“The Brady Bunch” made it look relatively easy. As America’s most famous TV stepfamily, the Bradys seemed to have a healthy group dynamic. With two remarried parents and six kids under one roof, there was never a shortage of laugh track–accompanied shenanigans, and all problems were solved in 30 minutes or less.
Janet Walker, an elementary education instructor at University of Phoenix and a stepfamily coach certified by the Stepfamily Foundation, says that many new blended families enter their lives together thinking they’ll be like the Bradys.
“We all have expectations it will be wonderful,” Walker says. But she has seen how parents and children confront the day-to-day realities of their new roles. To avoid a crisis, she suggests ways to foster a sense of family cohesion that will last long after the “I do’s.”
Go slowly and be patient.
When you start dating, remember: The kids are going through the process, too. Children will need “alone time” with the natural parent so they understand they’ll maintain a relationship with this parent, even if he or she is developing a new family or remarrying. Walker also suggests that the potential stepparent spend time with the children individually to start establishing a connection. “Ironically, if you move slowly, that … speeds up the process of [the kids] getting to know and trust you,” Walker says.
Love, love, love.
Stepparents and stepchildren must nurture affection carefully. “You need to accept the fact they’re not going to love you right away,” Walker says. “They do need to respect you. But love needs time to grow.”
Forgive, forgive, forgive.
Walker acknowledges that forgiveness can be tough. “You need to forgive yourself or your new spouse [for mistakes],” she says. “But you also need to forgive the kids if they offend you, as they may not have meant to do it — it may come from their own fears or insecurities.”
Have family meetings, and make them fun.
Walker recommends meeting regularly to discuss chores, meals for the week and any other group issues. Make the meetings fun so no one will dread them. “It can be simple, like creating an ice cream sundae bar or making cookies,” she says.
Make decisions together when possible.
Invite everyone to contribute ideas for vacation spots, a charity to support together or new family traditions to establish. Working on things together builds unity, Walker notes.
Support the stepchildren without parenting them too soon.
“Build them up, be at school conferences, talk with them,” Walker suggests. Whenever there’s tension between a child and the natural parent, the stepparent can foster calm and understanding between them while leaving the lion’s share of the discipline to the natural parent.
Learn about one another.
“Pay attention to one another’s traditions and roles,” Walker advises. “Observe everyone’s habits.” She says this can help everyone appreciate what each person brings to the blended unit, and also provide an opportunity to work through misunderstandings or conflicts.
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