How to Talk to Kids about Stepfamilies and Blended Families
This podcast will focus on the 5 love languages and how they apply to blended families. Blended families must learn how to navigate step parents, step siblings, step grandparents with all of their nuances, needs, rules, emotions, concerns and ways that all of these different people want to feel valued and important. Stepfamilies must deal with the pain of the past, the complexities of new relationships and the unique challenges that come with creating one family. As parents and stepparents, how can we have these important conversations about fear, loss, inclusion, empathy and connection—tying the binds between the biological family members and the new family members? How do we find love, strengthen it and keep it in a step family? This podcast addresses these unique challenges.
Guest Expert: Ron L. Deal, MMFT
Every person in a family wants to feel loved and wants to be able to show love to others who they care about and appreciate. And while that concept may be simple- the execution can be surprisingly complicated as not everyone gives and receives love in the same way. Some may desire reassuring physical touch while another person enjoys compliments, encouragement and other words of affirmation. Still others may feel most loved when they receive gifts or their family members do acts of service for them—cooking, cleaning, picking up the dry cleaning, or fixing something that might help the other person. Some prefer quality time. Perhaps you recognize your love language in all of these—and the love languages of others in your family. Things get convoluted– and well-intentioned people miss the mark when they, for instance, value acts of service but their partner or children show love through quality time or words of affirmation. Not to mention, this can be hard enough in a family that hasn’t gone through the life altering changes like divorce, remarriage or death of a parent—but what about the blended family who has to navigate step parents, step siblings, step grandparents with all of their nuances, needs, rules, emotions, concerns and ways that all of these different people want to feel valued and important? Blended families must deal with the pain of the past, the complexities of new relationships and the unique challenges that come with creating one family. As parents and stepparents, how can we have these important conversations about fear, loss, inclusion, empathy and connection—tying the binds between the biological family members and the new family members? How do we find love, strengthen it and keep it in a step family? For these answers, I have the honor of having a wonderful conversation with our guest today, Ron L. Deal.
Ron L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is founder of Smart Stepfamilies, director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, and the author of numerous books on stepfamily living including the bestselling The Smart Stepfamily. He is also the consulting editor for the Smart Stepfamily Series of books. Ron is a licensed marriage and family therapist, popular speaker and host of Family Life Blended. He and his wife, Nan, have three sons and live in Little Rock, Arkansas. His newest book, Building Love Together In Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages and Becoming Stepfamily Smart was co-written with best-selling author, Gary Chapman, known for his breakthrough work in The 5 Love Languages. You can find out more about Ron and his work with step families at RonDeal.org.
The podcast provides:
- A discussion about the 5 love languages and how they apply to blended families
- How to understand loyalty issues in blended families
- How to discuss loss in blended families
- The meaning behind words children say as they relate to love languages
- How the blender vs the slow cooker applies to the blended family
- The unique challenges that blended families must cope with in order to become “one.”
- The challenges of the blended family during COVID 19.
- Being loved and knowing how to love others- fundamentally gets at something that is universal. If you want to love well, you have to lose yourself.
- You have to be willing to realize that while you might be more comfortable giving love one way, someone else might be more in need of receiving love in a different way- how do I set aside what I think love should look like? How do I serve in order to connect to you in a way that is meaningful and communicates the care that I feel?
- “I’m learning to set aside me to love in a way that is meaningful to them.”
- In a different country- best to speak in their language.
- Words of affirmation: Compliments, expressing their value to them, kind words.
- Acts of service: Doing things for others (takes it off other’s to-do list)
- Quality time: Being with the other person (means different things to different people)
- Giving gifts: Doesn’t have to have a dollar amount (can be a rock, a leaf, or a gift that costs money)
- Physical touch
- All people need all of these from birth. Most people have 1 or 2 that is on top.
- Find out what their primary love language is so you go-to it when it really counts.
- COVID-19: Even the physical touch people might need some during this time but maybe not in some times because you want space.
- One rose vs a dozen- more doesn’t mean better. “If you really want to give a gift that matters, give the her what she wants not what I think she should want.”
- Blended vs biological families- just because you are a couple doesn’t mean you are a family. Lots of extra challenges in a blended family. Takes 5-7 years to become “one” when you blend a family. Making room in my heart and life. Journey that takes time. Divorce rate is high so many don’t get to that point.
- How do I express love that doesn’t compete with other relationships?
