Family & relationships

September 15 2016

How to strengthen relationships in stepfamilies 

the Psychlopaedia team
By The Australian Psychological Society

Blended families are more common than ever but creating harmony at home isn’t always easy. Here’s what parents can do to help boost family togetherness.

Think blended family and it’s easy to conjure images of wicked stepmothers and evil stepsiblings. The reality, however, is a lot more complex than Cinderella stories would have you believe. An estimated one in five Australian families is a stepfamily and while it can take time for adults and kids to get used to living in a blended family, most people end up feeling happy about their living arrangements. Here are some of the common challenges stepfamilies face and how to best work through them to create a cohesive family unit.

Managing money

Talking about money is difficult in any relationship, but it’s even more complicated when families with existing money habits and attitudes come together. According to clinical psychologist Dr James Bray from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, agreeing how money will be managed is key to creating harmony.

Importantly, it doesn’t matter how money is shared – or kept separate – but that there is agreement on how it will be managed. “People manage money very differently in stepfamilies,” says Dr Bray. “Sometimes they have a one-pot family, meaning they share all the resources. Sometimes they have a two- or three-pot system. The most important thing is that people just agree how they’re going to share money.”

Making parenting decisions

Especially for blended families where both adults have children, figuring out how to merge parenting styles is tricky business. Despite what they might say, children like rules and routine, so Dr Bray says parents should figure out how the household will run and communicate this to the kids. If you have different expectations to your partner about who should be responsible for which chores or what is an acceptable time for a teenager to get home at night, it’s best to sort this out before talking with the kids.

“Kids want to know about the changes in rules, so it’s important to make it explicit if there are changes in rules and discipline,” says Dr Bray. “They should be told what those are and how they’re going to function.”

When it comes to parenting stepchildren, forming a solid relationship before adopting a parenting role is the most effective strategy. For first-time stepparents without biological children, this is especially important. “Stepparents need to understand that they have to have a relationship with the children before they can be in a parent role,” says Dr Bray. “It’s important that the stepparent not try and step into a disciplinary role too fast. They need to focus on forming a relationship with the children first.”

Nurturing relationships

When parents remarry children often worry that they’ll lose their biological parent’s love and attention, so it’s important to enjoy time alone with your child. “There’s a tendency for stepfamilies to want to spend all the time together with each other,” says Dr Bray. “That is important, but parents also need to have some one-on-one time with their biological kids. If you have children who stay with you on weekends, it’s important that those kids get alone time with the biological parent who they’re coming to see.”

And even though it can be easy to let kids, work and life take over, nurturing your relationship with your partner is key to keeping your blended family happy and healthy, says Dr Bray.

“People have to take time to nurture their marriage, because if you don’t have a strong marital bond you’re not going to be able to work out these other stresses around parenting,” he says. “Often when people get together, the marriage gets put onto the backburner. People really do need to spend time nurturing their marriage and making time to develop their couple bond.”