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The Blended Family and Parenting Survival Guide: Solutions for the Top 3 Challenges

It comes as no surprise that there isn’t a handbook for becoming a great parent or stepparent. You may already attest to this fact. Most parents learn through trial and error. And since there’s very little support for blended families, here’s a survival guide for co-parenting. Learning emotional intelligence skills is essential for all parents, but crucial when dealing with the complexity of stepparenting.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Blended family preparing a meal in the kitchen.Skip to a Section
What Is a Blended Family?
Common Blended Family Issues
Problem #1: Conflicts about Parenting Styles
Problem #2: Increased Sibling Rivalry and Emotional Upheaval
Problem #3: A Stepparent Overstepping Children’s Boundaries
Parenting Solutions for Stepparents and Blended Families
SOLUTION #1: Accept the Complexity that Comes with Blending Families
SOLUTION #2: Empathize with Your Children and Stepchildren
SOLUTION #3: Focus on Building Your Relationship

There are countless upsides that come from “blending” your family with your partner's. Yet, with these highs, there are some challenges, too. Blended families have their fair share of issues—many are unique to this particular type of family. Acknowledging these challenges is the first step in overcoming—or avoiding—blended family problems.

What  Is a Blended  Family?

Before we go any further, let’s define a blended family.

A blended family is a family unit formed when one family joins another—usually after the parents are remarried. A family is considered blended when at least one parent has children who are not legally or biologically related to the other parent or spouse. Another name is a stepfamily.

Instances of divorce or the death of a spouse are a couple of reasons the initial family unit may change shape. It’s helpful to view your new blended family as changing its shape; you’re still a unit but the shape, arrangement, and size are different.

Some common characteristics of blended families include: 

  • A child or children from one of the parent’s previous relationship.
  • A stepparent is an adult not biologically related to the children involved.
  • A union between two adults before children become siblings.
With that as a foundation, let’s examine common blended family challenges.

Common  Blended Family Issues

Let’s be honest and face reality: Stepparenting is not for the faint of heart! The fact that you have chosen to love again and embark on this journey makes you courageous. And to be clear: The struggles you may be experiencing do NOT make you a “bad parent” but only a parent forging a new frontier.

I suspect you’re reading right now because you’re looking for support and answers. So, why are blended families often painstaking?

While marriages vary from couple to couple, a key indicator for the break-up of blended marriages is ignoring the challenges that naturally arise when two unique families become one.

Most people who remarry with children underestimate just how difficult the new family dynamics will be and how BIG of an adjustment it is for the children. The children are frequently still grieving the disruption of their original family or the loss of a parent when they are thrust into a new family life—often with near “strangers.” It’s fair to say that most children have no say when their biological parents divorce or when they remarry. These major changes create a sense of powerlessness for children that can be overwhelming.

Here are three of the most common blended family problems.

  • Conflicts about parenting styles;
  • Sibling rivalry and emotional upheaval; and
  • A stepparent overstepping stepchildren’s boundaries.
We will tackle solutions and best practices to help you navigate each problem shortly. But first, here’s how each situation may present itself.

Problem #1: Conflicts about Parenting Styles

No matter how you frame parenting, it is a difficult and monumental job that changes from moment to moment, with ups and downs. One thing that adds to this stress is a conflict between parenting styles.

A parenting style is how you guide and discipline your children’s behavior, determining pathways of interactions between parents, children, and grandparents. There are varying parenting styles ranging from very strict (Autocratic or Authoritarian) to easy-going, lenient parenting, often called Permissive Parenting. And then there is Helicopter Parenting, sometimes called drone parents, who hover to protect their children. Heartmanity recommends the middle path: kind and firm, called Conscious Parenting or Democratic Parenting.

The truth is: most parents have a combination of parenting styles. For example, when a parent has great self-care, low stress, and parenting skills they often lean toward a more democratic style, creatively and lovingly setting limits for behavior. However, when that parent is stressed with low self-care, they may quickly move to “my way or the highway” and then swing to permissive out of guilt over their reaction. We all have parenting defaults when stressed.

Little girl grabbing a chocolate chip cookie right before dinner.However, clashing parenting styles are one of the leading causes of conflict in a blended family. Let’s take a scenario as an example.

Gregory and Mary have recently married. Mary's fifteen-year-old teen, Keith, reaches for one of the newly baked chocolate chip cookies cooling on the kitchen counter. Mary tells him to wait since it's almost dinnertime, and Keith complies. Gregory's five-year-old daughter, Julia, also wants one of those yummy cookies, and Mary consistently repeats the no for her stepdaughter. However, Julia is used to being “Daddy’s little girl” and getting her way easily. So, she throws herself to the floor in a loud temper tantrum. This racket alerts Gregory in the other room. Upon entering, he quickly intervenes and gives Julia a cookie, overriding Mary’s stepparenting decision.

If one parent is raising teenagers—while their partner has young children—this big age difference will often highlight the contrasts between how parents enforce rules, reward behavior, and discipline. Yet, similar-aged children from different marriages can have conflicts for totally different reasons. 