- Spending time with kids in bio families can feel totally normal- but if you want to spend time with your kids and it’s blended, it may be questioned. Someone might feel left out or envious. Someone might not feel supported. (i.e. step mom not included- and yet trying to bond-feel like an outsider). “I’m feeling like an outsider and you are over there with the insiders and I am competing to belong.”
- Physical touch: Let’s say step daughter’s love language is physical touch. And step mom says to self, “ok, I’m going to give her a big hug.” But the step daughter bristles. Step mom is baffled. It didn’t work because step daughter is trying to figure out where to put step mom in her heart. Feels disloyal to her bio-mom in that moment, fearful, if my mom saw me, she might not like that. Thinking; “I like you, I kind of love you, sometimes I don’t love you. Not sure what to do with this.” Ambiguity.
- It’s not as easy- more challenging when you don’t have clear relationships lines.
- Gently apply love languages.
- Dialects; unique within love language (one rose vs a dozen- unique to that person). Quality time might be movie time for one, for another it’s talking face to face.
- Levels: “Make a friend in the neighborhood.” Wouldn’t go to neighbor and shove yourself in and say “I’m your new BFF.” Need levels to grow the relationship. Same is true for step parents.
- You have to have levels of connection in order to grow your friendships. The same is true in step-families. You can’t force your way in. You have to knock on the door and wait- talk through the door, find things you have in common, develop trust, maybe they will one day will invite you in to the living room of their heart.
- Big hugs might be a step daughter’s love language but you are new to her. So start at level 1. Maybe that’s a fist bump or a touch on the elbow. Then let that ride. Fast forward some time. And perhaps you do a shoulder to shoulder playful touch. Playing a game and you push her on the shoulder and say “that was a good move.” One day it will be a bear hug.
- Mature step parent who recognizes loyalty conflict a child is having (receives a hug from you and is conflicted because of loyalty towards his/her parent). Might say to child on way to school; “I know I just want you to know that I really care for you and I really appreciate your relationship. And we are figuring this out. And I also know that this might be hard for you because you love your mom- and I want you to know that that is okay with me, that is good and right and I will never get in the way of that relationship between you and your mother. I’m not trying to be your mom, she’s your mom- I just appreciate what we have. And I know we’ll figure it out—and it’s okay if sometimes might find it difficult to like me back.” (So difficult- but a beautiful bridge- vulnerable and allow conversation to happen)
- When you take this initiative- you put words to how they feel. And you declare you that you are not trying to compete. So important. You have permission, freedom. Not trying to replace. Child sees you as respectable.
- Loss—comment on the elephant in the room. Bring it up.
- Imagine a family has experiences loss- death of father/husband. They are a single parent family and the kids and the remaining parent are bonded. They’ve been down same road. And they talk about Dad. Then dating happens. And parent is not talking as much about the past, but rather, the future. Now there isn’t space for family grieving. This is another loss for children. Dad is alive and well in their hearts.
- Mom needs to step into that grieving space even after the new marriage.
- Script: In this case- Stepdad- want to really show love to these children? Let them (and wife) talk about their deceased dad in front of you. And say things like; “wow, he was a great guy. I wish I could have met him. Tell me that story again about that funny thing he did…” Enter than sad space with them. Guarantee they will see you as honorable, respectable, worthy to be close to, trust you with the hard stuff.
- VS if you won’t let them talk about the hard stuff- the wall goes up higher and thicker and it’s harder to bond.
- Script: Father’s Day, mother’s day, birthdays, still need to deal with loss. Maybe it’s an ambiguous loss- father is sort of around but not really. “Father’s Day is coming up. I know you’d probably want to be with your Dad, not so much with me, and you can’t get in touch with him. This is hard. I hate that for you.” Don’t ask a question. Stop. Talk out loud about what you are feeling. PAUSE. Then allow them to talk. Don’t ask- and how do you feel about that? Just put a period after your thoughts and let them contribute.
- Acknowledge sadness. Step-parents; A child’s sadness about the family that was lost, the parent that dies, what will never be for them, is not a rejection of you.” Support them. Encourage their discussion.
- Conversations about dating or about the new fiancé after being a single family for a while after divorce or after death of a parent- important to have these without the new person there so honesty can happen.
