Blending blended families

Dr. Jonathan Swinton

One in three people live in blended families. Though I am not a fan of labeling blended families, the term can highlight the unique challenge of finding tolerable ways to blend the lives, experiences, expectations and dreams of all involved. If you are part of a blended family, does it feel like oil and water? How do you blend? I have combined my experience assisting blended families and the work of nationally acclaimed blended family expert, Dr. Patricia Papernow, to highlight many of the common struggles and potential solutions that may help blended families blend –

• Challenges children experience. Divorce and/or blending new families can be very difficult for children to navigate. The greatest struggle children face is dealing with the loss of the family they once had or hoped to have and finding ways of maintaining loyalties in the new family setup. A child may love both parents but may feel uncomfortable ever vocalizing that with either parent. It is worse if the parents and/or stepparents don’t get along and the kids are involved as pawns in their disagreements. As a parent and/or stepparent, the best thing you can do is focus on getting along with all the adults involved. You don’t have to love each other but keep the kids out of it.

• Parenting challenges. Parenting in stepfamilies typically involves a couple who is joining in the middle of established methods of parenting. Parenting styles include a mix of firmness/permissiveness and kindness/hostility. If one parent is more permissive and kinder while the other is firmer and more hostile, problems will result. Parents that use the same styles will likely find few problems meshing their styles. Try your best to align your styles and reach compromises. The other parenting challenge that often surfaces is children responding differently to discipline from parents and stepparents. Children will generally respond better to discipline from their parents than their stepparents. The parents should be the ones to deal with tough discipline issues. Day-to-day issues should be dealt with by both parents and stepparents, so the kids know all adults are to be respected. Make sure you are 100% consistent with each other on the day-to-day issues.

• Couple Relationship Struggles. When couples get married and create a new blended family, they are often a bit older than what we typically call newlyweds. They come into the new relationship with more experience, opinions, traditions, expectations and established ways of living their lives. It is often difficult to align these realities and still feel love for one another. Compromise is key. If either of you get your way, then the other doesn’t. Is that what you want?

Blending families can be complicated. However, when blended families are created, they can be just what everyone involved wants and needs. If you focus on compromise and selflessness your blended family can be wonderful.

Dr. Swinton is a relationship and mental health expert with Utah State University Extension in Sevier County. If you have questions you would like him to confidentially address in this column, email him at

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