There is evidence that stepparents navigate ambiguous insider-outsider roles within new family forms and that parent-child relationships in families without two biological parents are characterized by greater distance and conflict. (Journal of Marriage and Family.)

According to our above scenario, the “ambiguous insider-outsider roles" are in full swing. And often, these role differences in parenting styles aren’t discovered before joining families.

No matter how much you might plan for blending your families, there will be conflicts greeting you. Embrace them. Be flexible and assert your love while working together for win-win solutions.

Related reading:Parenting Tips for Saying No and Setting Boundaries.”

Problem #2: Increased Sibling Rivalry and Emotional Upheaval

When you remarry and join another family, your child may feel their place as your priority is being threatened. In turn, this massive change can invoke rivalry with other siblings, especially stepsiblings.

Sibling rivalries are moments when children compete for their parents’ attention and affection. Sibling rivalry is common in all families, especially when children are close in age, and it can last into adulthood. This dynamic is accentuated for children and teens in blended families due to the previous disruption of their family of origin.

For example, suppose one of the children was an only child in a single-parent household and joined a family with multiple children. This dramatic change may be hard for them to handle. The added commotion alone could be overwhelming. They might not know how to relate to their stepsiblings or understand their feelings about all the new relationships. On top of these challenges, their parent is likely to be less available, devoting time to their new spouse and stepchildren.

A frustrated stepmother dealing with sibling rivalry.

So, what are some signs of increasing sibling rivalry?

  • Excessive tattling;
  • Frequent arguments;
  • Demanding parental attention;
  • Acting out or unusual misbehavior;
  • Verbal or physical fights;
  • Bullying, typically when one child is older;
  • Competing against each other in sports, academics, etc.

Besides sibling rivalries, your children’s emotional stability can take another blow when your families ‘blend’. As they attempt to make sense of their new experience, stepparent, and stepsiblings, you may also see signs of emotional upheaval.

Emotional upheavals are best defined as big changes that lead to insecurity, worry, frustration, or confusion—adjusting to a brand-new family dynamic is a huge life change.

Children—and even the parents—can feel many colliding emotions:

  • Sadness and grief
  • Anger
  • Jealousy
  • Excitement
  • Annoyance
  • Anxiousness
  • Guilt

Symptoms of emotional upheaval in blended families can also include:

  • A change in appetite.
  • Sleeping too much (or not enough).
  • Isolating from the family.
  • Clinging to a parent.
  • Rejecting or shutting out their stepparent.

Children introduced into a blended family may show varying distress signs so pay close attention and monitor them through the different developmental stages and seasons of family life.

Related Reading: Boundaries Protect and Support Your Blended Family 

Problem #3: A Stepparent Overstepping Children’s Boundaries

Once you assume the role of co-parent or stepparent, you inherit a big responsibility—and it’s a colossal job considering you might barely know your stepchildren!

Your first instinct will be to take that child under your wings and parent the way you believe is best. However, your very first job is to get to know your stepchildren. The primary goal for you in the first few years is to build a loving relationship with them. It’s not time to discipline or parent differently from your spouse. In fact, the most common example of a stepparent overstepping boundaries often happens when attempting to correct behavior or enforce discipline.

What are boundaries? Boundaries are invisible lines that help us define our preferences and personal space. Boundaries serve as limits and guidelines within our relationships and inform others what we like and don’t like. They will be unique for each child depending on their age, personality, temperament, and experiences. And by getting to know your stepchild, you’ll be able to honor those boundaries.

It’s vital to spot when a child is ready to let you in as a stepparent and not assume anything.

Let's revisit our scenario above and play it out with this common misstep in mind. (Remember, in our story, Julia’s father gave her a cookie in response to her tantrum, even though it was right before dinner. However, Mary believes in healthy limits.)

Mary was shocked at Gregory’s actions and hurt that he overruled her decision. In a knee-jerk reaction, she snatches the cookie right out of Julia’s hand, saying, “I said no!” When the five-year-old beseeches her dad’s intercession, Mary adamantly disagrees with Gregory’s parenting style and vocalizes it.

Julia, who has typically gotten her way, is distraught. And now, she is right dab in the middle of her dad and new stepmom's dispute. Yikes!

Hurt little girl with parents fighting in the background.

In this situation, Mary has overstepped boundaries, especially since Gregory’s limit-setting differs drastically from Mary’s. Julia may begin to view her stepmom as “mean,” or unreasonable. (Remember, they do not yet have a history of love and emotional deposits in their newly formed relationship yet.) And Julia's angry feelings might intensify toward her stepmom with each new boundary encounter. In addition, the stepmom's frustration may also grow and she may react with increased anger.

Healthy limits are important, but how we, as parents, communicate them is equally important.

While you may have been the disciplinarian in your own household, your attempts to enforce your style of parenting will likely be unappreciated and may cause power struggles. This kind of interchange will incite more tension within the home, especially if it is never privately discussed as a couple or addressed as a family. If left to fester, this dramatic difference in parenting style can create unnecessary upheaval in the marriage and blended family.

