Few of us grow up thinking, “Someday, I want to be part of raising a blended family,” especially in the LDS community, where the ideal is to have a mother and father marry and stay married, raising their children together.
I was certainly set on the ideal as a young woman—my husband and I raising our children together, no “steps” involved, but that is not how things turned out. When my husband and I met and married, a second marriage for both of us, we brought four children with us—my 2-yearold daughter and his three older daughters.
Over the last 22 years, we have worked hard to create a sense of family among our now 10 family members. And while it’s been a struggle at times, we are grateful for the successes we’ve experienced and for the support of those around us. One thing is for sure, a blended family’s best chance at success does not happen in isolation. Blended families need support. And branch or ward members can play a key role in providing such support. Here are nine ways we can support the blended families in our congregations.
Recognize that No Two Blended Families Are Alike
Just as no two snowflakes are alike, no two blended families are alike. Some families blend seamlessly, while others may be having a difficult time, barely speaking to their stepparent, much less thinking of them as family. If you want to help a blended family, get to know them rather than assuming that, because you know other blended families, you know them. Invite them over for dinner or family home evening. By getting to know them, you give yourself the best shot at providing meaningful support.
Blended families are rarely without a history of serious challenges and heartaches related to previous marriages. Substance abuse, pornography addiction, an affair, serious mental health issues, or even a suicide may have been involved. Unless an individual voluntarily wants to share why a previous marriage failed, there is no reason for us to ask. This does not mean that we should never ask about their unique family situation, but we should be careful, even prayerful, about how we approach the subject. And, if someone decides to share something with us, we should respect their privacy by not sharing what we know with others unless we have permission.
Provide a Listening Ear
As a new stepmom of teenagers, I benefited from a listening ear more than once. I will admit that I had my moments of venting as I adjusted to my blended family. It was a difficult transition, and I was especially appreciative of those who listened more than advised. Their caring made me feel less isolated and alone as I navigated new—and sometimes overwhelming—territory. I have seen the same with other blended families. Parents and stepparents appreciate the opportunity to talk with others who genuinely care about them and their situation.
Share Advice When Appropriate
Though advice is usually best shared sparingly, there are times when it can be a tremendous gift. I remember well the times when my friends gave loving, inspired advice that was just what I needed to hear at the time.
The best advice I received was from my friend Becky, who suggested I take a step back from my situation to view one of my stepchildren through the eyes of the Savior. How did He see this child? Taking that question to heart, my whole perspective shifted. Instead of seeing an angry, rebellious teen who was making life difficult, I saw someone who was beloved by her parents and the Savior, someone who was hurting terribly during a difficult time, someone who deserved compassion. When I’m asked for advice as one who’s been there, I often share Becky’s advice. But I also remind them not to take their stepchild’s hurtful behavior personally. I encourage them to strengthen themselves spiritually, because such strength can make all the difference.
Years ago, I knew a teen who said all kinds of terrible things about her stepmom. To listen to her, you’d think her father had made the worst mistake of his life marrying this woman. However, as people got to know the stepmother, they came to recognize that, while she was not perfect (as none of us are), she was doing her best in a tough situation. The things her stepdaughter said had been exaggerations of this woman’s faults and a reflection of the stepdaughter’s response to her own heartache over her family circumstances.
There are other times when it may be the stepparent who is magnifying a child’s faults as they try to come to grips with their own situation. Listen to what they have to say, but reserve judgment and try to get to know and appreciate their stepchild for who they are when you are with them. All of this being said, if you have any serious concerns about what a parent or child says about their situation, be sure to discuss those concerns with your bishop or other appropriate individuals—no one should have to suffer in an abusive situation.
Speak with Respect About the Other Parent(s)
To show your love for a blended family, it is important to respect the parent or parents who are not part of the new blended family. Those parents may have different backgrounds, different religions, or different perspectives on life, but they are still the child’s parent and should be spoken of with respect. In certain circumstances, it may be especially tempting to speak critically of the parent who is not a part of the new blended family. Maybe they aren’t making the effort to see their child on a regular basis, or they are the one who hurt the family with an affair, a financial scandal, or whatever the case may be. Even so, refrain from speaking ill of them. Though the parent may be causing their child heartache, he or she is still that child’s parent and a part of who they are—someone who has a place in their child’s heart.
Though a child may need space to express their frustration about the parent who hurt them, they don’t often benefit from others speaking negatively about their parent in response. What can help is acknowledging the child’s pain by saying something as simple as, “I can see you are hurting. Have you spoken to your dad (or mom) about this?” And, most importantly, always take the opportunity to let a child know they have great value and worth no matter their family circumstances.
Be Mindful of Blended Families’ Circumstances When Giving Talks and Lessons
We give blended families an important gift when we keep their circumstances in mind as we prayerfully prepare and deliver our Sunday talks and lessons. Sometimes, just an acknowledgment that family circumstances differ is all that is needed. At other times, it might be appropriate to talk more specifically about how the gospel can help us in each of our various family circumstances.
Overall, we should be sensitive to varying family circumstances whenever we are asked to speak or give a lesson, especially on Mother’s or Father’s Day. We don’t want to make any individuals or families feel inferior or cause them unnecessary pain because of their particular circumstances. The gospel is meant to lift and encourage all of us and our families as we make our way through this life.
Go the Extra Mile in Caring for Children from Blended Families
While talking to blended LDS families, it became clear to me that their children sometimes fall between the cracks at church, especially when they alternate between parents’ homes. The parents I spoke with said that it would be very helpful if teachers and youth leaders became familiar with their child’s parental custody schedule. That way they would know when to expect their child at church or a youth activity and when they wouldn’t be there.
With that schedule in mind, a teacher or youth leader can let a child know they were missed on a Sunday or at another activity by sending a thoughtful note or a fun lesson handout home with their parent, keeping in mind that they don’t want to make the child feel bad about missing a class or activity. Overall, teachers and youth leaders can make a big difference by simply asking parents how they as teachers and leaders can best support each child’s growth and success.
Encourage Parents with Sincere Compliments
An easy way to support a stepparent is by paying them a heartfelt compliment on something they are doing well. Years ago, my youngest stepdaughter explained, in a way that has stayed with me to this day, the importance of being specific when you give a compliment. She said that as a stage actress, it meant much more to her when someone complimented her on a specific aspect of her performance rather than just an overall, “You were terrific!” The moment she said that, a light bulb went on. Specificity reinforces the sincerity and gives the compliment heft. So, while saying, “Oh, you’re such a great stepmom,” may be better than not saying anything at all, saying something more like, “I love how you really listen to your stepchildren when they’re talking to you. You’re a great stepmom!” will be remembered far longer and reflected on often as much-needed reassurance when things are especially difficult.
While there are many more things we can do to support the blended families in our wards and branches, perhaps the most important thing is to simply get to know them and love them as we would want to be loved in similar circumstances.
Debra Woods is the author of Mothering with Spiritual Power: Book of Mormon Inspirations for Raising a Righteous Family. You can visit her at www.debrawoods.com and www.lushmango.com, her blog focused on eating and living to energize and thrive.
For more resources on how to help your own blended family, check out "Making a Second Marriage Work" or "Uniting Blended Families" from past Ensign Issues. Or check out this newly released Mormon message video.