Step by Step: Help Your Blended Family ThriveFamily
Over the years, the editors at American Girl have received countless letters from girls who have written to share their experience or ask for advice about adjusting to a new stepparent or stepfamily. While every family is different, and changing family dynamics will affect each girl in her own way, common themes—like feeling nervous about change, pressure about accepting a new parent or sibling, frustration about conflicts, and uncertainty about rules—run through so many girls’ letters that talking through these issues may just offer a good place to start if you see your girl working to find her balance as you grow as a family.
“Things were fine with just my mom, my sister, my dog, and me. Why did everything need to change?” -Upset
Kids often want to understand “why?” and sometimes, as people try to make sense of the complex things they see or experience, they arrive at faulty conclusions. It can be hard for a girl to understand that things were fine as they were, that a new marriage and new family is not a ‘fix’ for something that was wrong, and that things can also be fine now. Take time to talk it through, and reassure her that welcoming a new family situation does not mean life before, with her, was unhappy. It simply means that opening the door to new people, new happiness, and a new opportunity to have everyone together under one roof was a chance to bring even more joy into all your lives.
That said, blending families—and households—brings with it a lot of physical and emotional change. It’s important to acknowledge that and to think about the changes from her perspective: often, the biggest change your girl may fear is losing one-on-one time with her mom or dad. And while less time certainly doesn’t mean less love, it sure can feel that way to her. Making room for regular mother-daughter or father-daughter time each week, and working together to make a list of everything in her life that isn’t changing, can go a long way in helping her feel steady and well-loved.
“I’m desperate. My mom got married, but I don’t like him. I don’t want another dad. I love mine! I swear to the soul I won’t accept him.” -Daddy’s Girl
Your new family may feel like a puzzle you’re all working on together, and your girl may be unsure about how all the pieces fit and what role everyone plays. It is possible that she may assume you have specific expectations, when in truth, you may be trying as hard to figure it all out as she is. But there are many things that could be cleared up easily by talking it through. Help her see that you are all getting used to each other, together. Reaffirm that no one is a replacement for anyone else—and that each new person in her life offers the chance to build a brand new, one-of-a-kind relationship.
Finally, remind yourself to look for pressure points. Without even realizing it, she may be putting pressure on herself—and you may be putting pressure on yourself—to feel a certain way. That pressure sometimes becomes most visible when it comes to the names “Mom” and “Dad.” There’s a lot of weight in those names, and feeling like a family takes time. If it takes some of the awkwardness or pressure away, explore alternative names: work together to come up with nicknames that feel right to everyone. The process could be a lot of fun, and the time spent talking and brainstorming a new name may even help you all get to know and trust each other that much more.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but my stepfather drives me bonkers. When my mom asks me to do the same thing he’s asked me, I don’t go bonkers. I just say “O.K., Mom.” -Hothead
Though your girl likely understands that being a member of a family comes with certain responsibilities and expectations, a new family arrangement is likely to usher in new rules, and that can stir up a bunch of emotions. Who does which chores? What manners should you use? Can you eat in the living room or not? In a new stepfamily, people may have different ideas about how to answer these sorts of questions. It helps if the whole family sits down and talks about it, openly and explicitly. What’s expected? What’s allowed? Agree on the family rules.
Patience and understanding will go a long way. In truth, getting used to having a new stepparent to listen to is one of the hardest adjustments your girl will have to make. If that adjustment is less than smooth, step back and realize that her response to a reminder or request has nothing to do with whether or not she picks up her socks or empties the dishwasher. In time, you will all trust and understand one another in a deeper way. That will make rules, and just about everything else in your family relationship, a lot easier.
“Sometimes it’s hard to have a stepparent because it is another person to make rules and another person to listen to. But it also means more people to look out for you and more people to love you.” -Feeling Loved
There’s no magic recipe for a family. Yours will gel in its own way, in its own time. But you can take steps to bring everyone closer, especially if you make a point to celebrate all the good things about having this new family. Have fun together! Be curious about each other’s stories, dreams, and hearts. Seek out activities and games that will make you smile—and help you get to know one another even better.
Adapted from American Girl magazine, A Smart Girl’s Guide to Understanding Her Family by
Amy Lynch, and A Smart Girl’s Guide to Her Parent’s Divorce by Nancy Holyoke. © 2018, 2009 American Girl. All American Girl marks are trademarks of American Girl.