Blended Families, Challenges, Commitment, Guest Posts

5 Strategies for Healthy Step-Families

Couples in blended families face some of the most complex issues marriages can possibly face. That’s why I’m thrilled to have this guest blog post from Mike and Kim Anderson. We recently interviewed them on the Fierce Marriage Podcast and our conversation was so helpful that I asked them to write an article.

Important note: you can’t talk about step-families without talking about what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage. Read this page to learn more.

Mike and Kim have been working with stepfamilies for the better part of the past 20 years, and have an incredible understanding of how to help blended families flourish. If you’re part of a blended family (or come from one), this article is for you!

The following is a guest post from Mike Anderson. Enjoy!

Want to get started immediately? Download Mike and Kim’s FREE guide, How to Build Connection, Order & Peace in Your Stepfamily from Mike and Kim Anderson.

I’ve lived in a stepfamily my entire life…literally.  I was born into a stepfamily, then years after mom died, Dad remarried and kicked off my next stepfamily of origin experience.  Fast forward to 2001 — I became a step-parent when Kim and I were married.

After all of our personal experience and over a decade of supporting other step-couples, we’ve discovered that stepfamily life is never ‘Plan A’.

No one plans for divorce or the tragic loss of a spouse.  No one hopes for the chance to ‘blend’ two families someday.  Stepfamily life is all about ‘Plan B’.

And the good news is that every stepfamily can thrive when they focus on  Plan B strategies for healthy stepfamily life.  

5 Strategies for Healthy Step-Families

Here’s a quick rundown of 5 strategies I typically recommend to those in stepfamilies:

1: Bonding with Step-kids

Bonds form more naturally in a Plan A family.  The couple marries, develops their bond during the honeymoon phase.  Along comes kids and the parent-child bonds usually form relatively easily.

In a stepfamily, bonding looks very different.  The marriage bond is often the weakest bond in the home.  The parent-child bonds have more history and the step-relationships start out with no bond at all.  Bonding in a stepfamily requires Plan B strategies that take time, patience, intentionality and perseverance…it takes a bit more work than a typical Plan A family.

Strategy: Focused time together

One simple (but counterintuitive) strategy is to replace a little of your family time with 1 on 1 time.  Start out with just 10 minutes of focused time with each of your kids and step-kids, then work your way up from there.  It’s common for couples to create lots of family time to build closer bonds. But in a stepfamily, tensions are usually highest when everyone is together.  You’ll relieve some of that tension with this 1 on 1 strategy.

2: Kid’s Perspectives

Step-couples most often focus on the positive gains that will come for everyone in the family as they walk down the aisle.  It’s common for them to misunderstand what could be the reality for their kids. Most kids see a parent’s re-coupling as another loss for them.  They fear the possibility of losing things like time, attention or even love from a bio-parent.

Step-couples who are intentional about considering all the losses and fears their kids may be dealing with are able to move forward with Plan B strategies that support all the relationships in the stepfamily.  Plus they can experience less disappointment because their expectations are more in line with reality.

Strategy: Understanding kids’ perspectives

The most common fear for step-kids is losing focused time with their bio-parent.  That fear often leads to acting out or isolating. When you see your kids struggling, try asking a simple question:  “…you’ve been through a lot of changes and I’ve been thinking you might be worried about some stuff…would you be willing to tell me what’s on your mind?”

And when they share, do your best to simply listen and affirm.  There’s a lot you can’t “fix” for your kids in stepfamily life. But you’ll help relieve some of their stress just by being present and patient in these conversations.

3: Marriage/Partnership

Step-couples hit the ground running!  They don’t get a typical honeymoon period because the demands of family life are already weighing on them right out of the gate.  The dynamics between them and those that surround them are much more complex than those of a first marriage.

It’s true that ‘Plan A’ principles for marriage still apply for step-couples.  However, the complexities of stepfamily life often cause couples to feel “stuck” and to get “unstuck” requires Plan B strategies that will intentionally and gradually elevate their partnership to become the foundation of the home so that everyone can thrive.

