This week, Alain Nijs, a partner in Greenille by Laga, highlights the unique features of family dynamics in blended families.

Blended families (including stepfamilies) are common today. Statistics show that in some countries a growing number of families have shifted away from the model of the "intact" or "nuclear" family, composed of the original biologically bonded mother, father and children. In other words, these families have gone through various transitions: a breakdown (divorce), remarriage or another form of living together relationship.

Research and studies have already addressed the effects of such life events on children, on parents and on family dynamics in general.

Blended families face unique challenges and as a family enterprise consultant, I recognize that when working with blended families, there are special considerations that need to be taken into account.

Blended families create a complex "bi- or multi-nuclear" family system, often both spouses having their own children from different marriages. It would be mistaken to see such a family as "The Brady Bunch", referring to the seventies' US television series, where all (step) children's problems were solved in less than half an hour. The dream of becoming one big happy family on the contrary often contradicts the many potential conflicts that can be endemic to blended families.

From a personal perspective, I realized this whilst I was consulting on a case involving a stepfamily with children (of age) on both the father's and the mother's side. All stepfamily members appeared to get along pretty well. However, during my individual meetings with the family members, very quickly, it became clear that most of the children were struggling with some typical blended family issues and questions, ranging from the need for "one on one" contact with their biological parent to more money-related questions.

Being a parent in a stepfamily myself, these concerns sound very familiar. Potential conflicts (e.g. of loyalty) can be omnipresent, as can be a mixed set of feelings, such as guilt, shame or fear of loss of territory and position. All this needs to be managed with utmost delicacy.

Nevertheless I strongly believe in the ability to create positive dynamics within a well-functioning blended family and that the complexity can be enriching for both children and step parents. 

To grow into such a well-functioning blended family however, efforts must be put into building a (new) family system, recognizing and understanding the (new) dynamics and one's roles and responsibilities. This requires:

  • Open communication (in the blended family itself and in the nuclear families);
  • Recognition and expression of feelings;
  • Showing genuine interest in each other (never assume);
  • Common blended family values.

Stepmothers, stepfathers and stepchildren aren't wicked by definition.

I prefer speaking of bonus-parents or bonus-children or, as it is being increasingly used in Belgium, plus-parents or plus-children.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.