Rules and boundaries in blended families: the basics
Working out boundaries and setting up family rules can be tricky in any family. It can be more complicated in blended families because:
- the families coming together might have different ideas about rules and boundaries
- children and step-parents are still getting to know each other
- children and teenagers often don’t like new step-parents setting rules or telling them what to do
- children living in two different households might have two different sets of rules.
But the same things that can get other families working well can also help blended families work well. These include:
- showing warmth and affection
- being interested in and listening to everyone’s concerns and points of view
- setting up firm and clear rules and expectations for children, including consequences for not sticking to the rules.
Blended family rules
When two families come together, they bring with them different histories, rules and expectations. The children are already used to the rules at mum’s and dad’s houses. They often rebel if there are too many new rules in the first few months of life as a new blended family. It can help if you allow some settling in time before you set new rules.
These tips can also help:
- Try to have similar rules in both of the children’s households, and try to keep existing rules – for example, rules about bedtime.
- Introduce rules that ensure safety and respect first – especially between stepsiblings.
- 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 knocking before entering. These often work better than negative rules like ‘Don’t ignore people’.
- Try to be patient as everyone adjusts to the new rules, and praise and reward your child when he’s done what you’ve asked – for example, ‘You were so helpful this morning, and I could see it was hard for you. Well done’.
- Put the rules on the fridge so everyone is clear on them and can refer to them.
Responsibility for rules and boundaries in blended families
Children usually adjust better and feel more secure in the first two years of life in a new blended family if their own parent continues to be their main source of love and care, and also the main person who’s ‘in charge’ of them. This includes being responsible for setting behaviour expectations and consequences.
Step-parents 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 step-parent 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 only watch TV after you’ve finished your homework. Let me know if I can help you with it’.
If step-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. You might need to have a family meeting about the issue too.
As your blended family settles down and your child gets to know her step-parent, she’s more likely to accept it when your partner backs up your family’s rules.
– Harry, 16, living in two blended families
Blended family parents 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 can be difficult sometimes, and you’re likely to have some setbacks. Teamwork can help you through the challenges.
Teamwork is also about backing each other up, so that your child doesn’t play one of you off against the other. For example, your child might say to his stepdad, ‘Mum said I could watch TV tonight’. The stepdad might think that this isn’t a good idea, but he backs up his partner and they talk about the issue later.
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. Although it’s best if you take the lead in telling your children and your partner does the same, a family meeting lets the children see that their parents and step-parents have worked together to set the rules. This makes it more likely that children will accept the rules you’ve set.