- Script: “Whenever we bring subject up of me getting married, you roll your eyes and cross your arms. Would you mind putting words on that for me?” Then stop talking. “And I really want to know, and I won’t be defensive, since I really want to know how you are feeling.” Work really hard to understand. Listen. Affirm. “Sounds like you are mad. You’re worried about Dad. Sounds like you feel like this is like Dad died all over again.” Hug it for a while. “I get that. And I am thinking of moving forward in this relationship and I am taking what you are saying into consideration.” Child doesn’t determine when and if you get married- but stupid to ignore a child’s feelings. It will make it harder to blend. The harder it is for a child to embrace the step parent, the harder it is for your families to merge as well.”
- Ask what if: Before dating. What if I started dating again? Then, what if I were to ask ______ out? Bring them into the process. What’s their heart and mind today? Informing them. This might happen. What if I were to ask _______ to marry me?” Helps you make decisions about timing, pace. Emotionally moving towards your kids.
- How to cook ingredients of the family together- use a slow cooker not a blender. Blenders have blades and cut things up and force relationships. Looks like: Step mom tells step child to call her mom even though “I’m not your mom”. Crock pots have slow heat. What term would you like to call me? Co-create reality. Empower them to have a voice. They will move into the transition.
- When children have some say in the process, the research is clear that these kids are far more accepting of the step parent and the new blended family and are more adaptable. Children who feel like they have no choice have far more resistance and are angry and resentful about it.
- Adult kids are also having big reactions- bring them into the process- and they will be more open.
- COVID-19. Stress arises. People pull into insiders (bio family). Social distancing- happens all the time in blended families. When climate gets harsh and dangerous- retreat back to comfy places where it’s easy and safe with comfortable, safe people. Stress pulls them apart. Blender mentality does not work here. Need space. Grace space.
- “Your child is rude.” Put away in defensiveness. Chase the pain.” Sounds like you are upset. What’s the pain for you?” Defensiveness not helpful. Sometimes they don’t know what the pain here. It’s about rejection.
- You can pick up on love language from listening to child. Fishing for compliments? Words of affirmation might be their greatest need (past age of 5).
- “Dad, why are you always looking at your phone?” The child is saying quality time is needed.
- All kids need all 5 love languages.
- Child gets quiet when you give love to a step child (like an only child who now has baby brother). Do something in that moment- touch your bio child- I still see you. Later, connect with them. Don’t take away from moment- but a duel need.
- Getting step family smart makes a difference. What’s unique about step families- need to know the challenges so you can move forward.
- For some, the crock pot doesn’t cook fast enough. Blender or quit. Divorce rate higher. Loneliness. Takes time to get there.
- “If you want to love well, you have to lose yourself.”
- “I’m learning to set aside me to love in a way that is meaningful to them.”
- “When you want to communicate love and care in a way that is deeply meaningful to someone, the love languages are a guide so you know where the bullseye is.”
- “If you really want to give a gift that matters, give the others what they want not what I think they should want.”
- “Coupleness is what you created before you got married. Familyness is what you are now trying to create after you got married.”
- “The relationships between blended family members are not as easy as when you have clearly defined biological relationships.”
- “You have to have levels of connection in order to grow your friendships. The same is true in step-families. You can’t force your way in. You have to knock on the door and wait. After you find what you have in common and you develop some trust, perhaps one day the other person will invite you into the living room of their heart. That’s how you make a friend.”
- “The minute the child feels like a step parent is trying to move in and push their other biological parent out of their heart, the wall just went up a little higher and got a lot thicker.”
- “Comment on the elephant in the room.”
- “If a step-parent really wants to show love to his children, let them talk about the parent they lost in front of you. Say things like; “wow, he was a great guy. I really wish I could have met him. Tell me that story again when he did that funny thing? “When you enter that sad place with them, they will see you as respectable, honorable and worthy of being close to as they can trust you with the hard stuff.”
- “Emotionally move towards your kids instead of running away into a new dating partner and a new spouse.”
- “How do you cook the ingredients of your family together? Even though it’s called a blended family, don’t use a blender because blenders have blades. It cuts people up and force ingredients into a relationship with one another…Use a slow cooker on low heat instead.
- “When children have some say in the process, the research is clear that these kids are far more accepting of the step parent and the new blended family and are more adaptable. Children who feel like they have no choice have far more resistance and are angry and resentful about it.”
- “There’s a honeymoon for remarried couples. It just comes at the end of the journey, not at the beginning.”