Children, Parenting, and Families

Help for the Blended Family: Moving From Chaos to Thriving Connection

Your Blended Family Means Everything

This marriage is another chance for love for both of you — yet your blended family has quickly become wrought with issuesBlended Family you had not anticipated. You and your partner may find increased arguing, your new marriage is strained and you’ve both started to feel increasingly hopeless.

What you may not know is that the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first marriages, at about 67 percent.

We’ll help you understand the hazards your blended family can encounter as well as key areas the two of you can address to help guide you toward improved relationships for you — and with your children.

Blended Family Challenges Abound

You and your partner have fallen in love and eagerly made steps to move under one roof. However, the others around you — the children, grandparents and previous spouses — may not be so keen on this major change in their lives.

For the kids in blended families, the adjustment can be challenging indeed. They’ve already endured the divorce, separation, or death of a parent. Now, they’re wondering how they’ll fit in with the new household and step-parent. If the move means a change in schools, there’s another major adjustment to be made, as well as feelings of loss and distance from their friends.

Grandparents may fear lost connections to the grandkids and may struggle with how to develop a comfortable relationship with your new partner.

The ex-partner or spouse can be feeling a broad range of acceptance or conflict. Suddenly, there’s a new “parent” in the picture for his or her kids. Importantly, the ex-spouse may hold negative feelings from the separation or divorce. Issues about co-parenting may not have been resolved.

It’s a lot, right? Balancing all the emotions that come into the mix for the blended family is no easy feat. The new couple may find it hard to maintain their connection. The kids’ adjustment can take considerable energy and time, as can any conflict with the previous spouse and in-laws.

When Blended Families Begin to Struggle

Given all the challenges, it’s no wonder couples often find that arguing can begin even shortly after the marriage and relationship blends into one household.

Here’s what we often hear when blended family couples come to counseling for help:

“My partner treats my kids differently.”

“The kids aren’t getting along with each other, and we don’t know what to do.”

“Life and rules at his or her ex’s house makes it difficult when the kids return to our home.”

“My children’s grandparents won’t accept my new spouse.”

“We really disagree about parenting!”

While these dilemmas are fairly common, many couples struggle with how to cope or address these concerns.  Attempts at discussions can lead to arguments because the emotions underlying the concerns are so important.

Yet, what we find most often is that these new couples have failed to fully discuss so many aspects of blending their families prior to moving in together.

Without a foundation of understanding and mutually agreed-upon ground rules, blended family couples are then struggling to resolve issues that have gotten under way and likely caused hurt feelings among many of those affected.

Our “Before (and After) You Blend” Check-List

Of course, it’s always best to discuss and reach agreement on key issues before the “blending” occurs. Yet we feel this list also is useful after you’ve partnered and settled in to the new blended family household. The arguing typically comes from lack of clarity. Taking time to slow down and reach agreements has the potential to clear the way for greater understanding by everyone involved.

  1. Discover your parenting styles. Often, different parenting styles can be the root of conflict in blended families. Learning to take the best of different parenting styles and your personal strengths as parents can produce a great combination to benefit your children.                                                                                                                                                                        
  2. Develop house rules, preferably in writing. After all, it’s a new household — so new rules might be in order.

Older children can be invited to participate in developing the rules. Of course, parents have the final approval; however, when children are involved in creating rules and have agreed to them, they have some ownership. Then, they may be more likely to adhere to the new requirements.

Additionally, you can involve them in setting consequences for failure to adhere to the rules. Again, if they have a voice, they may be more compliant in accepting those consequences. Still, however, parents always have the final say. And, if you understand your parenting styles, enforcing consequences may go more smoothly.

  1. Discuss between you and your partner the needs of each child for support and comfort during the transition. Recognize each child’s strengths as well as how each child may be struggling with the transition. Working to meet these needs early on can aid in each child’s adjustment to his or her new life in the blended family.

This step can be critical. Spending time with each child to hear his or her concerns about the new life can help prevent some of the fears and stress later. Realizing the depth of the change each child is experiencing helps you accommodate their individual needs as best as possible. Also, it’s powerful that the child feels heard and understood by the biological parent and supported in feeling comfortable with the new parent.

