by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, August 2010
Merging households and combining families can cause the people in them to flourish and thrive despite unique challenges they may face. It is helpful to consider what the goal is in a combined family: To keep peace? To navigate drama? To benefit financially? To prevent stress? To build an identity that reflects the uniqueness of each individual as well as the group? To develop unity?
Some special challenges face those who are creating a family with adult children. One is realizing the time it takes to become a "family." Another is keeping the children out of the interactions between the adults who are no longer married. Thirdly, navigating adult alone time while also spending much needed time with the children and grandchildren to build a family. It is always wise to discover the likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, personalities, fears of all of the children and grandchildren and to see them alone and with their siblings and parents. It is a great opportunity to get to know someone else's children and grandchildren through their eyes (as well as through your own eyes.)
Think of what you can learn about your own children and yourself when you allow your new partner to share his or her observations. It takes a lifetime to grow together and when you combine families, you may feel you are playing catch up. Not so. Just be where you are at this moment in time and go forward. Listen and watch and get to know who these folks are and offer them the chance to be themselves (all any of us really want) and the relationships will develop. The age differences (without the baggage of previous roles) can be exciting. Nobody is there to "replace" a parent who died or from whom one parent divorced. These new relationships have opportunity to enhance; to bring new perspective, new life, new dimensions, new ways of thinking. Change is often difficult and sometimes perceived as threatening. However, when each person's intention comes from a loving place, family members are sometimes more open and responsive to trying or listening to something or someone different and change becomes less onerous. It also helps to model for everyone in the family that each person (regardless of the generation into which they were born) has a connection "to me and my parent" and that there is an opportunity to learn from and to contribute to each other. There is a fluidity to generational thinking that occurs over time.
Strategies helpful in making a combined family work include encouraging people to be accepting of each other's styles, habits, and focusing on their strengths and positive qualities. Avoid trying to change people or making them "fit" into a specific type of behavior or mold. Also, avoid undermining the parent who is the primary person "in charge" of the decision making regarding his or her children (discipline, boundaries, limits). Encourage participation in activities as a family around some of the interests of the children, along with interests of the stepparent. Create opportunities for everyone to get to know each other in relaxed situations other than getting together for holiday dinners (which are often difficult because of the previous traditions and focusing on who is NOT there instead of who IS there.)
Fortunately, most families are able to work out their growing pains and live together successfully. Open communication, positive attitudes, mutual respect and plenty of love and patience all have an important place in creating a healthy combined family.
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