10 Tips Towards Creating Strong, Thriving Step Families

Top tips for parents who are trying to blend two families together

building strong step families

I always knew one day I would be a Mom, and looked forward to having lots of kids. What I didn't expect was that two and a half years after the birth of my second child, I would become a single mom. And what I never anticipated was three years following the break up of my first marriage, I would become a step mom to three more children. I always wanted a lot of kids but becoming a step mom was more challenging than I had anticipated.

So here are my top tips for mummies who are trying to blend together their own step family...

Pick what kind of game you want to play - Two teams living in the same house with separate captains, or one team – two captains

We had read somewhere that there are two schools of thought when you try to blend a family: you deal with your kids and I’ll deal with mine (hence creating two teams living in one house), or you can decide to be co-captains and be responsible for raising your team together when they are all under your roof. Granted when they leave your playing field they may have other rules to play by, but while they are with you, they are on an equal playing field. We chose the latter and have never looked back. Once you make that decision, you need to stick with it, even though initially they may get you to try to pick sides, bend the rules or even change the playing field. Our kids have come to us now to say that they are happy we have chosen the one team. It makes them feel more like a permanent family and more connected. It works for us.

Get over yourself

Let me put things in context first. Both my husband and I were the so-called “leavee’s or dumpee’s” in our previous marriages, so I get the pain of a divorce. So grieve your divorce. Mourn your divorce. Then get over your divorce and move on. The truth is, if you are ok, your kids are ok. Make a choice to be the survivor of your divorce, and not the victim. My ex and I were both eventually able to “get over ourselves”. As a result, our kids are doing well and not caught in a bitter battle. My husband, while able to “get over himself”, is faced with much hostility. The end difference: the kids suffer. There is no sweet revenge – unless you plan to get sweet revenge on your children.

Consistency Consistency Consistency 

New marriage, new home, new siblings, new lifestyle and new rules. A lot to handle and tough on anyone. We took a lot of flack for introducing consistency right from the beginning. Extended family, friends and even ex’s tried to tell us to bend on this rule, give in on that, turn a blind eye on his outbursts, ignore the behaviour from her. But we felt it was sort of like saying we’re going on a diet and then cheating on the diet the very first day!

Kids need consistency. They need structure, and with that comes security. We discussed the changes in our lives. The kids were involved in setting our new “home rules,” in deciding what our lives would look like (to a certain extent!) and boy were there growing pains. But, it didn’t take long. A new routine was established, everyone knew the expectations and consequences and the kids reported to us they felt “safe” and loved knowing that they could count on certain things in our home. I'm glad we stuck it out and didn’t listen to those who felt catering and spoiling were more effective than consistency mixed with love. 

Make it a priority to have alone time

Right from the beginning we knew having alone couple time would be paramount. And it is. Most people try to coordinate their schedules to have their kids all at the same time or not at the same time. We didn’t. We left our schedules as they were when we met and worked with that. It means sometimes we have all the kids together, sometimes just some of them, and sometimes we are alone. It gives everybody a chance to experience different dynamics.

We also make it a priority to have “dates” with our kids. And not just with our biological kids. With our step kids too. On a monthly basis we try to each have a date with each kid: go for lunch (the most popular one), go for a bike ride, go for a run, get our nails done or go for ice cream. This gives us a chance to really connect and talk. The kids love feeling special and getting our full attention. 

Don’t engage in the competition 

My step son said to me a few weeks ago, “My Mom buys us more gifts than you guys. But you guys have a bigger house, so I guess that’s why you don’t buy us as many gifts”. I laughed and then told him we could actually buy him more gifts if we wanted to, we just chose not to! He was perplexed! We then had the discussion about everyone making different choices with how to spend their money, people had different priorities and value systems. We chose to invest in our home, in tutors, in sports and in vacations. Other people chose different things: food, entertainment, cars, art, toys etc.

