Making Summers Work—A Guide for Blended Families
- Divorced couples with children who live with one parent and visit the other. Most of the divorced adults in these situations are dating or looking for new partners.
- Couples who are remarried or living together with her and/or his children. One or both adults are in the role of stepparent.
- Single mothers with primary custody who may be alone, dating, or living with someone.
- Single fathers who visit their children, and may remarry, bringing a stepmother who may or may not have children of her own into the mix.
- Lesbian and gay couples with children from prior relationships.
This is not to say there are not challenges associated with blended families. Putting two—or three, or more—families together and expecting everyone to get along might be akin to wishing on a star. There are ways, however, to make the transitions less bumpy, and integrate families together, particularly when summer rolls around and there are vacations and visitations to deal with.
Just how common are blended families and how does that affect your family life?
- America is a nation where more families are divorced than not; most of those who divorce go on to remarry or form living together relationships.
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 1,3000 new stepfamilies form every single day.
- The “average” marriage in the United States lasts seven years.
- 75 percent of divorced adults will remarry.
- 66 percent of those who are remarried or living together will end up breaking up when there are children involved.
- At least half of all the children in America under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s partner.
- A full three-quarters of blended families wish they had resources to help them deal with unique, stepfamily issues.
- Half of all women in the U.S.—whether they are biological mothers or not—will, at some point in their life, live in a stepfamily relationship.
- 41 percent of children of divorce are worried, underachieving, and sometimes angry about their situation.
- When mothers and fathers, regardless of new relationships or remarriage, put their differences aside and resume normal parenting roles, the children thrive.
- The primary reasons for the high rate of divorce in blended families are disagreements about how to raise the children and disagreements about financial issues.
Any way you look at it, blending families is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it can be an extremely complex process, as each member of the family attempts to find and fill their new role in the blended family. Most psychologists agree that it can take about five years for a blended family to operate in the same way as a biological family. Therefore, if you are struggling to make your blended family work, don’t fear. There are ways you can help the process go a little bit smoother – especially during the summer months.
Planning Your Summer & Sharing Your Kids
So, what happens now that summer is just around the corner? Do you have a plan of action, or know what to expect? One mother admitted she was actually dreading having her four teenage stepdaughters spend the summer with the family, calling the last two summers with the girls an “emotional rollercoaster.” It is fairly common for children to spend several weeks during the summer at a non-residential parent’s home. The wide array of transitional issues involved with these summer vacations can be difficult, to say the least. The children may be excited to spend some time with the non-residential parent, yet sad because they are leaving their other parent and possibly siblings behind. In other words, saying “hello” to one person involves saying “goodbye” to another.
Older children can become frustrated and angry when mandatory visitations affect their friendships. They may realize that they are missing out on friends’ birthday parties, summer camps, and slumber parties. In today’s digital age, they may see pictures of their friends at the latest ‘summer party’ and realize that they have missed out. As they become teenagers, they also may be leaving behind a boyfriend or girlfriend, further complicating their feelings and leading to increased unhappiness.
Despite the range of mixed emotions involved, summer visitations allow non-residential parents the time to reconnect with their children and/or to build stronger relationships with their stepchildren. Residential parents may be able to take a much-needed break from the daily demands of parenting, even as they miss having their children near.
There are ways you can make summer vacations go a bit more smoothly for all those involved.
If you are receiving children for a long visit:
- Don’t Cram – Don’t try to cram a year into a few weeks or a month or so. Resist the temptation to buy the children expensive gifts or take them on extravagant vacations simply to gain their love and affection. This is not to say that fun activities or a family vacation is not appropriate, only that the children need your time and your attention much more than they need your money and gifts.
- Don’t Force Relationship – Understand and accept that when you only see stepchildren a limited amount of time, you will probably take two steps back and possibly only one forward. Try to connect with the stepchildren in any way possible, but if they make it clear they want some distance from you, don’t force a relationship. Continue to show them you care, but never, ever try to take the place of the parent they primarily live with.
