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Blending Families Is A Challenging Business

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Blended families are everywhere, representing nearly 13 per cent of all Canadian households. In the U.S. approximately 40 per cent of adults have a close step-relationship, such as with stepchild or stepparent.

The process of bringing two families together, or adding a stepparent, can be extremely complex. I should know. I'm working on an article about the challenges step-families face for an American newspaper. I found myself overwhelmed with information. 

I was particularly inspired by the vast amount of knowledge I gleaned from one of the leading experts in the field,. Dr. Patricia Papernow, a psychologist in Hudson, MA and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't. She made no bones about it: blending families is often hard work.

With nearly four decades of working with stepfamilies and reading the research, as well as being married twice herself, Dr. Papernow knows firsthand what blending entails. In fact, she says the word "blending" can be quite misleading.

"When you combine families, your wish is that you're all going to become one, that you're going to replace the old with the new, but that is not reality," says Dr. Papernow.

She says that what we call "blended families" actually consist of a collection of subsystems that are very often in competition with one another. These include relationships between the parents and their kids, between the couple, the kids together, and the stepparents and their stepchildren.

"You need to do things as a family, but also make time for each subsystem," says Dr. Papernow. "The couple needs time alone together without children present. And the parent-child relationship needs time alone without the stepparent. Often stepparents and stepchildren can get to know each other best without the parent present."

Kids under eight will have an easier time of blending than older children, especially girls ages 12, 13 and 14. For some reason, boys generally seem to have an easier time than girls.

Parents and stepparents can become divided over parenting says Dr. Papernow. "Stepparents want more structure and parents want understanding and care. This can lead to authoritarian stepparenting, permissive parenting, and increasingly polarized stepcouples."

Ideally, when it comes to discipline, research indicates the parent should retain the disciplinary role until or unless the stepparent has formed a caring, trusting relationship with stepchildren. Behind the scenes, Dr. Papernow says the stepparent should have input but the parent maintains the final say. She warns that even very successful stepfamilies take two to five years to form a sense of "we-ness."

Some couples don't make it. Statistically, rates of divorce for second marriages are higher than first marriages (approximately 67 per cent).

Dr. Papernow says the goal for remarried couples is to become a team, practicing kindness and caring even when you don't agree. Although the research on stepfamilies has exploded in the last few decades, Dr. Papernow is concerned that this information is not being taught to clinicians, resulting in misleading and even destructive advice from those who work with these families. 

"Stepmoms have the hardest role and they are desperate for information," she says. "Unfortunately the quality of the advice stepmothers give each other can be quite mixed." One particularly good site for research-based information is the National Stepfamily Resource Centre.

I've become so interested in the topic that I wrote another article about the subject. For this piece, which appears in the October issue of Canadian Living, I had the chance to interview three blended families. Titled "House Blend," the article features interviews with three families at different stages of life and from all parts of Canada. Their best advice: communicate, be a team, and don't expect all the kids to get along.

This sounds like advice on which all the experts would agree.

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