We don’t have to be the same. We don’t have to try to keep up with each other. We are different. What we do is different and how we live is different. Most kids living in two homes will experience these differences. If there were no differences then there may not have been a divorce to start with! Expect change! Help your kids see that there is no competition. Don’t engage in the battle. We are different. Period.

Create your new family traditions

Starting your own traditions, celebrations, and routines is very important. You are creating a new family, not trying to warp an old family into a new one. A new family deserves to have some traditions of their own. It helps the children feel bonded and connected with you and with each other. This is hard for extended family to cope with as they may have liked the “old family” ways. But sometimes they just need to understand that you are trying to create a new unit, and they will enjoy being included in the new bonding experience.

Talk and Listen and Listen and Talk

At night we each spend some time lying with each child to have some one on one time. It makes the “going to bed routine” slightly longer, but well worth it. Our two older boys share a bedroom. They started a nightly ritual of “Question time” where they ask me ANYTHING they want to and I HAVE to answer truthfully. For weeks, all they wanted to talk about was divorce, remarriage, siblings, step siblings and I fumbled through many questions, letting them know I didn’t have all the answers, but we could figure things out together.

The one thing that I certainly acknowledged, is that while they may like living together as a blended family, they each wished that their parents would get back together. My step son was visibly relieved when I said, “ I know you wish your mom and dad were still together. It’s ok to feel that way. It doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. It’s normal.” Letting them know that their feelings, good or bad, are all normal and we could talk about anything, opened up so many channels of communication. 

Accept the new reality: You can’t control the other person (your ex), nor should you want to

This ties into the “get over it” and “don’t engage in competition”. I was amazed one day when my husband’s ex was berating him for making some changes in the way he was dealing with their kids, in establishing different house rules, and not agreeing with how she wanted things done. Did she not realize that a divorce innately breeds change? That any change in partners will trigger a change in relationship, thus a change in dynamics necessitating a change in lifestyle?

The reality is our kids live in two homes. It is ideal if you can agree on some fundamentals to help make the kids lives as seamless as possible. But you can’t dictate what goes on in the other house. You may not like it or agree with it, but you can’t change it. You need to support your kids through the changes. Telling your kids “You don’t have to listen or do anything your stepmom says” is not helpful. Trust me. It is just confusing for the kids. It certainly doesn’t change their new reality.  

Constructive Criticism Only Please

It is easy to get into the battle of “Your kids have terrible manners”, or “Your kids are whiny complainers”, but that creates a divided and defensive environment. All our kids have issues. We are also not perfect parents and have our own issues. But it is much more constructive to say “ I think we need to work on xxxx with Tom”, or “How can we deal with xxx meltdowns?”.

The reality is there may be a certain pattern of behaviour that your partner is locked into with one of his/her children, but they may not even realize it. Pointing fingers will not help. People are very sensitive about their parenting and their kids. If they feel attacked, they will resist. Approaching challenges with the “we are in this together” mentality will invite better results.

Avoid the urge to villainize

In the fairy tales the step parent is the wicked one. I’m not so sure if that is the case in reality. Especially with little children, connections to step parents can become quite close. While there is no replacement for a biological parent, a step parent can have a very influential and unique role with your child. Talking badly about your child’s step parent often just reflects your own character and upsets your child. Do you really want to villainize the person who spends a huge amount of time with your children on a consistent basis? You may not see eye to eye, that’s for sure, but that is the reality. You cannot change the reality by talking bad about your ex-partner or their new partner. Use your differences as a way of teaching your children about choices and tolerance. Your children will appreciate being able to love everyone in their life freely.

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Leah Davidson is a 37 year old woman who enjoys working in private practice as a Speech Language Pathologist, specializing in head injury. Mom to two boys, ages 6 and 8, and stepmom to 3 more children, ages 4, 8, and 11, Leah loves spending time with her family. She enjoys the challenges and rewards of a "Brady Bunch family" and is grateful to have an amazing husband to share her life with.