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Advance preparation helps blend families

By Bonnie Coblentz

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Gone are the days when most wedding bells rang for first-time newlyweds with dreams of starting a family together. Today, many weddings join divorced or never-married parents and create newly blended families.

Louise Davis, child and family development specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said communication is a major key to making the new grouping into a family.

"Discipline problems will follow if you don't have good communication between both spouses and the children," Davis said. "Conflict resolution is usually the biggest hurdle the new family will face."

Relationships can be upset and competing loyalties may surface in the blended family. Children must learn to relate to their absent parent and the new step-parent, or they may have a second parent when before they had just one. New spouses may suddenly find themselves a parent with no previous experience, or they may find it difficult to share themselves with their own children and their new spouse's children.

"When someone comes into the family, they have to make themselves fit into the existing framework in a positive way," Davis said. "They need to understand the rules of the family that's already created, learn the basic dynamics of this family and share the expectations."

Davis said it is vitally important that parenting responsibilities be shared. A non-parent who marries into the family must take on the role of a parent, not replacing the parent who was lost or never there, but becoming the mom or dad the children need. The parent who brings children into the relationship must allow the new spouse to parent these children, too.

Establishing the framework for the blended family does not happen overnight. Davis encouraged prospective blended families to talk through issues in advance of the wedding, compromise when necessary and reach mutual goals. Issues can include discipline, family ground rules, room assignments and schedules. Often outside support is necessary to ensure a smooth transition.

"The prep work should involve a family counselor to help families see what issues they will be facing," Davis said. "A family counselor is trained to interpret behaviors a child is exhibiting and can help the new family work through any problems that may surface."

Davis said younger children often adapt to these changes more easily than older children who are more established in relationships and routines. Adults, too, often struggle with the new arrangements.

"How long it takes to become one new family unit depends on the family and how much preparation was done before you entered the family," Davis said. "The process will go more smoothly if parents keep communication open, work out the discipline issues and set common rules, expectations and goals for the new family."

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Released: Jan. 8, 2004
Contact: Dr. Louise Davis, (662) 325-3083

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