BY LEAHA MATTINSON OCT 2017
HOW TO HELP BUILD UNBREAKABLE BLENDED FAMILIES
If you’re part of a blended family, you know that navigating the politics of new spouses, new step-siblings, and new sets of in-laws can be tough. When school’s in session, parents and kids are busy and over scheduled, so it’s easy to brush faulty family dynamics under the rug. But helping your kids, your new in-laws, and your new partner all get along is well worth the effort. Life coach (and stepmom) Leaha Mattinson shares tips on how to make it work.
“While blended families are far from rare, it’s shocking how few of them set up standards and rules to live by,” says Leaha Mattinson, author of Silver Linings: The Leaha Mattinson Story. Blended families can be amazingly dysfunctional, disconnected, and unhappy if they don’t set up specific operating principles. The three big mistakes blended families most often make are:
- Setting ineffective ground rules.
- Failing to respect boundaries.
- Not effectively managing the changes that inevitably happen when two previously established families merge.
These oversights set off chain reactions of negativity that cause friction, hurt, and confusion. Here are some tips on how to remedy these mistakes.
Be clear about what you need from your spouse. “It’s key to be candid with your partner,” says Mattinson. “You need a solid foundation of trust and mutual respect to maintain a lasting relationship and to support your collective children as well.”
Mattinson recommends communicating often with your partner and being rigorously honest as you listen to and try to understand his or her needs. Remember also that what you both needed five years ago from each other is likely different from what you need today. And keep checking in throughout the year, making sure to appreciate each other and cherish your relationship together.
Reflect on your values as a family.
Figuring out what you want to stand for is the first step in successfully blending a family. Have a family discussion about the key values you want to live by as a newly minted team. Some values to get you started are: honesty, togetherness, fairness, respect for each other, and so forth.
Create ground rules together.
Next, hold a family meeting and figure out the rules under which your blended family will operate. For example: Make your bed in the morning, say “please” and “thank you,” eat dinner as a family whenever possible, no cell phones at the table, own up to your mistakes, apologize if you hurt someone, etc. Let everyone give input into these ground rules, and be respectful of everyone’s needs.
“When you have established your family ground rules, write them into a family charter and give everyone a copy,” suggests Mattinson. “If there are ground rules that some members can’t agree on, put them in a jar and come back to them in a week or two to see if anything has changed.”
Make sure the adults are a collaborative unit for the kids.
All adult members of the child-rearing team should work together for the good of the children. This can be tricky for non-residing stepparents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, etc., but it truly does take a village to raise kids. So try to enforce ground rules, protect all boundaries, and keep squabbles, hurt feelings, and disagreements out of the process.
“If a member of the team simply won’t cooperate or carries a grudge—perhaps a bitter parent or in-law—don’t force direct communication,” instructs Mattinson. “Instead, use an intermediary to relay information, and try not to take it personally. The moment they’re ready to cooperate, respond immediately with welcoming kindness. Remember that resentment and bitterness delays the healing of the unit. This is about the kids.”
Allow each family member to establish his or her own boundaries.
“A boundary is a limit that exists to honor your own needs, and everyone deserves to lay out their boundaries and have others respect them,” says Mattinson. “I have a boundary that no one swears at me. Maybe you have a boundary that no one borrows your things without permission. Let every family member list their boundaries so everyone knows each other’s wishes.”
Respect everyone’s boundaries.
Everyone deserves to have their boundaries respected and adhered to, even the kids. Mattinson urges families to make a game out of it, by saying “ouch” whenever someone crosses the line. This technique teaches children to respect each other from a young age and creates a shorthand language to keep each family member in check.
Help grandparents adjust to new dynamics.
A growing family can rearrange the status quo, in a way that often results in hurt feelings, coalitions, and drama. For example, adding a new stepmom to a family may make Grandma—a trusted advisor—feel that her input is no longer valued. Mattinson insists that it is vital to address these boundary shifts when they happen. Assure Grandma that her wisdom is still appreciated, but you and your partner will be making the major family decisions.
“It takes a long time to repair damaged interfamily relationships, so do your best to gently reinforce new boundaries before they become a problem,” says Mattinson. “And be sure to invite grandparents to your summer cookouts or beach days so they feel included. A little graciousness can go a long way.”
Don’t bestow special privileges on certain children (thus shortchanging others).
Sadly, the stereotype of an unwanted stepchild is a heartbreaking reality for many children, and the effects of being left out or treated as less than can last a lifetime. No matter what, strive to treat all your children with the same love, compassion, and care. In other words, everyone gets to go to the fun summer camp—not just one lucky child. (If you can’t afford to send all the kids, it’s better to send none of them.)
“It’s not that everyone has to do the exact same activities, but the value of activities should be equal or at least close to equal,” says Mattinson. “Yes, I mean cost-wise, but also in terms of how much the kids value the activity. Believe me: Mom’s kids notice when Stepdad’s kids get bigger allowances, more clothes, and more exciting vacations. They will remember for a lifetime, in fact.”
Give immediate rewards when kids do the right thing.
“We’re hardwired to respond to positive feedback, so a simple rewards-based system encourages your children to follow ground rules and respect everyone’s boundaries,” Mattinson says. “If my children clean up after themselves, I respond with an enthusiastic, ‘Thanks, guys! Wow, this place looks great!’ It rewards them and reinforces the ground rule of keeping a clean home. But larger rewards in the summertime could also be going out for ice cream, having a picnic by the lake, or a day riding bikes at a park.”
Make sure the reward resonates with the receiver.
Different people are motivated by different things; affection, gifts, and food are just a few examples. Reinforce good behavior in your children by tailoring the rewards to the specific child you hope to encourage. For example, let your television-loving son pick the film for outdoor movie night as a reward for watering the garden.
Work to build trust among all family members.
All families work if they come from a place of mutual respect and trust. Parents should be in charge of this ongoing mission. To build trust with all of your family members, be impeccable with your word. In short, this means honoring promises you make to your kids. For example, if you promise them a trip to a theme park in exchange for one month of completing their chores, you must fulfill your part of the agreement. Going back on your promises (even small ones) teaches others that you waver and dissolves your trustworthiness. But fulfilling agreements, being candid and truthful at all times, and adhering to the boundaries you’ve all agreed upon builds mutual respect and trust among everyone.
Check in with family members regularly and reassess rules.
As the summer passes, revisit your charter and encourage each family member to assess whether he or she is fulfilling his or her part of the family vision. Make sure that all ground rules are still relevant, and update each other about new boundaries that need to be respected. Every family is changing all the time, so be willing to evolve and compromise right along with it.
“Even though belonging to a blended family can be tricky, you can make it work and make it work well,” concludes Mattinson. “If everyone communicates, listens, and has his or her heart in the right place, you can overcome typical challenges and growing pains, and can finally, truly become one big happy family—or at least one big functional family.” #
Leaha Mattinson, author of Silver Linings, has helped thousands of individuals find solutions to their personal problems and works with CEOs and senior managers to build leaders, address issues of workplace conflict, and ensure positive change. She shares her strategies in her book and on her website at www.reallifetraining.com.