Decades ago, most people thought of families as a nuclear family. A couple would marry and have children. Although blended families existed, they were less common than they are now.
Ten years ago, 16% of children in the United States lived in blended families, and the number is rising. Although people may anticipate having their children, few grow up dreaming about the day they form a blended family. Despite this, blended families can be as beautiful and rewarding as any other family dynamic.
What is a blended family?
When two adults enter a relationship, and at least one of the adults has children from a previous relationship, they form a blended family. Traditional meanings apply the definition to couples who have gotten married. With marriage in decline, many children grow up with a non-biological parent in their household who they consider family. Other terms for a blended family include step-family and complex family.
Are there different types of blended families?
There are several types of blended families. An adult with children may enter a relationship with another adult who does not have children or form a blended family by starting a relationship with someone who has children of their own. The adults can be in a heterosexual relationship, or they can be a same-sex couple.
Non-biological parents can form a legal relationship with their partner’s children through second parent adoption. This is an option when one of the biological parents has passed away or has no relationship with their child. A biological parent can also opt to waive their parental rights and legally terminate their relationship with their child. When that happens, the other parent’s partner can choose to adopt the child formally.
Some or all of the children in a blended family may have two homes. If their parents have joint custody, they may move between two blended families, or they may spend part of their time with their blended family and the rest of their time with their other biological parent.
The adults may opt to expand their family and have more children. When this happens, children may have full siblings, step-siblings, and half-siblings that they live with.
What legal challenges do blended families face?
Although all families have challenges, blended families may have complex legal issues they need to navigate. The second parent may not have the authority to address medical or academic issues independently. This means the biological parent may need to sign any school paperwork that comes home or attend medical appointments.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does include stepparents in its definition. This means if you’re married to your partner, you can access your stepchildren’s academic records. If you aren’t married, your partner can sign paperwork to authorize you to have access. A parent can also authorize any individual to pick up their children from school.
In some cases, the other biological parent may oppose the stepparent’s involvement. Either biological parent can go to court and pursue changes to their custody arrangement. Suppose a parent can demonstrate that the blended family dynamic is unhealthy for their child. In that case, a judge may impose restrictions on the parent’s partner, such as prohibiting them from disciplining the minor children. In extreme situations, a judge may alter the custody agreement if they believe it’s in the child’s best interests to limit their time with their blended family.
Stepparents can only authorize medical treatment if they’ve legally adopted their stepchildren. Stepparents can’t apply for passports for their stepchildren or obtain their stepchild’s legal documents, such as birth certificates, either.
What other challenges do blended families face?
Adjusting to a new parent or child is a process. If you start a relationship with a person who has children, it’s possible that their children may not like you at first. The children may compare you to their other parent or make hurtful remarks. The children may also see you as a threat to their relationship with their parent if they feel like their parent isn’t paying enough attention to them.
If you and your partner both have children, your children may complain to you about your new partner. This may be due to fear or insecurity.
The children may not get along, either. Children have their relationship dynamics, and a child who was once the eldest may not like living with an older child — the same goes for the youngest child.
You may also have issues with other family members. Some grandparents only focus on their biological grandchildren. Even if you marry your partner, your parents may not consider your partner’s children to be part of the family and only spend time with or buy gifts for their biological grandchildren. This can cause conflicts between the children, between you and your partner, and the grandparents.
How can blended families receive support?
Children in blended families are coping with several changes in their lives that can be confusing and frustrating. One way to support children in blended families is to find a professional therapist who can help them process their feelings and address issues they’re having. Google “child psychologist in NYC” to locate mental health professionals who work with children. Children can have individual sessions, sessions with their parents, sessions with their parents and stepparents, and sessions with the entire family. Counselors are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to help you and your children adjust to their new family dynamic.
If you belong to a church, you may also be able to receive support from your minister. Many pastors offer to counsel members of their congregation, and your church may also have support programs in place for your children.
How can you help your child bond with their blended family?
Whether your child is adjusting to a new parent or a new parent and their children, becoming part of a blended family is a significant change. One way to help ease the transition is to focus on activities the family can enjoy together. You can take a family vacation, go camping, take pottery, or you can register the kids for stand up paddle boarding lessons. If you’re trying to build a relationship with your partner’s child, you may want to spend some one-on-one time with them and get to know them. Let them choose an activity you can enjoy together to help you bond. Your partner can use this strategy to bond with your children.
Although spending time together is good, you can help children in blended families adjust by ensuring they continue participating in the activities they enjoyed before your family was formed. This will help provide them with a sense of stability. Children may be resentful or disappointed if they feel like they had to give up things they enjoyed to form the blended family.
What other types of families are there?
Some couples form a nuclear family and stay together while raising their children. Children in these homes grow up with both parents they’re genetically related to.
Parents can also opt to adopt children. If parents have a biological child and cannot conceive again, they may adopt another child to expand their family. In some cases, parents adopt a child and then have a biological child.
Many children grow up in single-parent households. Some of these children only know one parent. Their other parent may be deceased or absent. Some children in single-parent households may visit with their other parent occasionally. The child’s access to their non-custodial parent may be affected if one parent needs to relocate for work. Legal and medical factors can also play a role in limiting a biological parent’s access.