Rules and boundaries in blended families and stepfamilies: the basics
Working out boundaries and setting up family rules can be challenging in any family. It can be more complicated in blended families and stepfamilies for a few reasons:
- The families coming together might have different ideas about rules and boundaries.
- Children and their parent’s new partner are still getting to know each other.
- Children and teenagers often don’t like their parent’s new partner telling them what to do.
- Children living in different households might have different sets of rules.
But the same things that help to create strong families can also help blended families. These include:
- showing warmth and affection to each other
- listening to everyone’s concerns and points of view
- setting firm and clear rules, expectations and consequences.
Tips for making and using rules in blended families and stepfamilies
When families come together, it can help to allow some settling-in time before you set new rules. That’s because children might push back if there are too many new rules in the first few months of blended family or stepfamily life.
Tips for making rules
- Talk about each family’s pre-existing rules – why you have them and how they work. This can help children better understand how things might work in the future.
- Introduce rules that ensure safety and respect first, especially between children who haven’t lived together before. For example, ‘Always knock before going into someone’s room’.
- Be open to the children’s ideas about what rules they think are fair. For example, talk about curfews with older children and try to make allowances for children of different ages.
- Have positive rules about things like greeting each other nicely in the morning, being kind and polite, saying goodbye when you’re leaving, saying please and thank you and so on. These often work better than negative rules like ‘Don’t ignore people’.
- Talk together about what should happen when someone breaks the rules.
Tips for using rules effectively
- Try to have similar rules in children’s different households, and try to keep existing rules – for example, rules about bedtime for younger children or homework for older children.
- Display the rules and consequences on the fridge or a pinboard so everyone is clear on the rules and can refer to them.
- Try to be patient as everyone adjusts to the new rules. Praise and reward children when they do what you ask. For example, ‘You were so helpful this morning, and I could see it was hard for you. Well done’.
- Review the rules regularly to make sure that they’re still working as your children get older and things change in your family.
Responsibility for rules and boundaries in blended families and stepfamilies
Children usually adjust better and feel more secure in the early years in a new blended family or stepfamily if their own parent continues to be their main source of love, care and behaviour guidance, which includes rule-setting.
New partners play a very important support role though. When you and your partner work together on applying family rules and boundaries, you’ll all adjust more easily.
As a new partner you can help by backing up your partner’s rules – for example, ‘I agree with Mum on this. It’s your turn to wash the dishes tonight’. Sometimes you might have to back up the rules when your partner isn’t around. For example, ‘Your mum said you can play games only after you’ve finished your homework. Let me know if I can help you with it’.
If your partner’s children argue when you back up their parent’s rules, you can be a bit firmer. For example, ‘When you show me your homework is finished, you can watch TV’. If there’s a fuss, your partner can follow up later.
As your blended family settles down and your child gets to know your new partner, they’re more likely to accept it when your partner backs up your family’s rules.
Parents in blended families and stepfamilies: working as a team
Parenting teamwork is about working together and agreeing on your approach to parenting. This means agreeing on general rules about respectful communication, bedtimes, eating and so on.
But setting rules and behaviour expectations and consequences isn’t always easy. So teamwork is also about backing each other up. This helps all the children in your blended family understand that you and your partner have the same expectations of their behaviour.
If you disagree with your partner, try not to get into a conflict in front of the children. You can manage conflict better if you talk about the issues when you and your partner are alone and feeling calm. It can even help to set aside some regular time each week to talk through problems.
Accepting that there’s no one right way to do things can also help you work towards what will be best for your family. This might mean you both have to adjust a little.
Another way to show children that you and your partner are a team is to have family meetings to discuss new or changed rules and boundaries. Family meetings let children see that you’ve worked together to set the rules. This makes it more likely that they’ll accept the rules you’ve set.
Problem-solving is a way of finding new and creative solutions in situations where you’re stuck or can’t work through your issues. It can help you when there are major disagreements about family rules and boundaries.