The Modern Family: Hope for Blended, Mixed, Nontraditional, & Stepfamilies, Part 2 – Bethel Church and Ministries

The Modern Family: Hope for Blended, Mixed, Nontraditional, & Stepfamilies, Part 2

 

Throughout 2021, in our non-pulpit discipleship efforts, we have endeavored to tackle a host of difficult subjects in Christian culture. We talked about Christian life habits that appeared to have suffered in the lives of many throughout 2020, in addition to infertility, abortion, and a host of other things. One of the other hot button subjects that we touched upon was blended and nontraditional families, including some of the specific challenges and encouragements related to them. I was genuinely shocked at the sheer volume of response I received to this blog from not just our church and community, but from around the world! And the theme was the same with each response: “This is not discussed nearly enough;” “there are more of us than you know in the church;” and “we need more resources and encouragement like this.”

This resonated with my heart. There are many unspoken needs in the blended, mixed, nontraditional, and stepfamilies in the global church that barely get mentioned, if not entirely unaddressed. As such, it seems right to serve our brothers and sisters in these sometimes difficult and nontraditional settings, and partner with them in Christ-centered encouragement with tools that engage them where they are at.

The following thoughts, then, are reflective of counseling I have done, books/articles I have read, and a bit of general “best practice” that I think would be helpful in blended, mixed, nontraditional, and stepfamily contexts. The focus of these will primarily be on blended parenting. In a future submission, I will unpack some specifics to subsequent marriage and nontraditional families.

Parental Unity

In what is now considered part 1 of this series on blended, mixed, nontraditional, and stepfamilies, I talked a bit about how in (all) families where there is both a husband and wife/dad and mom, the marriage is always primary. This is because in God’s design, the marriage relationship is to reflect his relationship with humankind (Ephesians 5:21-32). No other relationship can usurp its place, not even those between biological parents and their biological children. When you covenant in marriage, your spouse becomes your primary neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). And together, you focus on the children.

This means that blended/nontraditional moms and dads need to pursue and present a unified front on all things. They need to be unified in how they talk to and about their children—both to each other and in front of the children. They need to be critically thinking through how the stepparent is going to respond in the absence of the biological parents. Unity demands these things are considered in advance, and not in the moment.

Here are a few key principles to consider in helping with this:

  • STOP REACTING IN THE MOMENT. That probably seems a little bit loud…it is all caps, but go with me here. Too often people react (emotionally) because they fail to plan, which would allow them to respond (thoughtfully) instead. The result of this is parents speak and act in ways that do not reflect their ultimate goals. They barely stop the dilemma of the moment. As such, blended, nontraditional, mixed, or stepparents need to plan ahead. Ideally, this should take place before they get married. It should be a part of premarital counseling. And the plan should be communicated to the children. Don’t allow them to assume or presume for themselves. Blended and nontraditional families must communicate to have an environment where, at the very least, everyone knows what the expectations are. This creates the best possibility for relationships to coalesce and for peace to reign.

    In summary, be proactive in cultivating unity. The more proactive you are, the less reactive you are likely to be in a charged moment.

  • Don’t argue, disagree, or contradict one another in front of the children. Set the expectation for your children that the parental team will not argue or have disagreements in front of the family. Instead, remove yourselves to a safe place, and have a calm discussion regarding whatever the issue may be. Then, re-gather the family or involved parties, and parents, and present a unified front on whatever the matter is.

  • The way you may have addressed a situation prior to being a member of this blended, nontraditional, or stepfamily is not necessarily the right way. It’s certainly not the only way. The right way must first, always be biblical. And second, it must be reflective of the value system that you and your now-spouse cultivate for your combined family.

    For more on values-based living and unity, I recommend you re-read part 1 of this blog series, or check out this sermon I preached on this very subject, last year.

Avoid Pulling Rank

In the blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily context, pulling rank—unless absolutely necessary—is unwise. Relationships are time-tested, built on trust, and require a bit of communication finesse. Trying to rush into an authoritative role is likely a recipe for relationship breakdown, broken trust, miscommunication, and the potential of great conflict between you and your spouse, regarding their children (not to mention conflict between you and the children). As such, there is a lot of growth into the role of “stepmom” or “stepdad” that is required.