Here are some other examples of a stepparent overstepping boundaries: 

  • Talking negatively about their spouse to the children
  • Bad-mouthing the spouse’s ex.
  • Actively making efforts to replace the stepchild’s parent;
  • Seeking to override parental decisions made by their spouse; and
  • Changing stepchildren’s diet without consulting your spouse.

As highlighted in a recent Very Well Mind article: “It’s important for stepparents to respect boundaries because the addition, loss, and transition of parental figures can be extremely difficult for children to manage.”

So, how can you resolve your family’s issues? How do you navigate all of these changes and added challenges? With grace—and a lot of patience and love!

Parenting Solutions for Stepparents and Blended Families

While the problems mentioned earlier may seem difficult, the tips provided in this survival guide will help. Here are our emotional intelligence skills and parenting solutions for blended families that will assist you.

  • Accept the complexity that comes with blending families.
  • Empathize with your children/stepchildren.
  • Focus on building your relationship with your stepchildren.

Blended Family Solution #1: Accept the Complexity
Accept the Complexity that Comes with
Blending Families

Unlike nuclear or single-parent families, a stepfamily is considered unchartered territory for parents. You can make that first step towards coping with the unknown and the complexity of blending families by accepting the challenging parts AND working together to parent on the same page.

A great way to start this process is by giving some thought about how you and your spouse intend to raise the children together and acknowledging your natural parenting tendencies—for better or worse. It’s vital to sit down with your spouse and agree on your values and how you will discipline your children.

Once you’ve both agreed, develop a plan by sharing the strengths of each and how you will support each other to be better parents. Learn from each other. For instance, in our scenario above, both parents want what’s best for Julia. Avoid faulting your partner because you see parenting differently. Instead, build a bridge that creates unity between you and becomes your new family’s glue!

Recognize that you’re both doing your best. Therefore, have compassion for each other as you learn how to parent from the same page.

Deep Dive: Your Expectations Are a Big Problem in Blended Families
Aerial view of happy blended family.

Stepparenting Solution #2: Empathize

Empathize with Your Children and Stepchildren

An effective EQ tool to utilize in
parenting is empathy. It is the best way to ease the tension and help your children feel understood and heard. 

Empathy is an active effort to understand and share the feelings and experiences of someone else, despite not being in the person’s or child's situation. When you practice empathy, you also hone your patience and develop your listening skills.

Your children are bound to feel emotional during this big change. Let’s take a final look at the scenario with Mary and her stepdaughter, Julia.

It was clear that Mary saw Julia’s temper tantrum as just that: a temper tantrum. She may have believed Julia’s reaction was a sign of being spoiled. Empathizing in a blended family may take different forms. Let’s look at several responses that may have eased the conflict in our cookie scenario.

Instead of being stern, Mary could have given Julia room to explore her feelings and desires, acknowledging her experience. For instance, one empathetic response might sound like this: “Wow, a warm cookie sounds really yummy right now, doesn’t it!? We don’t want to spoil your appetite.” Or, “I baked those cookies knowing how much you'd like them! After dinner you can have one; if you’re hungry now, how 'bout munching on a carrot.”

From the dad’s side, Keith could have inquired about the situation and backed Mary’s decision, by empathizing with Julia. “I know you really want that cookie! Waiting can be hard.” And then scooping her up and giving her a hug. Or distracting her with a game or activity she loves.

Empathy creates a new pathway for greater harmony and love! Try it. Most parents are surprised by just how powerful it is!

Related reading:What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?” 

Parenting Solution #3: Focus on building the relationship with your stepchildren.

Focus on Building Your Relationship with
Your Stepchildren, Not Disciplining

Understandably, stepparents need to take on child-rearing responsibilities immediately after blending families. These responsibilities include housework, meals, helping with homework, driving them to and from school and sports, etc. Yet, above and beyond, the most crucial focus is getting to know your stepchildren and nurturing your relationship with them. Relinquish expectations and be present.Start by observing your children and stepchildren. Get curious about what motivates them. Listen a lot!

Let go of your expectations and be present. Learn about what is important to them, what they’re interested in, their favorite foods and activities, and their goals and aspirations. You have some catching up to do!

Other ways you can nurture a relationship with your stepchild:

  • Support their pursuits;
  • Give encouragement;
  • Take an interest in their hobbies and sports;
  • Encourage fun, openness, and communication; and
  • Allow your spouse to take on the disciplinarian role.

Should a moment come when your stepchild’s behavior needs to be dealt with, think of it as redirecting them to a more positive outcome.

Helpful additional reading: "How to Use Nacho Parenting with Your Stepchild."

Like all things, parenting takes time and patience. Are you always going to get it right? Nope. So have compassion for yourself, too. Blended families have their fair share of challenges, so seek guidance and support when you feel ill-equipped to handle the situations you face. 

Whether you're a seasoned stepparent or stepparenting is a new experience, a vital step to becoming better is to learn new skills and seek to see life from your children’s and stepchildren’s perspectives.

Heartmanity aims to make navigating parenthood a meaningful journey. Blended family help is just an email away!

For personalized guidance, contact Heartmanity at

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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