  1. Explore acceptable boundaries with extended family members. Friction can result from the absence of a clear understanding between you about interactions with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

A not-uncommon challenge in blended families is when the new partner does not feel accepted by the extended-family members. Discussing how the new partner feels and the type of support they would like can be vital to preventing these issues from impacting your new relationship with each other. Of course, you won’t be able to foresee every possible problem, but knowing how to support each other will strengthen your bond and connection.

  1. Develop some clarity about issues and concerns related to the ex-partner and the biological parent of the children.

For example, one partner may not agree with how his or her partner handles conflict with the kids’ other biological parent. Talking beforehand about what input each partner wants or doesn’t want on this issue can avoid conflict between the two of you.

Conflict with the kids’ other parent is often painful and difficult to resolve in blended families — and can be the source of considerable stress in your new relationship because of the impact on the children. This is another way in which having a clear understanding of how to support each other can help avoid some common pitfalls.

  1. Protect your connection. In Emotionally Focused Counseling, which is the most successful approach to helping improve relationships, therapists help couples develop “rituals” for staying close. These are special times and activities you set aside just for the two of you, such as a quiet time in the morning over coffee, an evening chat on the patio and date nights. Remember: Your relationship is the foundation of your blended family.

Better Relationships = Better Blended Families

You have a second chance at love, AND you also have a new opportunity to model for your children a happy, close, loving relationship.

We know from research that the bond children observe in their parents can have a far-reaching impact. Whether you’re aware or not, parents are making powerful impressions on their kids. Children are like sponges — absorbing the world around them. They’re keen observers of your relationship.

By resolving emerging issues calmly, by being open with children about rules and expectations in the new home and by tuning in to each child’s needs, you set into motion the possibility for children to learn valuable life lessons.

To learn about improving your communication, read Communication in Relationships

To learn more about having challenging conversations with each other, we recommend the book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.


Empty Nest and a Full Marriage

By Kristy Vergo

With all of the recent high school and college graduations happening around me recently, I can’t help but ponder the effect this has on the empty nest parents of the graduate. Your marriage or partnership is a living thing, and when it goes from including children on a daily basis to not including children, it can be a big time of change for your relationship.  

For some couples, there might be a sense of relief as their child graduates high school and thinks about going away to college, because now they have privacy, quiet, and fewer time demands. This may elicit feelings of freedom, as it creates space for all of the things that they would like to do.

On the flipside, there may be some worry; now that they don’t have kids to focus on and school schedules to keep, they may feel bored or empty. Many couples struggle with how to reconnect once the kids are gone. When you both miss your graduate, how can you get used to it just being the two of you again?

1) Notice and be honest about your feelings, not only with yourself, but with your loved ones.  It’s OK to be sad, angry, happy, and anxious all at once.  Ever heard of what you resist, persists? Different stages of family life are both joyful and sad, we need to let ourselves be human and experience this.

2) Offer an ear and a heart to your partner in their feelings. You might not be on the same page at all times. One feels relieved to have an empty nest, and the other feels sad. Make it OK for you to each have these different feelings, and create a space where you aren’t feeling these things alone.

3) Know what to expect. You may move through mourning the end of your parenting years, then recovery, and finally, renewal. Your partner and you may be having a tough time, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t rediscover each other and build a new, enriching phase of life. This is a big change, it will come with lots of ups and downs.

4) Look for ways to connect.  As social creatures, humans are wired for connection.  Don’t allow yourselves to retreat into separate lives that struggle to connect now that the kids are gone. Have date nights,  explore new hobbies together, connect intimately. This could become a second honeymoon for you.

Couples counseling can also be a great way to come together and create a new, strong foundation for how you will move forward and have an enriching life with an empty nest. Couples counseling isn’t just for when you are having trouble communicating, but can be a great way to enter new phases of life together and feel together.



Kristy Vergo Therapist Denver





Kristy is a warm and genuine couples therapist with a passion for helping you make sense of how the big things in life can affect your relationship. If you’d like to meet Kristy and explore what working with her would be like, contact us for a free consultation today.


How to Help Young Children Cope with Death

How to help young children cope with deathOn December 20th, a childhood friend of mine was killed in an accident. Her nine year-old daughter Sarah was orphaned just before Christmas. A tragic and sudden death leaves everyone reeling. Knowing how to help young children cope with death can be difficult given that everyone else is also in crisis. The adults have to function, and the child has to be cared for. Most adults don’t know how to talk to children about death, and don’t know what is and what isn’t normal in the grief process. The subject of children and grief is vast, but this is what you can expect with young children ages 0-9, and how you can help them in their grieving.