How does one avoid pulling rank and instead, grow into their blended, mixed, or step role?

  • Communicate with your blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepkids. I don’t just mean talk. I mean develop a relationship. Share your heart and strive to discern their thoughts by asking tactical and specific questions. Seek them and draw them out. Remember this phrase: statements harden the heart; questions prick the conscience. Be a good student of each member of your (new) family.

  • Have clear expectations for each member of the family, based on parental unity, from the start. The more expectations are able to be clarified and everyone knows their role, the less flexibility there is for kids to try and look for places to slip through the cracks, manipulate, or misunderstand.

  • If you are already a few months or years into a blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily situation, and it is not going well (with rank being pulled often), have a family meeting. Clearly, there is a breakdown somewhere, resulting in the need for clarity before punishment. Expectations for each individual, the rationale for those expectations (both biblical and practical), as well as the end goal of them, may be a required conversation piece in an effort to restore and cultivate relationships in the home. When in doubt, communicate.

    If this has been tried repeatedly and failed, it may be wise to seek out some pastoral or professional counseling to assist your family with working through the initial breakdown and providing some skills for enhanced family connectivity.

  • If you overstep or have a habit of doing so—apologize. Tell your spouse or the child that you are sorry for overstepping, that you were wrong for doing so, and ask them to forgive you. Leading with humility is biblical. And while difficult, it could be the first step to desired change.

Expect Emotions

Regardless of the reason for the existence of the blended, mixed, step, or nontraditional family, there should be an expectation that emotions will run high, especially in the early days. What are some of the primary emotions that you should expect?

  • Anger—when our world changes or something is not the way we think it should be, anger is a natural overflow. Anger should not be repressed or corrected in our kids unless it is harmful, but instead, processed through. This is an opportunity for growth in relationship and communication, not something troublesome that should simply be stopped as a bother.

  • Grief—for many, especially children, the blended, mixed, step, or nontraditional family is likely a result of some sort of loss in their life. That loss could be death, divorce, or any number of things. Grief manifests itself in several ways (anger, depression, bargaining, etc.), all of which require empathy and communication. Don’t try and solve the problem but try and nudge them gently toward acceptance—while things might be hard now, with God’s help, the future can be better.

  • Guilt—regardless of what seems like reality to adults, kids often blame themselves for the deterioration of their family, the loss of a loved one, and other big things that they can’t understand. This can sometimes look like self-loathing, depression, and in the most extreme cases, self-harm. This is the deep end of the pool, and will require patience, time, and a lot of conversation. You don’t need to have the answers. Sometimes you just need the ability to listen, not try and fix it, and simply practice the ministry of presence and availability.

  • Fear—regardless of the situation, it is likely that there is a subconscious fear that whatever the reason for the existence of the nontraditional family unit, it could happen again. As such, consistent communication and actions of positive reinforcement, likely reflective of much of the above, will help dispel those fears.

Obviously, this is just a summary of some of the emotional reactions that are likely to occur. But the most significant bit of counsel I can offer is to communicate and process through the emotion to find its root cause. From there, solutions and encouragement can be cultivated.

Pray Together as a Family

Parenting is a discipleship effort. One of the single most significant things blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepparents can do is pray with their family. Pattern that God is at the head of both the marriage and the family, and practice praise, confession, and making requests together. This is perhaps the single most significant way your nontraditional family becomes a gospel initiative, and points to the Ephesians 5 picture of what God intends, regardless of how your family unit came to be.

As I come to the end of part two of this series, I am aware that there is so much more that could and likely will be said on these sensitive subjects in the future. In closing, however, I would note this is something of a helpful summary statement:

Communication is key.

If you want to have the healthiest blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily, it will only come through communication. Moms and dads need to communicate and be on the same page about all areas of their new family. Kids need their blended parents to communicate with them, and set appropriate boundaries and expectations, so they know how to operate and find their place within the new family unit. Rules, expectations, chores, all need to be assigned, not for the purpose of getting things done or having a clean house, but for the purpose of family unity and camaraderie. All of these things require communication.

So I plead with you…talk. Invest. Lean into relationship and away from rank. Treat each member of your family as a fellow image-bearer of Jesus and pray hard that God blesses each of your efforts to their fullest extent.

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