Blending two families may seem like a tough job. But with a little support, stepfamilies can build strong, healthy bonds.
Catherine Hutter, PhD, clinical child psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, shares her top dos and don’ts for parents getting ready to marry.
1. Don’t rush it. “Building a relationship with a new stepparent takes time,” Dr. Hutter says. “Before marriage, family members should have plenty of time to get to know each other and spend time together.”
2. Do create boundaries—for stepparents and kids. “Stepparents sometimes give in to kids’ whims as a way to make things go smoothly,” Dr. Hutter says. “That’s not a good pattern to set.”
Stepparents should also be respected as authorities in the house. Kids should treat them as they would the biological mom or dad.
“Be clear about expectations and what happens if kids don’t meet those expectations,” Dr. Hutter says.
3. Don’t have two sets of “house rules.” Families often have different rules. Set some guidelines about discipline and chores that everyone agrees on.
4. Do remember the new marriage requires effort, too. The quality of the marriage plays a big role in the success of the stepfamily, Dr. Hutter notes. Schedule date nights or take trips that are just for two.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Psychologists can help new families set realistic goals and hopes. They can also help families work through any potential problems.
6. Do be prepared for ups and downs. “There’s often a honeymoon phase for new families where everyone’s getting used to each other,” Dr. Hutter says. “People are often on their best behaviors during this time. Emotions may surface even several years after the wedding.”
7. Do show lots of respect. One of the hardest parts of blending families is making sure both biological parents remain part of a child’s life. Kids whose moms remarry, for example, are often used to having weekends or other time alone with their dads. Both stepparents and biological parents should value this time. Adults should also be careful not to yell or speak badly of one another when kids are around.
“When biological parents get along and value each other’s time, things go much better for kids,” Dr. Hutter says. “Kids are happier when everyone is respectful and on the same page.”