Dr. Wes Crenshaw On How To Navigate A Blended Family

Sep 15, 2014

The Brady Bunch was a largely happy (though fictional) blended family.
Credit ABC Television / Wikimedia-CC

When families split and merge, the result isn’t always as seamless as The Brady Bunch. How to make yours a happy home when step-parents are involved depends largely on the example the adults set.

On Monday's Up to Date, psychologist Wes Crenshaw, a board-certified family psychologist and longtime guest on the show, offered advice on how to overcome the challenges of starting a blended family and tools to navigate the world of step-parenting.

Starting this month, he also appears on kcur.org with his advice column, jointly authored with a teen from the Lawrence, Kan., area. Currently, his co-author is Kyra Haas. Here's what they have to say about creating a successful stepfamily:

Kyra: According to smartstepfamilies.com, 40 percent of children live with a stepparent, stepsibling or half sibling. While I don’t fall into this category, both my parents have stepparents, as do several of my friends. I borrowed some of their experiences in formulating the following suggestions to help teens navigate blended family life.

  1. Maintain open, respectful communication. You don’t have to like your stepparent. You may even hate her, but regardless of the circumstances in which she came into your life, as a human being she deserves at least the respect you would extend a stranger. You have to live and put up with her until you move out and any conflict can be minimized with civil, open interaction.
  2. Don’t triangulate. Competing with a stepparent for a biological parent’s attention can be tempting, but avoid making the situation a contest because no one will win. If you feel your biological parent ignores you in favor of his spouse, tell him you want to spend more time with him, but avoid pulling the stepparent into the conversation. Be honest and open, and don’t be too discouraged if he doesn’t respond in the way you’d hoped. Your parent is just a person, too, and while he may express his feelings differently, he’s trying to figure things out just as you are.
  3. Stay positive. Your parents’ decisions affect you, but they do not define you. Don’t let a strained relationship with a stepparent pull you down in other areas of your life, like academic, athletic, artistic or other achievement. Letting your grades slip or your extracurricular interests wane will, in the long run, only hurt yourself.

Wes: Some folks still like to pin all manner of societal ills on divorce and “broken families.” In reality, most childhood struggles in these homes don’t come from the divorce itself, but from HOW parents separate and conduct themselves in the years thereafter. 

It’s the ultimate statement of “duh” to proclaim that a good divorce is better than a bad one. And a good divorce is healthier for children than an overtly bad marriage. And when stepparents enter the picture, things can get better or much worse. So here are my top four rules parents can use for making a blended family go better:

  1. Don’t expect a child to like a stepparent who was previously your lover while you were married to that child’s other parent. This will be hard to hear for some readers, because affairs are quite common and for reasons that defy logic, some end in remarriage.  If you want to do one thing to improve your post-divorce relationship with your kids, delay dating until after the divorce is final. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, take a consistently forgiving position when your children reject your partner.
  2. With rare exception, a stepparent should be the adult friend of the child and nothing more. Promoting stepparents or imbuing them with the powers of discipline usually ends in resentment and conflict all around. While stepparents should not work against a biological parent, neither should they set the tone for the child’s life in the home.
  3. Be humble. Stepparents are entering an established family as strangers. While they should not take a submissive role, neither should they fight for position or force their personal culture on the family. This is harder to avoid than it sounds, but stepparents who are confidently quiet, gain respect. Which leads us to...
  4. Be patient. Nobody ever gets to walk into any new culture, especially one this sensitive, and command respect. In fact, nobody gets to command respect from anyone. Respect is earned and that takes time. Step parenting is a long game, not a sprint.

Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I'm Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at dr-wes.com.

Kyra Haas is a Free State High School senior who blogs at justfreakinghaasome.wordpress.com. She was selected in a writing contest in April and serves with Dr. Wes as coauthor Double Take Column in the Lawrence Journal World and Our Two Sense for Your Teen magazine.