Like those “unlikely best friends” videos online with tigers and puppies snuggling, blended (human) families are one of the most beautiful testaments to the power of love. But blending a family doesn’t happen overnight. It can feel impossible, trying to force an immediate bond that naturally builds over time. That feeling can be traumatic, especially for kids, who must suddenly trust and welcome strangers into their homes. Trauma is often described as “too much, too fast, too soon.” Our job as adults is to do our best to make things less intense by cutting up the process into chewable moments to nurture the sense of safety that can ripen into feelings of family. My picture book, Cat Dog Dog, shows children that becoming a family is a process worth the initial growing pains. Here are four tips to help blended families connect.
Create a Shared Language
An important way to avoid unnecessary stress is to create a shared language. “Are you my mom? My dad’s friend? My guardian? What should I call you?” These are all questions that can be hashed out in the safety of the home so that no one gets taken by surprise in the outside world. Having to face and explain the inner workings of a blended family to others can be unnecessarily overwhelming.
The outside world doesn’t wait until you are ready to throw curveballs — or simple, genuine questions your way. A classmate may ask your kid: “Is that your mom?” when they see a friendly woman pick them up from school. You want to make sure your (step) kid has the tools to navigate conversations independently.
Engage in Shared Experiences
As much as we want to bond, activities can be stressful when there’s pressure to connect meaningfully. It’s no fun if bonding with new family members becomes a chore or, even worse, something you feel you can fail at. To take the pressure off, do a joint activity together, as a family, that involves helping an unrelated third party, like volunteering at an animal shelter, baking for a good cause, or organizing a car wash! Studies show that people enjoy a boost of happy chemicals when lending a hand to something bigger than themselves.
In Cat Dog Dog, the new siblings get into trouble together, whether it’s chasing a bird in the backyard or stealing the Thanksgiving turkey. That’s another way to bond that will probably happen without parental supervision!
Invent Shared Traditions
These group activities can become traditions. Birthdays, snow days, first days of school — every day can be an opportunity to invent your very own rituals. In Cat Dog Dog, the new siblings end up napping together after stealing each other’s beds at the beginning of the story. Time heals all wounds.
Set Shared Expectations
It can be a relief to learn that the Brady Bunch fantasy is not realistic, nor is it what you need to push for — blended families bond with time. Being intentional in your effort — and acknowledging hiccups along the way — is doing what families are all about: learning to forgive and love each other unconditionally.