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4 Common Mistakes Made When 'Blending' Families

It is astounding to realize that before the end of the decade, more people will be part of a stepfamily than any other family form. As unbelievable as that statistic sounds, the part that is truly unbelievable is that forming a new family with children from a previous marriage requires training and education. As statistics show, most stepcouples don't get this training and so they become one of the 60% of second marriages that fail. On ABC's Primetime Live, Diane Sawyer, herself a member of a stepfamily, interviewed two stepfamilies with consultation from three psychologists who are nationally recognized stepfamily experts, Dr. Patricia Papernow, Dr. Scott Browning and Dr. James Bray. An interview with Dr. Papernow expands upon four guidelines for successful stepfamily development:
  1. Do not attempt too much change too fast. Establishing too many new rules and expectations creates too much instability for children. On the other hand, no change at all in family rules can leave stepparents as strangers in their own homes. Dr. Papernow suggests that stepparent and parent, together, work out, at the most, two or three changes in rules and expectations to start with. Do not expect to “blend” parenting styles, family rules and values right away. Research shows that it takes at least a couple of years for even "fast" new stepcouples to understand their differences enough to begin to forge some new agreements that work for everyone. In Dr. Papernow’s experience, "faster" stepfamilies treat their differences as items to calmly explore and be curious about. "Slower" families argue over "right" and "wrong." Meanwhile, she warns, expect that many differences will remain in place. While this may feel awkward and "unfamily like," Dr. Papernow reminds us that although this is un first-time family like, it is normal in a stepfamily.

  2. Children adjust best when the original parent remains in charge of discipline. Research shows that, generally, when stepparents attempt to directly discipline their stepchildren, it backfires.

  3. Stepparents, as outsiders and newcomers, have different needs of children than their parents do. Stepparents also often have very useful input about children’s needs and issues. Stepparents do need to bring up issues about their stepchildren, but with their adult partner, not directly with the children. In addition, Dr. Papernow suggests, because most parents are extremely sensitive about their parenting and about their children, stepparents will be most successful if they can raise their concerns with kindness and care. And, again, while stepparents do need to give their input, the children’s parent needs to retain final say over rules and discipline.

  4. "Compartmentalizing" works much better than "blending," says Dr. Papernow. Paradoxically, stepfamilies develop best when families carve out one-to-one time throughout the family. The adult couple needs regular time alone without children. Children need reliable time alone with their own parent, without the stepparent. Stepparent and stepchildren need low-key time alone together to get to know each other slowly. Keep time together as a whole new family brief. Expect that time spent in the whole family will often be tense at least for the first years. Dr. Papernow says, "This doesn’t mean you have failed. It just means you are living in a stepfamily, not a first-time family."

    Stepfamilies differ from nuclear families in multiple ways. Following these four guidelines is critical. They provide a bare minimum for successful stepfamily development. If you are considering forming a new stepfamily, you can dramatically increase your chances of success by educating yourself about what to expect, what works, and what doesn't Dr. Papernow's book "Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families" ( will provide you with a solid understanding of the unexpected phases and realizations that every stepfamily must go through, and will help both parents and stepparents to build the necessary foundation upon which a successful new stepfamily can be formed.

* NOTICE: * Any advice provided here represent the opionions and research of the writer and are for informational purposes only. For guidance relating to your specific needs, contact a professional.
About the Expert:

Dr. Patricia Papernow is a highly regarded teacher and lecturer and a psychologist in private practice in Hudson, Massachusetts. She specializes in issues in stepfamilies, remarried couples, and post-divorce parenting. Dr. Papernow is the author of Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families (Analytic Press) which was the winner of the Nevis Award for best book in 1993. As well, she has written numerous articles and book chapters in both the academic and lay press on post-divorce parenting and remarried family life. Dr. Papernow is a board member for the National Stepfamily Resource Center.

Dr. Patricia Papernow's recommendations for Divorce Partner visitors:
Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families  Dr. Patricia Papernow 
  Description: Dr. Papernows book is a thorough guide to blending families, and contains concepts and guidelines that are proven to beat the overwhelming statistics against successfully blending families.
National Stepfamily Resource Center  Dr. Patricia Papernow 

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