Infant-Two Years: Babies and toddlers have no concept of death, and no words to express anything. They live in a physical world. They sense the change in routine, and the loss of the loved one’s presence – their voice, smell, touch, seeing them. They can experience anxiety and fears that they are being abandoned because at this age they are completely dependent. They may cry, have health and sleep issues, and display physical behaviors like rocking, thrashing, hitting, biting, sucking. The most important thing for them is to be able to feel physical closeness and have their routine as close to normal as possible. Affection, cuddling, routines, and a lot of patience will do much to soothe these bewildered little ones.

Three to Five Years: Children this age have no ability to cognitively understand the permanence of death, even if they can understand some of the biology. They feel fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, worry, guilt, and confusion. They may think the loved one will return, and wonder what would happen if their other caregiver(s) dies. They may think that their thoughts have the power to cause things to happen, so they may believe that they caused the death by having wished that the person were dead at one time. They take things quite literally, so don’t use metaphors to explain things.

Young children can develop magical stories about the death or what will happen to them. For example, a four year old might think that their mom literally lives on a cloud in heaven, and may worry that she will fall off if the clouds disappear. Young children may seek out situations that help them distinguish the real from imaginary, and can act out scenes of death or develop a fascination with dead things. They may be full of repetitive questions, or act like nothing happened. They might start acting younger than they really are (regress) and want to be held or fed like a baby, or talk in baby talk. Intense emotional outbursts, dreams, and fighting are common.

The important thing for kids this age is to be able to do all of this with support – help them identify feelings and have their routines and structure. Answer questions simply and truthfully, and let the child cry. Don’t worry about the behaviors – as long as it’s safe. Involve them as much as possible in the mourning rituals (but don’t force).

Six to Nine Years: Kids this age are beginning to understand that death is final, and may have a lot of preoccupation with the details as they sort out the biology of death. They may think that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and are starting to ask spiritual questions and form spiritual ideas. A really common thing is to act as if the death never happened, to hide feelings, or be withdrawn. They can also regress. Nightmares and fears of others dying, acting out, and poor grades are common. They worry about what will happen to them if a parent or other loved one dies.

Complex emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, confusion, loneliness, worry, and withdrawal are likely to be present. Encourage art, drama, pretend play, dance, sports. Encourage the child to express their emotions however they can (verbally, through art, etc) without pushing or buying into the notion that they are over it because they seem fine. Be physical with hugs, and don’t discourage their regressing or questions. Work with the school to make sure they get support and have an appropriate workload.

If the child has any of these symptoms for a long time, or has persistent depression, sleep or eating issues, withdrawal, or major school issues, seek professional help. A counselor/therapist can help the child come to accept the death and heal.

Healthy Relationship Change: How to Start

Healthy Relationship Change: how to startSimple Steps to Create Healthy Relationship Change

So, if you can bring about positive change by focusing on yourself rather than by trying to change the other person, how do you do it? There are two major things you need to do in order to change your dance:

Get clear on what the real issue is

Many times in a conflict we go in with our gloves on but we are unclear about what we are really upset about, or what we want to be different. The most effective way to change your moves is to get some clarity. When you aren’t clear about what you feel and want, you go in and blow things up (and get disapproval instead of understanding) or you give up yourself to keep the peace. So, think about it – what’s the real issue? When you get angry with your kids, are you really feeling hurt that your children aren’t respecting you? Or embarrassed that you can’t control them? Or fearful that you are going to hurt them if you are too hard on them? When your partner does something that you don’t like, what are you telling yourself about what that means, and how are you feeling? Just try to recognize that there are feelings at play – learn to see it. You have a right to your thoughts, feelings, and wishes. If you can state your wishes clearly and make good decisions that honor them, that itself would be a hugely different dance.

Things will get in your way, but don’t give up

We have a right to what we want and so does everyone else. We want others to change for us, and like it. Or, at least let us change without giving us any grief. Sorry, but this isn’t realistic. Change is hard for everyone. This creates anxiety that makes people try to get you to change back. Your job is to stay clear on what you want, not to make the other person’s anxiety about change go away. Your own anxiety about change could be your biggest enemy. If you did things differently, things would change, which can be scary. Things got this way because it serves a purpose, and the dance you know could be easier than the dance you have to learn. The good news is that small, easy steps are the best course of action and usually create positive changes. If you do too much too soon, it’s likely that everything will rebound back to the same old dance. If your expectations are realistic you’ll be prepared for little bumps along the way. So, start slow and don’t get upset if things don’t change immediately.

