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PARENTING

Help For Blended Families

By Karen O'Connor
Guest Columnist

CBN.com - My husband Charles and I stood in front of the minister holding hands with one another and with our five children. It was our wedding day--the second marriage for both of us. We included our daughters and sons in the service because they, perhaps even more than we, would be forever affected by the vows we were about to exchange. Later that morning when we walked out the door of the little village church, we went from being two individual families to one blended family.

As the formerly married marry again and bring their natural children into the new relationship, as we did eighteen years ago, everyone involved is suddenly thrust into a new experience--the 'blended family.' This occurs even if the children do not live in the same household with the parent who remarries. Since children generally spend weekends, holidays, or extended summer visits with their natural parent and new stepparent, everyone involved needs opportunities and activities that provide a sense of belonging.

And when a child's natural mother and father both remarry, he or she must then find a rightful place in two blended families--which include stepparents, stepsibilings, stepgrandparents, and others on both sides. Building and managing all these relationships can result in stress for everyone.

If children are born later of the new relationship, the blending takes on still another dimension. Meanwhile, the adults in the household also have one another to think of! This adds up to a tall order for anyone. But the blending can occur. Many parents and children attest to the success of their blended families when they really get involved in each other's lives. And that's what it takes--involvement. It's vital for parents and children to do things together--to pray, to play games, to participate in family projects or learn new skills, to be involved in gift-buying and giving, to have a voice in financial decisions, and to be listened to at family meetings.

Getting your blended family up and running may require a little help. Ours certainly did. We welcomed it, knowing we could benefit from the experience of those who had gone before us. Here are some of the ideas that worked for us. I hope they will be useful and encouraging to you.

TALKING TOGETHER

Communication breakdowns, hurt feelings, special needs, individual viewpoints, differing ages, temperaments, and backgrounds all play a part in the dynamics of living together. Loyalty conflicts spring up. Relationships are jealously guarded. Individuals pit themselves against others and often refuse to talk about what’s bothering them.

You can help yourself, your spouse, and most of all your children with an exercise called Heart Talks that will stimulate and encourage everyone in your family to express-- in a safe environment--what’s bothering them.

Cut out a paper heart from construction paper. Then on a poster board, list the following partial sentences about family life (or make up your own):

• I feel angry when...

• I’m unhappy when...

• I wish our family didn’t have to...

• I don’t like it when...

• I feel left out when...

Sit in a circle on the floor. Model a few sentences so the children will hear how to share their feelings responsibly. For example, it would be okay to say, "I feel angry when Jenny plays with my dolls without asking me first." It would not be okay to say, "I feel angry when dumb Jenny trashes my dolls when I’m not around to stop her."

Start with one person holding the heart. Invite that person to choose a phrase from the list and to finish it out loud. Then pass the heart to the next person and so on.

Afterward ask family members to repeat at least one message they heard during the exercise and to offer a solution, if one is called for, or to give a word of encouragement. For example, Jenny could apologize for playing with her sister’s dolls without permission and agree to ask for it from that point on.

CREATING NEW CUSTOMS TOGETHER...AND KEEPING THE OLD

As parents of a blended family you have an opportunity to initiate new customs, but also keep the old ones alive, so the children especially will not lose touch with their roots. For example, Margery and Bill allow their children to decorate the family Christmas tree in three stages. Margery's son and daughter add ornaments they've had since they were babies when their natural parents were still married. Their mother wants to acknowledge with them the validity of that time in their lives. If they want to share a memory they are welcome to do so.

"Too many parents who have been divorced don't want to give credence to anything from their former life," said Margery. "But this is a real loss for the children. It's almost like saying that only a part of them is valuable." Bill has taken a cue from Margery and now invites his children to do the same. Then together as a blended family, they all hang the ornaments and decorations that represent their new unit. "This way everyone is included," said Bill. "We now feel as strongly about keeping old customs as we do about creating new ones."

PLAYING TOGETHER

Games, songfests, sporting events, picnics are all good ways to relax and play together. In addition, look for opportunities to connect that are fun, but somewhat unusual. This will surprise and delight your kids and show them in a new way how much you value them.

For example, plan a family slumber party. Invite the kids into your room for a picnic supper or a pizza-on-the-floor party. Follow that up with a movie on video that everyone can enjoy, and then spread out the sleeping bags and snuggle in for the night.

Julie says her family looks forward to this event. "On one night every few months we break our usual custom of eating at the table and sleeping in our own beds. The kids get a real kick out of that."

In the morning, take everyone out for breakfast, or better yet, prepare breakfast as a family. Put each person in charge of one item. Even the younger ones can help by setting the table. You might be surprised at how much intimacy can result from such an experience.

LEARNING TOGETHER

Give yourselves the gift of learning and growing together--one parent and one child at a time, or as a group, depending on the size of your family and the ages of your children. For example, suppose you want to explore camping. Call your state park system and find out what campgrounds and trails are available. Maybe there's a group or national organization, such as the Sierra Club, with a chapter in your city. Join and get involved.

Maybe you'd like to plant a garden together, arrange flowers, learn more about the Internet, how to play tennis, or what’s involved in skiing or scuba diving. Look into YMCA-sponsored events, community seminars, and training programs in the area you wish to pursue. Local newspapers and the Yellow Pages are also good starting points.

Focus on learning the skill so you can practice and participate together, rather than simply gathering information. For example, one mother signed up for piano lessons along with her children. They supported each other through practice sessions and performed in the same recital! A stepdad who had always wanted to learn chess, took up the hobby with his thirteen-year-old stepson.

PRAYING TOGETHER

Every family can benefit from spiritual support. But what do you do when religious traditions, practices, and viewpoints differ somewhat among family members? For example, the new parents may be practicing Christians. But the parents in the other home may not be, or they may practice a faith you cannot condone. Yet you don't want to undermine those parents in the eyes of your/their children.

Start by setting a standard for your blended family. When you're together in your house you go to church, pray at meals, pray before bed, read Scripture as a family. The children will quickly recognize and respect this routine. It's what's done in this home. When they visit their other parents, release them to the Lord's care, trusting he will guard their minds and hearts. Pray for their safety and well-being while they're gone. Embrace them lovingly when they return.

Religion is one of the most challenging areas blended families face. You will need the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit as you establish your own practices and at the same time show respect for those who may disagree with you. In the end it is your love and the consistent practice of your faith that will impact your children the most.

By putting these ideas and more into action you will create and nurture a strong base of love and mutual acceptance within your blended family. And most important you will be secure in the promise of Scripture: "For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you" (NIV).


Karen O'Connor is an award-winning author, retreat speaker, and writing instructor from San Diego, California.

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