- Spend Time with Kids – Whenever possible, the biological parent should spend lots of time with the children when they arrive, and stepparents need to try their best not to resent this time. Children need to create a bond with their biological parent and feel like they are wanted and welcome. This will help the rest of the vacation go smoothly. Children who don’t spend lots of time with their biological parent in the first week they arrive may feel as if they aren’t wanted and may resent giving up their friends and other family members for someone who can’t make time for them.
- Don’t Make Them Feel Guilty – Never make a stepchild feel guilty for the love they feel for their residential parent. Practice grace, and celebrate the joys and accomplishments of the stepchildren as you would do if they were your best friend’s children rather than the children of your partner and his or her ex. Remember these are your partner’s children and the love you show them is important to your relationship with everyone.
- Get the Other Side of the Story – Children can sometimes be manipulative, so all the adults need to agree to get the other side of the story if the children call home with complaints or negativity. In other words, give the adult the benefit of the doubt before you fly off the handle. Let your ex explain the situation before reaching any conclusions and don’t let the child pit you against each other.
If you are sending your children for a summer visit:
- Make a Plan – Be adults, and get together with exes to negotiate dates, times and travel details. Offer suggestions on how the stepparent and non-residential parent can ease the transition for the children, whether they are toddlers, teens, or somewhere in between. Find out what activities your children will be involved with during the summer and make sure you send the items they will need, or agree with the other parent that those items will be purchased.
- Hold Back the Tears – Don’t let your children see you are sad that they will be gone. Sure, you will miss them, but give them permission to enjoy the time they have with their other parent without feeling guilty.
- Keep in Touch; Not Too Much – Keep in touch with your children, whether through e-mail, phone or text, but don’t intrude on the time they are spending with their other parent. Remember, you are the one who gets to see the majority of their accomplishments and changes. Constantly calling and texting your child will pull them out of the moment with their other parent and make it more difficult for them have fun and stay engaged. It may also remind them of what they are missing at home and cause more headaches and havoc for everyone.
- Build Memories with Children at Home – If, after sending your children to stay with their other parent, you still have children in the home—whether stepchildren or a child with your new spouse—build some memories with those left at home.
- Plan Fun Nights Out – Now that your children are with their non-custodial parent, take this time to plan date nights with your new spouse or girls’ nights out with your friends. Plan a “couples trip” or a “girls trip” to make the most of your time without your children. This can be a great time to reconnect with a new spouse or with friends that you haven’t spent time with in years.
- Plan Time for Yourself – It is also a good idea to plan time for yourself. Consider doing things that you can’t do when your kids are around. Take a class, pick up a new hobby, or travel more. Spending time alone recharging your batteries is a good thing and will make you a better parent when your kids return.
Never Talk Poorly about Your Ex
It is hard being a child of divorced parents. Many children feel like they are constantly put in the middle between their parents and forced to “choose” who they love. They feel this way because a lot of parents talk negatively about their ex and use this to seek love and acceptance from their children. Avoid speaking negatively about your ex – no matter what. This will alienate your child and put them in a very awkward situation: agree with you or risk upsetting you. Hearing negative talk about either of their parents is hurtful for many children and can lead to increased stress, alienation, and can jeopardize your summer together.
Planning a Summer Vacation Can Be Done
If you are planning a summer vacation with your blended family, there are a couple of things to remember. The first is that flexibility is key. You probably already know that the best laid plans often go awry. Make sure you have a plan B—and C, D, and E. If anything can throw a monkey wrench in your plans, children certainly can, and will. If something is not working, don’t be afraid to change things up. Also, make sure you plan for some down time so you are not constantly dealing with tired, cranky children. Avoid power struggles with stepchildren whenever possible.
Do your best to simply move on and have fun. Perspective is important when in the midst of a summer vacation with a blended family. Try not to put high expectations into your summer vacation. In other words, imagining that all the children will get along with one another at all times, and that the magical family moments you see on television will just happen, is simply not realistic. This is not to say you might not actually have one or two of those magical moments, but try to keep your sense of humor, and don’t expect too much, and your blended family’s summer will be one full of cherished memories.