Once you have put some thought into those two things, you are ready to try out some simple steps:

Strike while the iron is cold. Don’t try to change things during the heat of an argument or difficult time with a loved one. You yourself have to take a step back and calm down so that you can gain clarity and own your position. You also can’t get anywhere with another person when they are upset. Walk away from the fight and let it simmer down. Let the crisis with the kids subside. Then collect your thoughts and address it.

Change how you approach a situation. Do something funny instead – such as create a funny rhyme to recite to your spouse instead of avoiding the issue altogether or storming in.  Express your anger with your spouse through a finger puppet. Write a little note, or something that it just different from how you normally bring something up. Surprise and humor do a lot to change the old fighting dance! Are the kids fighting in public? Do you have the guts to lay down on the floor and pretend to have a tantrum right there in the store and embarrass them to death?

Make more decisions that honor you. This is useful for people, (frequently women, but by no means only women) who find themselves foregoing their needs and wishes to keep the peace with their spouse, kids, parents, etc. Stop waiting for someone to make it easy to change. Usually someone has to make the first move and it might as well be you. It’s important to make it clear that you are doing something for yourself rather than to someone else. If you stay clear about what you feel and need without trying to change the other, you may find that you see more change happening.

Good luck! If you are diligent and keep trying, you will be well on your way to having healthier relationships through being more responsible for your own actions and creating positive change through changing yourself!





Relationship Change: The Power Is Yours

Relationship changeRelationship Change: The Power Is Yours

Many people are frustrated because they have motivation for relationship change, but their partner, teen, or other significant person doesn’t. Did you know that by changing your behavior you can create changes in others’ behavior, too?  You can have a huge positive impact on what seems like a dead-end situation, even if you are the only one doing anything different. This week we’ll start to look deeper at the first and fourth elements of a healthy relationship, being responsible for your own actions and happiness, and thus changing others (by changing yourself).

This is NOT about how to make people do what you want them to do or control them with some Jedi mind stuff. You know that you can create positive and negative responses by doing certain things. Being rude gets you to one place, and being agreeable gets you somewhere else.  It’s about how relationships work. We act, others react, then we react to that, and others react to that, and, I think you get the picture. This is what Harriet Lerner called The Dance – how two people (or more) form a dance of patterns in a relationship. One person takes a step forward, and the other person takes a step back to stay in sync. Our most important relationships are like unique and complex dances. Some dances are harmonious, and some a little more chaotic. To change a person’s behavior, start by changing your dance moves and see how the whole dance changes.

We do the same dances time and time again

Most of the arguments in a relationship are likely to sound like a CD stuck on repeat. Your child does something they are not supposed to, so you react in the predictable way, and so do they. The root of the behavior is never addressed, so you will dance again in an hour. Your partner “always” or “never” does this or that, and you can see a disagreement coming a mile away. The dance is always similar in your head, too. The things you tell yourself about a situation, the emotions that come up for you, they are the music. Are you “always” the yeller, and your partner “always” the silent one? Are you the one that starts all of the “talks”? Or the one that gets all of the “talking to”? With your kids, are you always the bad guy, or the fun parent? The softie, or the hammer? Do you have similar issues with folks at work and in other areas? Are you always the one that rushes in to save a situation from becoming a crisis? Or the one that takes care of others? And the dances we do are very common. You can bet that you aren’t the only one with certain dances you’d like to change.  Think of it has having plenty of company in the ballroom.

You can only move your own feet in any dance

So many people want great relationship change, but they say things like, “I want my partner to do…” Or, “I want to get my kids to stop doing this and start doing that.” It’s fine to want someone to change, and you can do plenty to encourage that, but that’s like looking at another’s feet and thinking that if you concentrate hard enough they will move. You have to focus on what you can control, which is the role you play. The same is true when waiting for someone else to change before you’ll change. Sure, it would be convenient if the other person did something that made it easier or more enjoyable to change what you are doing. But, as long as you are lock-step in the same old patterns that is unlikely to happen.