Strategy: “No-business” dates

If you’re feeling “stuck” in your partnership, then the first thing I recommend is to schedule a date. Even if you don’t feel like it. And when you’re together, don’t talk business — no parenting, scheduling or budgeting discussions. Find even the smallest way to connect. Dating your mate will help keep you on the same team in the midst of all the complexities.

4: Parenting

This is the #1 reason step-couples reach out to us for help.  Parenting in a step-family is complex and counterintuitive. Many step-couples in our culture today view their parental roles through the lens of responsibilities.  (Dads should do this…Moms should do that).

Stepfamilies need to view their parental roles through the lens of relationships.  Bio-relationships and step-relationships are two different things and the kids will respond to them in two different ways.  The best Plan B strategies for parenting are those that are focused on building trusted bonds in step-relationships while keeping healthy parental authority within the bio-relationships.

Strategy: Good Cop / Bad Cop

Early on, Kim and I decided that when it came to parenting she would always be the “bad cop” with her daughter, Annika.  We agreed on parenting strategies behind closed doors, but Kim handed down all the discipline. On the flip side, I got to be the “good cop”!  I always got to deliver the good news like, “Hey Annika, we get to go to your favorite restaurant tonight!” or “Guess what?! We’re going to Disneyland this summer!”

We maintained this for almost two years!  This intentional strategy allowed Annika and I to build a relationship without the stress of parenting and discipline.  And it kept Kim in the position of primary parental authority, which is where the bio-parent needs to be.

5: “The Parenting Coalition”

This is a strategy that Plan A families never have to think about.  It’s all about learning to live in healthy relationship with an Ex and their extended family.  Expert Ron Deal calls it “The Parenting Coalition” because it not only includes the Ex, but also their family, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins…and of course the Ex’s new partner!

The sheer quantity of relationships that exist for kids living in duel stepfamilies can be staggering!  For kids to thrive, they need to experience peace between all these family members…that requires Plan B strategies that are focused on working well with people you may dislike or distrust.

Strategy: Tempered conversations

There are lots of things out of your control in your parenting coalition.  And the best thing you can do is stop worrying about all of those things and stay centered on what you can control.

One of those things is the content of your conversations.  Kids need to know the basics of what to expect, but they don’t need to know sordid details.  Things like “…we can afford to go out to eat about once a month now…” help kids, but they don’t need to know that this change is connected the amount of child support you’re paying.  Those kinds of details are a burden for kids that you can protect them from.

Power Up!

I’ve enjoyed playing video games with all of our kids over the years and one thing that’s consistent in just about every game is some form of a “Power Up!”  These are the points in the game where you get extra strength to keep going.

Stepfamilies need “Power Ups!” too.  And God is gracious in providing them…Jesus reveals this in Matthew 22 when he was asked, “…which is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’…” (NIV)

As believers, we have the opportunity every day to abide in Jesus and allow him to give us the “Power Up!” we need to guide our stepfamilies toward the connection we’ve been hoping for.  He brings wisdom. He brings Peace. He powers our Plan B strategies.

He’s also given us each other.  These two greatest commandments reveal that we’re made for God and we’re made for community.  We were never intended to live our Plan B alone…even if it feels lonely sometimes.

Maybe today is the day you reach out to a community that will help you move your stepfamily forward.  Kim and I would be humbled to partner with you and to help you connect with a community of step-couples — just like you — who will encourage and support you along the way.  

Let’s get started! Download the FREE guide, How to Build Connection, Order & Peace in Your Stepfamily from Mike and Kim Anderson.

Mike & Kim have been supporting stepfamilies since 2001. Their marriage formed a stepfamily and Mike grew up in challenging stepfamily dynamics. Their personal experience with stepfamily life and professional experience coaching others uniquely equip them to help step-couples learn and implement healthy habits that will positively transform their daily stepfamily life.

Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?

Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?

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