One of the hardest parts of blending families can be getting two sets of children to form a family, or even be willing to try. Few, if any, blended families find themselves in “Brady Bunch” territory. Fortunately, a few important principles can increase our odds of having our kids get along. This week of National Siblings Day is a good time to look at some of those ideas.
Don’t Force Relationships.
We cannot force our kids to be friends. Yes, we can and should enforce boundaries of respect, tolerance, and no bullying. Boundaries, however, do not create relationships. They can only protect a space where relationships can grow. Sibling relationships, if they grow at all, do so organically.
Some of our children will be open to new siblings. Others will feel that their world is so out of kilter than they resist anything associated with the new family structure. We have to give those kids time and space to process the new reality in their own ways and at their own paces. As long as they respect our boundaries, we have to respect their independence.
All of the following principles have that limit. We are not forcing our kids to have a relationship. We can only create opportunities for them to get to know each other and build whatever relationships they are comfortable with. After we create opportunities and enforce boundaries, the rest is up to our children.
Encourage shared experiences
One of the best ways to help our kids grow into a team is to encourage shared experiences. Doing things together can be difficult, particularly if there is a biological parent putting obstacles in the way. Do everything you can, however, to create experiences that include the entire family. The more your family operates as a unit, the more your kids will feel part of the team.
Some obvious examples of shared experiences are family trips or seasonal traditions. Don’t overlook other opportunities, such as community service or helping a charity. Also don’t forget about ordinary routines, such as attending each other’s sports events, concerts, or plays. Cheering on a step-sibling’s success goes a long way to building appreciation and camaraderie.
Model Open Communication
Show your kids how to talk to each other openly and with respect. Sibling conflict, whether biological or blended, is a normal part of growing up. You will have to show them how to discuss their feelings and work through conflicts. For chronic conflict, consider a good family therapist who can help your family create a safe and comfortable environment for discussion.
In the same way, we need to model the respect and tolerance that we want to see from our kids. Words are just words until they see us put the principles into action. Fortunately, we don’t have to be perfect. We just have to show them more often than not how we want them to act, and to acknowledge when we get it wrong.
Treat Everyone the Same
Our kids take our cues from us. If we favor our biological children or overcompensate for bonus children, our kids will reinforce those divisions. “Same” in this context doesn’t mean “identical.” Every child is different and needs different things from us. We may need to do more for one child at some point than for another, but it all needs to balance out over the long run. We need to be certain, however, that we are not making distinctions between “our family” and “their family.” All of our kids should have the same claims on our time, attention, and resources.
Blending a family is never easy, but it is possible. These four principles are a good foundation for helping our kids learn to live with each other. With a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, they can learn to appreciate each other as well.