Step-parenting and blended families

Dr Asha Pemberton
Dr Asha Pemberton

Dr Asha Pemberton

Family structures vary widely in our society. Although not often labelled as such, a “blended family” refers to the creation of a new family unit, when two divorced, separated or single parents unite bringing with them their children. We recognise that blended family units can adopt many forms of living patterns, as children will often spend time with their other parent, half-siblings and extended family members. The result is a wide network of relationships and interactions, which if functional and based in loving communication, can be an excellent foundation for child and teen development. It is important to recognise the potential challenges which occur in blended families, so parents can take the time to be proactive and preventive in their parenting approaches.

Grief and anger

Any major transition in the lives of children or adolescents can be met with anger, grief and pain. Even in circumstances in which parental dynamics were dysfunctional, young people will grieve the loss of their parents’ relationships to some extent, and these emotions may manifest when new relationships are developed. The pain and processes of grief are very individual and parents should take the time to understand how their children are feelings and allow them the space to process their emotions. Outbursts, anger or even becoming quiet and isolated can be expected, but persisting changes to mood or behaviour warrant investigation.

New sibling dynamics

The coming together of young people brings their experiences, lifestyles and sometimes differences in finances and expectations. In blended families, it is not unusual for teenagers to feel some jealousy when step-siblings have access to devices, clothes or money that they do not have. It can be expected that they detect differences in treatment or even privileges quite acutely. In the blended family setting, parents need to be very mindful of fairness to ensure that the new siblings enjoy similarly appropriate life experiences. Adding further discrepancies to their lives while they are adjusting will often lead to more challenges in the long term.

Adjustment to change

Perhaps the most dramatic of changes, involve adjusting to new routines, rules and boundaries. Young people almost always test the boundaries of their parents. Adding new parental figures invariably leads them to test the boundary of the “true authority.” Sometimes, step- parents quickly forge strong relationships leaving the biological parent feeling neglected. Conversely, sometimes attempts by the new parent to enforce rules or discipline is met with excessive aggression and anger. Adjustment is always a process, but it is a process that requires definite steps and awareness. Parents should agree upon the rules and boundaries for managing conflict in siblings, and determine who will take which role with each child. This will vary widely between families, but for each context time must be taken to arrive at these decisions.

Supporting identity and autonomy

Teenagers enjoy having their own space and privacy. When new step-siblings are introduced and rooms have to be shared, young people can perceive this as an intrusion. Some teens even become resentful at the time and attention their parent pays to their new partner, which in itself leads to distress. While time, patience, consistency and communication all mitigate these processes, it is critical to allow young people the platform and space to voice their feelings, made suggestions and have a sense of personal agency in the decisions that affect their day to day lives.

There are many benefits to blended families, the greatest of which is the opportunity for all members to enjoy the warmth of relationships, support and safety. Blending families also provides young people with the ability to connect with others including a wider extended family network from their new family all of which converge toward positive youth development. While challenges are expected from time to time, with a mindful approach, realistic expectations and attention to adolescent development, both families stand only to positively benefit from the experiences.


"Step-parenting and blended families"

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