National Stepfamily Awareness Day is celebrated on the last Sunday of July each year, in recognition of the diverse family structures which are so common in our society today.
In Australia, stepfamilies make up 6.4% of all couple families with children and blended families make up 3.7%. Together this constitutes 274,081 families of the 2.72 million families with children in our nation¹.
Step and blended families can be a challenging family dynamic for many, but with patience and willingness to make things work, these families have just as much capability as any to have strong, positive and happy relationships.
One of our Family Counsellors in Gippsland, Paula Hoogerbrugge, works with step and blended families to help them work through the challenges associated with family separation and blending.
While every family is different and each have their own needs, here are five strategies Paula recommends for parents that can be used to create supported and happier step/blended families:
Have one-to-one catchups with children individually
During separation and re-partnering, children often experience significant stress and feel unseen.
They can also feel lost among the new family unit, particularly while they’re grieving the loss of the family unit they had come so used to – and this takes time.
It is important to remember that your children had no say in the decision to separate or to re-partner, and so helping them feel heard and seen can not only give them the support they need, but help you to build strong and healthy relationships with each other.
Having a strong bond is also helpful during times of conflict, because the bond you have with your child is something each of you can fall back on to make amends and be willing to work things out.
Paula explains this through the analogy of an ‘emotional bank account’, where the quality time you spend together and the positive relationship you build puts coins into the account. During times of conflict, these coins can be taken out to help resolve challenges and forgive one another – but if no coins are in the bank, there is nothing to take and it becomes challenging to work things out.
Ensure you spend intentional time with your child each week – no phones, no interruptions, just time where you can either do an activity together or just sit and chat one-to-one. While this can be particularly difficult when there are two or more children in the home, spending time with them individually is even more important as they are more likely to feel unseen.
Have a family meeting
Family meetings are a great opportunity to ensure everyone in the family feels heard, to talk through issues or how things can be done better, and to acknowledge and celebrate accomplishments.
Holding a family meeting may not be easy, particularly at first. But when every family member has the opportunity to have a voice and contribute to respectful, constructive conversation, the benefits of these meetings can outweigh the initial discomfort or unease.
Debbie Alsdorf from Focus on the Family recommends setting up an agenda and asking each family member what they would like to discuss, keeping the meeting positive and constructive, and keeping them relatively short and to-time³.
It’s also recommended to keep track of discussion by taking notes in a family notebook or on a piece of paper stored in a folder. This enables the family to pick up on unsettled items in a future meeting, or review discussion as a refresher. Taking notes on a phone may not be as suitable, as phones can serve as a distraction.
Create a new family culture together
Trying to merge family cultures, rules and expectations from previous families can be tricky and often result in conflict.
Build a new family culture together, so that everyone has a say, and so that this new culture is suitable for your new family dynamic.
You can use a family meeting to discuss the new family culture you want to create together, including new ways to celebrate, new routines or activities, and even ways you might approach challenges together.
Creating a new family culture also enables parents to ensure a united front, rather than arguing about how you do (or did) things differently - it helps with maintaining the same routines, rules and expectations for all children and family members.
Pick your battles
Not all battles are worth the fight.
In five years’ time, what will you look back on and what moments will be important to you? Keep to what’s important and don’t sweat the small stuff.
If you find that family members are getting frustrated over small things, it might be a sign that they feel unheard or unseen, or there might be another core issue buried under the surface.
Make sure all family members have the opportunity to discuss their worries and concerns in a way they feel comfortable, and in a way that is respectful.
Remember that it is completely normal for children and teenagers to display anger or frustration, because being involved in a separation and a new blended family can be very difficult for dependants to cope with. Children and teenagers are still growing and learning, and are much more vulnerable to life’s stresses than adults.
Be there for them – and go out of your way to show it
Cooking meals, doing chores and paying bills, while essential for the demands of everyday life, do not display to your children that you are there for them.
Our basic needs such as food, water and security are things that we as humans expect for our survival. Whereas feelings of belonging and love are a separate need, accomplished through our relationships with others. This concept is explained through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs⁴.
Show your children that you are really THERE for them by being present for them in times that are important to them.
This might look like attending their footy matches, picking them up from school, or sitting down with them to do an activity together.
By doing the things that matter to your children, this helps build your relationship and makes them feel loved and cared for. This is also particularly helpful for building relationships between stepparents and children.
Stepfamily and blended family – what’s the difference?
While these terms are often used interchangeably, stepfamilies are officially recognised as a family with ‘at least one resident step child, but no child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners’².
Blended families are acknowledged as families with ‘two or more children; at least one child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners, and at least one who is the step child of one of them’².
If you or your stepfamily are in need of support, view our range of family services at CatholicCare Victoria or speak to one of our counsellors today:
Other services for families: Family Dispute Resolution | Family Relationship Centre | Family Wellbeing Support Service | Parenting Orders Program
Paula Hoogerbrugge | Family Counsellor
Liz Gellel | Marketing Coordinator – Digital Lead