In its most basic sense, a blended family is one where the parents have children from previous relationships but all the members come together as one unit. However, as blended families become increasingly common, the definition of a blended family is changing. Understanding the basics of a blended family can be essential for ensuring your family can embrace its strengths to work through its differences.
What Is a Blended Family?
The simple definition of a blended family, also called a step family, reconstituted family, or a complex family, is a family unit where one or both parents have children from a previous relationship, but they have combined to form a new family. The parents may or may not then have children with each other. Traditionally, the parents of a blended family would be married, often after a divorce or death of a previous spouse, but modern blended families may not have married parents; cohabitant parents can both serve as role models for the children without a marriage ceremony.
In many cases, the non-biological parent will adopt the other's children, but not always. To formalize an adoption, both biological parents, except in the case of a death, will need to approve the adoption. Formalizing an adoption gives the new stepparent legal authority with the children, including the ability to authorize emergency medical care and the responsibility to help provide care if the parents' relationship ends.
Difficulties of the Modern Blended Family
While the concept of the step family has been around for centuries, many blended families were not recognized until the two parents married and agreed to care for the children together, even if one parent was not biologically related. Today, it is much more acceptable for the adults in the relationship to live together and raise the children jointly without the legal commitment of a marriage or adoption. This more lenient approach can cause difficulties, particularly in terms of child support, medical decisions, and other complex issues, such as:
- Conflicting roles of family members when children are of different ages, such as when an older child of one parent becomes the eldest and younger children of the other family must readjust to a new position
- Conflicting family values and responsibilities of each family member with regards to daily chores, appropriate behavior, and other expectations
- Social etiquette difficulties between the non-involved biological parent and the new stepparent, and which one is acting as which type of role model
- Stress on the biological parents when balancing the needs of their children and the new partner(s), particularly where values may conflict
Many blended families successfully overcome these difficulties, becoming strong, supportive family units for every member. Fortunately, there are many resources available to offer understanding and support to blended families, from counseling services, books, and programs to online material. Exceptional resources include:
Blended Family Benefits
While it may seem that step families face many difficulties when blending two different family units into one, there are great benefits to a blended family as well:
- Children have the benefit of two, or more, caring parents to provide role models
- All family members learn to appreciate greater diversity and differences
- Often, more financial and emotional support is available for all family members
By understanding the subtleties between the definition of a blended family and the definition of family in general, the finer points of blended families come to the forefront. While parents with children from different parents face additional challenges, blended families also enjoy advantages of a unique family structure. Taking a closer look at your blended family allows you to appreciate the uniqueness and value of every member of your family, no matter what biological or legal relationships may or may not be present.
“Blended families” is a relatively new term in history, but it, as well as step families, has become part of everyday language in the last 50 years. In a sense, the blended family is often associated with a wicked stepparent or stepsibling of the ”dysfunctional family” in conventional culture. However, one must admit that the classical exposures to blended families are poor examples. On one extreme, there is an evil fairy tale of Cinderella with a wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters. On the other end of the spectrum, the Americans are presented with the “everyone lived happily ever after” fictional family — The Brady Bunch. However, it is important to be realistic in considering this issue.
One should remember that a blended family, however good it might be, can never be the same as the original family.
One of the parents is not a natural parent of one or more of the children. Blended families have more complicated sets of relationships to manage. There are likely to be grandparents, uncles, cousins and siblings and a parents living outside the family with no links with other members of the step-family. It is important to allow for past experiences as much as possible. For example, children who were exposed to violence in their original family may take a long time to be able to really trust a new step-parent. This has nothing to do with the step-parent, but is a legacy of the past.
It is often tempting not to talk about the past as if it holds painful memories. Yet it is best for the new partner to know about past difficulties. Children should also know if they are old enough. This helps to minimise `secrets’ and `keep out’ topics of conversation, both of which can lead to tension and difficulty. The blended family also needs to work out ways of coping with contact between children and their other parent.
Common sense is one of the best allies in relationships. The members of the family should treat each other with kindness, patience and respect. It is also important to refrain from speaking ill of the children’s other natural parents at all cost. When two separate families come together under one roof, there are going to be conflicts. However, talking about them and understanding the other’s feelings is necessary and critical. It will take time to build a history with each other that will someday grow from affection into familial love. It may take time and probably won’t be easy, but it is well worth the effort.
The first and foremost rule for blended families is that parents do not disagree with each other in front of the children. When spouses have a conflict, it should be discussed behind closed doors. It is very tempting to stand up for one’s own child and point a finger at the stepchild. It is equally tempting to accuse one’s spouse of unbalanced discipline toward your child. However, such mistakes should not be repeated. In fact, the children are thrown together with near strangers and suddenly feel they have to vie for their parent’s attention. They often feel they are being replaced rather than added to.
It is really important for children to see a united front and stable relationships for a change. The most common problem is discipline which can quickly disrupt this unity.” The remarried couple needs to work hard to unite their discipline ideas and styles. Early on, the natural parent needs to talk to their children and reaffirm the control and respect due the stepparent. When the children know ahead of time what is expected of them, their acceptance of the new family becomes easier…
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