Blended families are becoming increasingly more prevalent, currently accounting for 4.5% of all families with children in Australia (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2012.) A blended family, in its most basic sense, is a couple family where there are at least two children, of whom one is the natural child of the couple, and one of whom is a step child of either member of the couple (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2002). The formation of a blended family, different to that of a step family, can occur under many circumstances, and all individual members of the family are effected differently. Whilst it can be a joyous experience for many to combine their two families with positive long-term implications, it can also raise varying issues and challenges. Prevalent among these issues is the introduction of new family members and their new roles within the family, as well as adapting to new environments and the changing nature of relationships shared between parents and children and sibling-to-sibling relationships (both biological and step). These challenges and issues must be overcome in order to exist harmoniously as a family unit.
How common are blended families in Australia?
In 2012, 49,917 marriages ended in divorce, an increase of 982 or 2.0% compared to the number of divorces granted in 2011. However, the number of remarriages has also increased, with 11.8% of all registered marriages in 2012 being a remarriage for both partners, and 83.6% a second marriage for one partner (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012). This rise in divorce rates as well as remarriages means that the nuclear family structure is becoming less ‘commonplace’ in today’s society as more families are becoming what is known as ‘Blended Families’. The blended family is formed when a single parent, whether by divorce, separation or widowing, forms a relationship with a new partner who may or may not have their own children also. When the new couple have a biological child together, or choose to adopt as a couple, a blended family is created. It is the introduction of a biological child of both partners that separates the blended family from a step-family. A step family consists of a couple whom either one or both have their own children (biological or step) and form a relationship or marriage, cohabitating as a couple, with no biological relation to their respective partners children or between the step-siblings (Relationships Australia). A 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey ascertained that the number of blended and step families has increased by approximately 50% in the last decade, currently representing 10.6% of all couple families with children (91,000 blended families in total), compared to a figure of 4.4% of blended families that contained children in 2001 (Household Income and Labour Dynamics of Australia Survey 2001, ABS 2011). Of the 5.0 million children aged 0 to 17 years in Australia in 2009-10, 11% lived within a blended family, whilst 441,000 people had children aged 0-17 years living elsewhere with the other natural parent of their children (Family Characteristics Survey 2009-2010).
Issues associated with blended families and the negative implications A blended family will often harbour a great sense of loss for all individual members of the family. As each member has suffered a loss of either a parent through divorce, parental separation, or death, children being separated from their siblings, or one parent becoming a non-residential parent. With the introduction of new family members as parents form new relationships and form blended families, the issue of adapting to a new psychical environment arises for both children and parents, as well as the emotions associated with the changing nature of relationships within the family. For the parents in a blended family, residential parent-child relationships face the challenge of the addition of a new parental figure into the family. In some instances, a child may feel like an outsider in his or her own home because of his or her residential parent’s new romantic relationship as explored by Falci, C. D. in a 2006 University of Nebraska study into the blended family structure (pp124). Similarly, the change of physical environment can also cause high levels of emotional and psychological stress for a children and parents, as their surroundings are unfamiliar and newly established, and there may be a loss of familiar family traditions and routine (Falci, C. D. 2006 pp125) As well as new physical environments to adapt to, the introduction of new family members can cause conflicts and issues to arise. Children in particular may harbour emotions of anger and unwillingness to establish a relationship with their step-parent out of a feeling of being disloyal to their biological parent, or jealousy towards there parent’s new partners or step-siblings (Better Health 2012). A 2007 study into the Psychological adjustment of children and adolescents in a blended or step family (David & Gosselin 2007) determined that the success of adjustment may also be associated with personality and coping abilities the child already possesses, irrespective of his or her feelings toward the changing dynamics of the family.
David & Gosselin further suggest that the emotional stresses associated with parental separation and the breakdown of a family, tend to intensify problems with already troubled children or young adolescents who are struggling with the complexity of adjusting to a blended family and the loss of their past routine, environment and familiar family structure (David & Gosselin pp31).These issues can cause problems outside the family such as the school environment, the work place, and personal relationships may suffer or become strained due to the stress and pressure of home life. As a result of this stress, both young adolescents and parents may resort to negative and damaging coping mechanisms such as alcohol or illegal substances. Outside of the physical environmental changes children and parents must adjust to, the changing nature of relationships within their own family and the introduction of new and additional family members also harbours its own difficulties. Parents may struggle with the changing nature of their parenting roles with the addition of new children in to the family as issues of ‘who disciplines who’, house rules and compliance to rules and can rise to a head.
However, these challenges and issues can also have many positive implications
Despite the complex and often highly emotive issues associated with the establishment of a blended family, the addition of new members and the overall changes of the family dynamic can have immensely positive ramifications. For some children and parents, particularly those who have experienced divorce or the dissolution of a family unit, a new family structure including new parenting roles and new/additional siblings, can bring a sense of security and stability to many individuals. The family dynamics of the previous family system may not translate into the new blended family, and for many, this is vehemently positive. For the couple in the blended family, the opportunity to ‘have a second chance’ at a marriage holds with it many positive connotations. One partner, or perhaps both have experienced marriage and family life before, and are aware of what is involved in maintain a successful and happy family and marriage. As well as a happy marriage for the couple, children can also benefit greatly from a blended family structure. The addition of new siblings can encourage and strengthen a child’s ability to form new relationships and to work through issues of conflicts such as sibling rivalry and adjustment which in turn strengthens their problem solving abilities; skills that can be of great benefit in many aspects outside the family including school, the work force and society. Silberberg 2001 explains that the challenges that a family may face can be a positive building block to forming strong and resilient relationships with one another in the future, as “being a family is not a static configuration, but a constantly evolving process” (pp55). Silberberg continues further to explain that successfully navigating through these issues as a family and giving genuine concern to the feelings of all family members can “prompt a sense of togetherness or belonging” which in turn “gives the family the resilience to deal with changing circumstances and life transitions”. (pp56)
Blended families are becoming increasingly more popular as a family structure, and as an ongoing process of adjustment and change, the coming together and bonding of a new family can encompass many challenges and difficulties for each member of the family. Implications of merging two families to become one can have varying implications, both negative and challenging, but also positive and beneficial. Children and parents may initially struggle with the adjustment and changing nature of relationships as well as adapting to new family members and environments, but essentially, these challenges can have long-term benefits for members for a blended family. Their relationships may be strengthened as they form bonds with one another, overcome emotional challenges and learn to adapt to new environments. The blended family structure is complex but can successfully coexist harmoniously if individuals acknowledge the challenges and sensitive nature of issues associated with a blended family and that this process of forming loving relationships is ongoing and not instantaneous.