While maintaining a united front is well known to be an important principle in good parenting, this can become significantly more difficult, while being even more important, in blended families. It is, of course, normal for parents to have developed closer bonds with their biological children with whom they've been since birth, than they would with new stepchildren. According to Ron Deal in Successful Stepfamilies, each member of a step family has to deal with differing levels of attachment, diverse backgrounds, previous losses and divided loyalties. This complexity often blind-sides newly married blended family couples. The goal should never be to try and emulate a nuclear family, but rather to be a healthy blended family. Part of this goal is for the stepparent to be another positive adult in the children's lives.

In deciding the rules and fair discipline, it's important to respect the biological parents' history of parenting, but still come to a mutual understanding of how all the children will be disciplined in your home. Together the parents need to come up with house rules that apply to all the children, such as chores, allowances, bed and curfew times, meals, and homework. This is especially important since each parent has a stronger relationship with their own child(ren) than their spouse. The parents need to mutually decide on guidelines, so that the children cannot divide and conquer their parents.

It is critical to be consistent with the rules, and as much as possible to let the biological parent announce and enforce the rules. Marriage and family therapist Kevin Leman, illustrates this principle in practice with these examples:

Stepdaughter: "You're not my mother, and you can't stop me from wearing what I want to the party!"

Stepmother: (Holding child accountable for her choices). "You are correct, I am not your mother and you do not have to love me, but you will respect me. Your father said you may not wear that dress, so I guess you are choosing not to go to the party."

Stepdaughter: "Wait until I tell my real mother you make me wash dishes!"

Stepmother: (Stand shoulder-to-shoulder as parents). "Your father and I agree that all members of our familiy will contribute to this household and you are old enough to wash dishes. You can stay in your room until you are ready to do the dishes." (When Dad comes home, he will tell his daughter she will not talk disrespectfully to her stepmother).

These situations illustrate how the stepparent can be respected and effective in the children's lives while still allowing the biological parent to have the primary authority and discipline.

Another way that parents can effectively maintain a united front is to have cue words or gestures they've agreed upon as a way for either of them to intercede in a situation and not undermine the other in front of the children. Saying something like, "Wait, I have an idea about this; can we talk for a minute in the bedroom?" or "Honey, can I talk to you a minute please?" or some other phrase to let your spouse know you need to talk to them privately right away, can interrupt the situation and give you the opportunity to share your thoughts or differing opinions together and then come back together in front of the children in agreement.

It is also important for the parents to have a system for getting each other's support and backup when needed. If one parent becomes aware of the other becoming escalated or frustrated, they can offer to intervene in a positive way; for example, saying, "Why don't you take a break, and I'll finish helping quiz Johnny now?" or "Susie, Mommy is on a very important phone call right now, so let's surprise her and I'll help you get ready for bed." In this way, whenever one parent is more calm or in control emotionally, they are able to de-escalate a tense situation rather than further escalate things.

An especially difficult area in maintaining a united front is in dealing with the other household(s) in the children's lives. This can include ex-spouses, the other stepparent and children, and also the extended families of each of the parents. Sometimes ex-spouses are able to work together fairly well for the sake of the children, but many times this is not the case. The children will also play the adults against each other. If possible, parents should try to get agreement from the ex-spouse, grandparents, or other family members involved, that they will each support the authority of the other for the sake of the children, and that if there are any concerns, that you will set a time to discuss them without the child(ren) present. When having meetings with whatever adults are involved, prayerfully consider everyone's opinions and point of view. Seek any areas of common ground and try to build on these if possible. In any case, one parent should never criticize the other parent in front of the children, and extended family members need to respect the parents' and even stepparents' roles in the children's lives.

Loyalty issues to biological parents, and either/or dilemmas are common dynamics unique to blended families. The more that parents can give the children permission to like, honor and respect the stepparents, the better the adaptation to these new relationships can be. A key concept is for the biological parent to feel secure enough in their relationship with the child(ren) to be able to do this, and for the stepparent to conversely honor the biological parent's place in the child(ren)'s lives. Rather than seeing the relationships as a competition, where it needs to be "either/or," you can reframe it as choosing "both/and," and allow the child(ren) to have the various additional adult relationships in their lives. It is important to show respect and kindness and to share, even when it's difficult, and to do your best to pave the way for peace and harmony.

The more all the adults involved in the child(ren)'s lives can provide them the much-needed stability and structure of a united front, the better the adjustment can be for them. When this is not happening, plan a transition strategy that works for your family when the children leave and return to your household. The children cannot expect to easily adapt between multiple households where there are different sets of rules and dynamics. Allow for a readjustment time and try to establish effective boundaries in ways that you and your spouse can for the benefit of the children. If these issues continue to not be resolved using some of these strategies, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

Above all, in all matters and relationships, turn to God and seek His ways. When we recognize our limitations and weaknesses, especially in dealing with others, we are open to His wisdom and direction in our lives. "And this is what He requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).

Written by Roberta Vondrak, LCPC