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Reconstituted families: Mine, yours, ours

To understand reconstituted/blended families, we first need to understand the concept of family. Family is a system, a set of elements connected by a set of relationships. These systems are connected in a hierarchical and organised way, and have limits or boundaries that differentiate them from their environment. It is important to highlight that the family goes through a vital cycle which involves several stages, namely, the formation of the couple, family with young children, family with children at school family with adolescent children and family with adult children.

The family of origin is where we grow up and die, however, during the course of development we may have more than one family. Over the years, new family configurations have been born, such as single-parent adoptive, homosexual, community and blended families.

Here, we will focus on blended families and the challenges that they face.

Often, when two people dissolve a marriage, it drastically changes not only their lives, but also the lives of their children. Children of divorced parents go through their own emotional journey as they adjust to their new reality. When one parent remarries, a new dynamic is created for everyone, especially when there are other children involved.

When two people who have one or more children from a previous relationship marry, they create a new family unit. This is what is referred to as a reconstituted/blended family. While these are not new or unusual, they have their own set of challenges. To best deal with these challenges and create a successful and cohesive family, it is essential to establish healthy communication with a focus on adjusting children to the new family reality.

Make blended families work through patience, humility and skill development:

  • Patience - First, it helps to develop an appreciation for the fact that building relationships between a stepfather and his spouse's children takes time. There is no instant family feeling with a stepfather or stepmother.

  • Humility - Both spouses need to unravel previous failures in the relationship and carefully appreciate their vulnerabilities.

  • Develop new skills - The couple will need to develop practical communication skills and manage the transition to become a functional adoptive family.

Trying to make a reconstituted family’s replica of your first family, or the ideal nuclear family, can often lead family members to confusion, frustration and disappointment. Instead, accept the differences and consider the basic elements that make a successful blended family:

  • Don't expect to fall in love with your partner's children overnight, and vice versa. Get to know them and allow them to know you. Love and affection take time to develop.

  • Find ways to live 'real life' together. Try to get children used to your partner and his or her children in everyday life situations.

  • Make changes to your children's upbringing before you get married. Agree with your new partner on how you want to parent together, and then make the necessary adjustments to your parenting styles before you remarry. The transition will be smoother this way.

  • Insist on respect. You can't insist that people like each other, but you can insist that you treat each other with respect.

  • Limit your expectations. You can give a lot of time, energy, love and affection to your new partner's children that they won't immediately reciprocate. Think of it as making small investments.

  • Don't forget that as a parent and an adult, it is up to you to communicate openly with children, to meet their needs for security and to give them enough time to make a successful transition.

Most importantly, be realistic and compassionate - give yourself and all family members time to adjust to this new phase. After all, this family is new to everyone!

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