5 ways to make your stepfamily work

It might not be the smoothest ride, but it can be done. Stepfamily coach Jenna Korf shares how best to navigate the bumps on the road to happy (step)families.

blended family
Sydney Bourne/ Image Source/ Getty Images

Fact: Right this second, 40 per cent of married couples with kids in the US are forming step families also known as ‘blended families’. But with more than half of these re-couplings ending in divorce (a whopping 70 percent, if both partners have children), one has to wonder, are we doing it right?

To be fair, with conflicting parenting styles, divided loyalties and unresolved issues with (occasionally, crazy) exes to contend with, this stepfamily shtick is a whole lot harder than Mike and Carol make it look. But while we can’t all fuse as flawlessly as the Bradys – with the smoothness of a meticulously sieved bisque (they are a fictional bunch, after all), surely we can hope to combine with the satisfying consistency of say, a rustic guacamole (messy, but delicious) and go more the way of Pinkett-Smith than Jolie-Pitt?

A stepmom herself, certified stepfamily coach Jenna Korf says yes, and shares five ways to make this slow (but worthy) merger a little less rough:

  1. THINK OF THE CHILDREN

“What’s really important, regardless of the situation, is to understand that what is a celebration for the new couple often can feel like a loss for the child,” says Jenna, who advises empathizing with your (biological) child by saying something like: “I know this is hard on you. It can be really weird to live with new people. I’m always here to listen to your concerns and talk to you about this. It’s OK to be angry or sad about this. I also know it might feel like you’re losing me, but you’re not. I want to make sure you know that we’re still going to get one-on-one time together.” Also mention the fun stuff, such as getting to be a big or little brother or sister and the inevitable increase in gifts. “But don’t try to convince the child,” Jenna warns. “They’re really hurting right now and want to be heard.”

  1. CHAMPION ONE-ON-ONE TIME

Make sure each child gets some one-on-one time with their biological parent, to avoid them feeling resentful for the stepparent ‘stealing’ this away. Likewise, the stepparent needs to have some one-on-one time with their stepchild. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but it does need to happen,” says Jenna. “This is how the stepparent forms their own relationship with the child. When the biological parent is present, the stepparent is the outsider, but when it’s just the stepparent and the child, the stepparent becomes an insider. [They’ll] often notice the child is more receptive to [them] when the biological parent isn’t around.”  

  1. ESTABLISH A STEP-HABIT

Two days a week, when picking up her stepson from school, Jenna would bring him his favourite drink. “That was almost 10 years ago and he still talks about how much he liked that and how it was a turning point for us.” The first few years are the toughest, so rather than trying to ‘parent’ your stepkids, simply get to know them. “Focus on creating a positive relationship first, and that will lead to you being more influential later,” says Jenna. “Focus on having fun with them, be interested in their interests, laugh with them! Get into the habit of doing something special for them.”

  1. SET HOUSE RULES

“This takes compromise on everyone’s part, but it can set the kids at ease to be crystal clear on what is expected of them and the consequences of not meeting those expectations,” says Jenna, who suggests including your children in the rulemaking. “Ask them what they think is a fair consequence for breaking a rule. They often are better at sticking to the rules if they’ve contributed.” Once you’ve settled on your house rules, write them down, stick them up somewhere visible and review as required. “Each family can determine what’s important to them and then try to incorporate that into the rules.”

  1. BE PATIENT

“Stepfamilies are extremely challenging by their very nature, so instead of expecting immediate love, expect bumps,” says Jenna. “There will be arguments, there will be hurt feelings and everyone at some point will have difficulties. That’s OK, it will get better. Keep communication open, make sure the couple is maintaining their relationship by keeping up with date nights and having alone time, and get support for your family from a qualified coach or therapist. The love will likely come over a period of years, so instead of trying to feel love, focus on respect, fun and getting to know each other.”