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The Rise of the Blended Family in the UK

In the UK as is many other countries, divorce, separation, and repartnering are the norm, with many welcoming children from their partner’s former relationship into their home to live together as a family. The latest report from the Office for National Statistics recorded over half a million blended families with dependent children in England and Wales, with 28% of these families having three or more children. Without a doubt, walking the fine line between parent and friend can be challenging for parents of new blended families, and it is vital for spouses or partners to manage their situation with a sound and united strategy, working as a team to ensure the health and happiness of every person living in their home.

What are Some Problems that Blended Families can Encounter?

Parentline Plus, a hotline for parents with family issues, reported receiving over 14,000 calls in a single year from step parents with stepfamily issues. Research by psychologist, Lisa Doodson of Regent’s University London found that stepmothers had significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than biological mothers, as well as a weaker support structure. Common problems can include a lack of time (parents find that they now have to spread the little time they may have between more children); sibling rivalry (children may find it hard to get along with their step siblings or compete for their parents’ attention, fearful that they will be loved less now that they are not living with both biological parents); and territorial issues (children can find it hard to have to share bedrooms, bathrooms, toys, etc. There can be initial difficulties establishing territory and limits). Parents can also struggle to get twice as many kids to get to after-school activities and lessons, while work and other personal and social demands.

Adaptation Takes Time

Research shows that it can take blended families at least four years to adjust to their new arrangement. Therefore, if you feel frustrated or powerless when it comes to managing so much change, know that it takes time to get to know your stepchildren and to negotiate the many rules and routines that may differ considerably from your own. Be patient and use humour to diffuse tense situations, and use tried-and-tested conflict resolution skills to reduce tension and focus on issues that arise, looking to solve these issues one by one. As time passes, you will start to appreciate the benefits that being part of a blended family can bring to your life. Things may be a bit more chaotic than they used to be, but they can also be more entertaining and the presence of more rather than less people in a household can actually be a source of support in terms of time, chores, company, and other essential life factors.

Building a Strategy

Before you begin to live as a blended family, it is important to time to discuss routines and rules with your new spouse or partner. Uniformity must prevail in a home if there is to be peace in a blended family. Therefore, some feel it is logical to ask new children arriving into the home to adapt to established routines, bedtimes, etc. This isn’t to say that your spouse’s considerations don’t matter. During your discussion, you might decide that some changes will be profitable for everyone in the family. Equality should prevail, but you should not feel like you don’t have the right to establish norms in your home.

 

Deciding on Conflict Resolution Norms

When norms for conflict aren’t established, arguments can quickly escalate. It is important that once children are mature enough to understand and learn conflict resolution skills, that conflict resolution skills be learned, to make for  peaceful, purposeful communication within your blended family. At a family meeting, you can explain to kids why using the right language is important. For instance, language such as “You always” or “You never” should be avoided, because they put the listener on the defensive and veer the discussion away from the actual problem you are trying to fix. The ultimate aim is for step siblings to see the family unit as a team. This way, conflicts can be seen as an opportunity to achieve outcomes rather than to ‘beat the opponent’.

Adding a Dash of Understanding

Be prepared for your stepchildren to utter, at some point during your life together, “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mom/dad.” Understand that when they say this, they are essentially telling you they are hurting, they are finding it hard to adapt, and they may miss their old home structure with their biological parents. For some kids, discussing conflicts should be left for when the situation is calmer. Take the time you need to clear your mind when you feel like you are frustrated. Go for a walk, do some deep breathing, or meditate for a few moments, coming back to your stepchild when the tension has diffused a little. Explain that you are not trying to replace their parent, but that as an adult in the home, you need to establish ground rules across the board, for all kids living with you. When you speak to them, use humour and warmth to help them feel loved rather than chastised. A warm embrace and a smile can go a long way towards helping children understand that there is nothing personal about rules; they simply need to be set for the household to run as smoothly as possible.

If you are about to start a blended family living arrangement, it is important to be realistic and expect a few teething problems, both on your part and those of your existing and new kids. You and your partner can reduce the likelihood of conflict by agreeing on ground rules and explaining them together to your children in a family meeting. Be prepared for a few territorial fights and tears at first, but be resistant, don’t give in, and always stress the importance of approaching problems as a family. Take complaints as a sign your new kids may need a little reassurance and extra time and attention and do your best to give them as much support as they need. Once rules, schedules, and bedroom arrangements are set, you can start enjoying the diversity and fun involved in living together, seeing conflict as an opportunity to learn more about your biological and step children, but also about yourself.