” or “step families” have an onerous responsibility to keep their new families functional.
“Blended family” is a term that has been in use for probably the last fifty years. The death or divorce of one partner may lead the surviving partner to remarry. Sometimes both partners may have been married before and have children of their own. When two such families blend, the number of people living under the same roof increases. This has potential for creating tension and conflict. The step parent is looked upon as an intruder because of preconceived ideas fueled by the ‘step parent myth.’ When the situation is not handled diplomatically and with patience, the failure rate increases. When the children are teenagers or adolescents, the problem becomes even more difficult.
Strong spousal bonds are important.
• Parents should understand that they are ‘partnership parenting,’ irrespective of which spouse the children belong to biologically. They must present a united front at all times, especially in matters of discipline. There should be no difference between ‘my children’ or ‘your children,’ as they are now ‘our children.’ Children are quick to notice partiality.
• Differences or quarrels between spouses should never take place in the presence of children; the children will try their best to sow discord between parents in the hope of driving away the intruder. Standing united will send a message that the relationship is for keeps. The sooner they realize this, the quicker the blending.
• There must be rules and boundaries laid out for children. Consistency in enforcing discipline is important. However, threats, ultimatums or corporal punishment should not be resorted to.
• Confidence building is important. Children should be assured that the newcomer will not replace the biological parent. Many young children suffer from feelings of guilt, fearing that they might have been instrumental in breaking up the marriage of their biological parents. They are in pain, and keep hoping for reconciliation. Such children will resist the intruder as best they can. Only patience and love on the part of the step parent can change this situation.
• Communication between members of the family helps relationships to grow. This will not happen overnight. Some say that it may take even up to seven years for total integration of the blended family. The best way is to be available for the children and get involved in their various activities. Family time should be all-inclusive. No one should feel left out. Verbal expressions of praise and affection will go a long way. Children vent their frustration by acting cheeky or argumentative. It is pointless to indulge in a slinging match with them. However, specific misbehavior should not be tolerated. Punishment should come soon after the offence. The aim of punishment is not to vent one’s anger but to correct wrong behaviour. It should be commensurate with the age of the child and the seriousness of the offence. Withholding privileges such as watching TV, using mobiles, or playing with friends are sufficient deterrents.
Forgiveness must be quick and there should be no recycling of the same incident when angry.
• The parent of the intact family should not tolerate disrespect toward his partner, and should promptly correct such behaviour by his children.
• Parents should ensure that they have private time together without disturbance from the children so that they can strengthen their own relationship. Going out together for a movie, dinner, or even for a long walk, will increase togetherness.
• One should beware of grandparents or relatives whose influence could be divisive and detrimental to family bonding.
Needs of children in blended families:
- They must feel loved and accepted.
- They need safety and security. Children of blended families should not be afraid of being replaced in the affection of their biological parents.
- Their problems and needs must be addressed sympathetically. Children grieving for their lost parent should be given enough time to mourn their loss.
- They must be given access to the parent from whom they have been separated. Derogatory remarks about the absent parent should not be made in their presence.
- Children need a patient, listening ear.
Young children below the age of ten usually accept the situation after a time and adjust easily. Adolescents are more resistant to the intruder, and can be rude and insensitive. They are reluctant to submit to discipline and may even instigate younger siblings to revolt. Teenagers become indifferent and uncommunicative, often provoking the new parent by saying, “You have no legal right over me.”
Stepmothers have a more difficult time than stepfathers. Boys accept stepfathers better than stepmothers. Girls may be uncomfortable and suspicious of stepfathers. They may make false allegations of sexual abuse with the intention of turning one parent against the other.
Prior to separation, divorce or remarriage, children should be prepared for what is going to happen. Their questions should be honestly answered and their fears dispelled. Whenever possible, they should meet the new partners and get to know them.
In cases of divorce or separation, one parent may have physical custody of the child, while the other has only visiting rights. Estranged parents should not speak ill of each other in the presence of their children. They should not default on visiting but should strive to make each visit pleasant, so that it will be something the children look forward to. Biological parents will need to make joint decisions, keeping in mind the best interests of their children. Sharing information about their lives and activities or problems about their health or behaviour, will assure the children of their concern.
Blended families call for team work. Success depends on the time, energy and goodwill put into them. Not all blended families are dysfunctional. Neither can all delinquent behaviour be blamed on step families. This can happen in intact families, too.
The ‘witch’ as a step mother is a pseudo-label that needs to be forgotten.
There is a world of truth in the saying that ‘a family that prays together stays together.’ Godly parents can be good role models. “Be patient, be humble and gentle, bearing one another in love,” exhorts the Bible. It could be the success formula for blended families.