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Published May 04 2010

Blended families: ‘Brady Bunch’ perfection defies reality

That darned Brady Bunch.

After a few bumps in the first episodes, TV’s first blended family morphed into one relentlessly cheerful unit. Despite the occasional skirmish over who got the attic room or Marcia’s bruised nose, the six Brady kids got along swimmingly.

It’s a bit of Hollywood make-believe that amuses Brenda J. Jacobson. Not only because she’s an Extension parent educator who teaches classes on blended families, but also because she’s a stepparent herself. She brought two sons from a previous marriage into a relationship with her second husband, who has two daughters from a first marriage. Their blended family isn’t Brady-perfect, Jacobson says, but they have learned how to communicate, work together with spouses from earlier marriages and focus on what really matters.

“We don’t believe in titles – half brothers, stepparents, ex-husband, your kids, my kids,” Jacobson says. “Instead, we believe in family, which all of us are. We are one large, blended family made up of people who love the children enough not to argue or fight.”

Recently, Jacobson presented a NDSU/Cass County Extension class to Fargo-Moorhead families who are going through this transition. Blended families, after all, have become very common. At least one-third of all children in the United States will be part of a stepfamily before age 18, according to www.helpguide.org, a nonprofit resource site for families.

And the stress of blending families can take a toll on relationships. Couples with children from previous marriages are more likely to get divorced than couples married for the first time are, Jacobson says.

Here, Jacobson and other parenting experts share some tips to help couples successfully form a new, blended family:

Limit expectations

Recognize that both partners bring their own baggage from previous relationships – anything from their own histories, loyalties and experiences with previous partners – into the union. Each partner must learn to “own” this baggage, deal with it and recognize how it affects their interactions with new partners and family members, Jacobson says.

People also expect blended families to mix together seamlessly, with everyone accepting new parents and siblings immediately.

But in fact, children will need at least one or two years to acclimate to new stepparents or a new living arrangement, Jacobson says.

“Time spent together helps to form those relationships,” Jacobson says. “It’s not automatic or instant. You can’t always jump in and be the first one there.”

Instead, she recommends that parents take times to get to know the new children in their lives. Talk to them about the good things that happened that day, make plans for activities in the future and invite him or her to show you how to try a new skill.

Get on the same page

Everyone will come into a new marriage with their own belief systems about parenting.

For blended families to work, parents need to get on the same page. That means talking openly and honestly about their own expectations: What do you expect our family to be like? What does that mean in terms of house rules/chores/family time? What do you believe is the most effective parenting approach? If one spouse believes in authoritarian parenting while the other uses a more democratic style, disagreements will likely pop up.

Know your roles

In general, it works best to leave discipline and major decisions about the children to biological parents, Jacobson says. This isn’t always possible in cases of abuse or neglect, but if both biological parents are involved, stepparents may want to play more of a supportive role.

“Stepchildren usually do not expect a stepparent to act like or replace a biological parent,” writes counseling experts Kate Fogarty, Millie Ferrer and Sara McCrea for the University of Florida Extension Service. “As a stepparent, it may be better to avoid making decisions regarding your stepchild’s behavior. In some cases, it is acceptable for stepparents to act as a biological parent, and in other cases, it is better for stepparents to act more like a friend or mentor.”

If you as the stepparent disagree with the biological parent’s decision, experts advise discussing these issues privately – not in front of the child.

“Talk with your partner about your concerns without being judgmental,” Fogarty, Ferrer and McCrea write.

Defuse power struggles

Expect children in a newly blended family to occasionally engage in power struggles. Children may vent their frustration and anger over a new family configuration by defying or challenging adults.

“It’s our kids’ job to push limits, but it’s our job to set limits,” Jacobson says.

Instead, parents mistakenly reinforce a child’s power plays by either shoving back – which just causes matters to escalate – or backing down.

Parenting expert Michael Popkin suggests defusing power struggles with children through the “FLAC method,” demonstrated as follows:

Set house rules

For kids, the prospect of a new household and a new stepparent can be scary and confusing.

“They haven’t known you very long,” Jacobson says. “They don’t know what your expectations are versus what Mom’s are. You have to go in slow and learn about the kids before you jump in and take an authoritarian role.”

One powerful parenting tool is to set and post house rules based on everyone’s input. Sit down with the kids and discuss it: What is a reasonable bed time during the week? What should the consequences be if someone breaks a house rule?

The ritual of setting and posting house rules has two important benefits. One: It helps kids “own” the rules because they helped make them. Two: It redirects their anger from the parent to the actual rules, which, incidentally, they helped establish.

For more information about blended families:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525