So, where do I start?

Start identifying your patterns and your dance. You could, if so inclined, sit down with a pen and paper and actually write out what you know to be the steps to something that you and a loved one struggle with. For example: “First, the kids do this, and then we do that, and it ends with this.” Or, you can just observe your life and see if you have that deja vu feeling. In your head you might say something like, “Oh, here we go again…” That would be the first clue that you are dancing.  Is there a point at which you typically lose your temper? Or storm off? Or start to go off in an unhealthy direction with your thoughts? Take an honest look at what part you play in the dance. It can seem hard at first, but with practice you can see patterns emerging.

I would also take a look at Harriet Lerner’s books.


G.I.V.E: How to practice healthy communication in 4 easy steps

Last week we talked about the five intentions in a healthy relationship. With the holidays coming I thought we could look at the second one – how to practice healthy and loving communication.

Aunt Betty always does this. Every Christmas she bakes these insane amounts of super rich foods, KNOWING that I am trying to slim down. Is she doing this just to annoy me? And if I DON’T eat, she gets really offended, and then people silently blame me for ruining Christmas! One year she accused me of insinuating that SHE needed to diet because I didn’t want to eat the food! 

We have all had one of those situations where we just want to tell a loved one that we prefer that they do or not do something. Before you know it, people are screaming at each other, and you are pretty sure that you didn’t start the argument. You were only trying to say “____”, but they totally blew it out of proportion. Arguments happen, and it would be unrealistic to say that you can always be cool as a cucumber when you are mad about something. But, how are you supposed to be assertive and get your point across if it just starts a fight? Or causes people to give you the silent treatment? And how are you supposed to do this with KIDS?!?

Intend to communicate what is on your mind lovingly, and create a safe space for others to do so as well

How we start a conversation makes a night and day difference in how the conversation goes. Research has shown that couples (and families) who are better at being gentle and loving in starting conversations are happier and stay together longer. If you can start it well with a strong intention to remain loving, you will get better and better at ending it well!

So how do you communicate gently? G.I.V.E!

First, take a deep breath and think about your intention to be loving.  And remember that you can only try your best. You can’t control whether the other person chooses to accept this or not. The important thing is that you are making your needs known in a healthy way, not stuffing them or exploding. This creates space for loving communication in return if the other person is willing/able to.


Get it: Start out by showing the other person that you get them – you get their feelings or why they do something. This is simple validation. Example: “Aunt Betty, I know how you enjoy making lots of great Holiday treats and it’s the main way that you practice giving. You love seeing people enjoy themselves at Christmas.”


I-Statements: Next, tell the person what you feel, think, or want by referring to yourself as much as possible. This helps to avoid them feeling like they are being attacked. Example: “I am trying to slim down, and I need to really stick to it over the Holidays. So I can’t eat many of the home made treats this year.”


Validate: This is just like step one, only you are going to do more of it. Try to sprinkle in some feeling words so that the person really feels like you understand, or express some sort of appreciation for them. “I see how much care you put into it, and I really appreciate all of your effort. You make us all feel so loved!”


Encourage: Lastly, try to encourage more good things. This can mean noticing and appreciating someone’s efforts to understand you or listen, or catching them trying to do something new and acknowledging it. If all else fails, you can encourage them by thanking them for letting you say what you needed to. “Thank you so much for letting me say this, it means a lot.”

Notice how much of that formula has to do with being positive: 75%. How much is a criticism aimed at another person? 0%. When you use an I-statement, it doesn’t guarantee that the other person isn’t going to get mad, it just makes it so that you aren’t attacking someone else and making them responsible for how you feel. It makes it clear that you aren’t doing something to spite them, you are doing it because you need to.

To keep things going well continue to G.I.V.E. during the whole conversation. Even if you feel artificial or can’t put all the steps in every time, you will get better and become more natural with it. If you have the intention to G.I.V.E. in every difficult conversation, you will be better off!

What about with kids?

With adults you need to get your needs met, with kids you need to meet their needs. So, the formula for kiddos is slightly different. I’ll devote a whole post to positive communication with kids. Meanwhile, it never hurts to practice letting your children know that you Get It and want to Encourage the good behavior!


Now go out there and G.I.V.E. to your family this Holiday Season!

Happy New Year!