“It’s often the ‘little things’ that cause the greatest problems after the wedding. The more planning that you can do before you begin living together, the greater your chances will be for avoiding serious conflicts later.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, p. 61)
A little preparation can go a long way when it comes to stepfamilies. The following checklists are full of ideas that will help you work out some of these “little things” ahead of time.
Beginning a stepfamily checklist
__: If you know where you’ll be living ahead of time (such as one parent’s house), let the kids take trips there before the move to get used to the place or to help make it their own.
__: If it will involve a move to a new neighborhood for some of the kids, find out what other children are in the neighborhood and plan a few fun get-togethers or outings so that they can get to know one another. Lack of new friends and/or missing the old friends is one of the most common complaints children have about moves, and a miserable child is more likely to make problems for you. Helping them fit in and make new friends will go a long ways in terms of easing this transition.
__: The same thing applies to your spouse: Be sure to introduce them to people in the new neighborhood and help them develop new contacts.
__: Consider arranging some sort of family therapy to help everyone adjust to this new environment. It may seem pointless to do this before any problems have actually begun, but many stepfamilies who later encounter problems say they wish they had started family therapy right from the beginning.
__: As you’re moving in together, have a final talk with the children about how they feel and any worries they have. Talk to kids about how to respond when people ask them about their family, or if there’s anything they might find difficult to explain. Do their friends know? Is there anything they think they might be teased about?
__: Consider insurance policy arrangements, and do the paperwork needed to add any stepchildren to a parent’s policy.
A checklist for extended family
__: Consider setting up a get-together to introduce your new spouse to your ex and her family. (Be sure to read the information in our Stepfamily eBook on getting started on the right track with a partner’s ex. )
__: Also do the same for other extended family, such as aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc. If you can’t arrange this, have your new spouse write a letter to all involved family members that they might encounter down the road, expressing their excitement at becoming part of the family and their desire to get to know them better.
__: Talk with your spouse about your ex’s likes & dislikes to help them avoid conflict.
Getting to know your stepfamily
Even if stepparents and stepchildren have had plenty of opportunities to get acquainted, there are frequently things that get overlooked in everyday interaction. So it helps to have everyone get acquainted in a more formal way. Consider having everyone fill out a questionnaire that discusses the following things, or go over this list for each member during your first family meeting:
- My favorite things to do:
- My LEAST favorite things to do:
- I like to be called
- When it comes to my stuff, I’m generally….
- How others can earn my respect:
- Three things that annoy me are:
- My favorite foods are:
- My least favorite foods are:
- Three words that best describe me are:
- When I do something good, I like to be shown appreciation by:
- I feel more cooperative when…
- I feel least cooperative when…
- My hopes and dreams for the future are:
- Anything else I want others to know about me:
- Print these questions in a printable stepfamily survey.
Thinking about family rituals
Get on the same page as far as rituals are concerned. How important are birthdays? Anniversaries? What do you typically do? Think about extended family as well. This is often a sore area that causes relatives to hold grudges. The moment you start a stepfamily, relatives often start keeping score just like the kids do: “Why are we doing Christmas at her house? She’s already nudging us out of their life.” Parents and grandparents often make the biggest fuss over family rituals, especially religious ones.
__: Each of you talk with extended family ahead of time to get an idea of what their expectations are.
__: Look for ways to accommodate everyone’s desires, especially in the first year or two. Find compromises that won’t leave you burned out.
__: Find out what rituals the children prefer. Kids who split time between two homes and two sets of extended family can easily get burned out. Ask for their opinion on things.
__: Sit down together and come up with a list of household rules each of you currently have (if you haven’t already). Figure out which one’s you’re going to keep and which can remain flexible.
__: Start getting kids accustomed to any new habits or rules they might face ahead of time. For example, if one stepparent has a rule to take off your shoes in the house, start having kids do this ahead of time in your own home. You can smooth over any issues of contention by ensuring you’re the one conditioning the kids to any new habits. This way it isn’t such a culture shock. It reduces the chance of conflict or resentment toward the new stepparent.
__: Inform teachers of the remarriage, since children often exhibit behavioral difficulties in new stepfamily situations. You should also bring the soon-to-be stepparent to meet school personnel, especially if they’ll be interacting in any way. (See our Stepfamily eBook for information on stepparenting & school issues.)
__: Also introduce the stepparent to coaches, tutors, and anyone else they might interact with.
__: Add the new parent to any emergency contacts for the children.
__: Consider setting up a power of attorney for each stepparent, which may give them additional rights in some states. (See our section on stepparent rights & privileges.)
__: Record each child’s typical schedule on a piece of paper (school, sports, lessons, typical bedtimes & homework times, etc.) and line them up together to see how they fit. Go over custody schedules for the children as well, and talk about how these will be accommodated.
Don’t let your new blended family fail! Gain valuable tips for successful stepfamilies by learning from the mistakes others have made in our eBook Blending Beautifully. It’s just $7.99, (far cheaper than counseling or divorce lawyers), and all proceeds go to help kids in need.