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A dozen situations when back-to-school can feel more complicated in blended families

by Amy  - August 4, 2022

The start of a new school year is a time of excitement and anticipation for many kids and adults. 

In a blended family (or any family construct where children might move between more than one home during the school year) there can be some extra details and complications.

Here are some of the ways this can show up.

I think that these are good to be aware of for parents, stepparents, teachers, and school administrators because these are things that can lead to conflict between adults and stress in the school-age children. 

Grab my book, Blend! by Amy Stone

Agreeing on who, how and when to complete required forms and medical appointments needed for the start of the school year. 

The start of a school year is a time where a lot of paperwork and appointments need to get done. Kids need checkups and vaccinations and state approved forms. One of the things that makes this hard is that everybody else is also doing the same stuff all at the same time. 

In a blended family you might have a situation where one parent is making the appointment but the only available time is on the other parents schedule. This can become a conflict point in a blended family. 

Or you can have confusion or other big emotions about who is supposed to take the lead on any and or all of these things. 

Splitting the supply list and the related expenses from the school and / or clothing needed for school.

Back to school can be an expensive time of year. Kids tend to grow over the summer and they may need new clothes or uniforms for school. There may be supplies or other things for the students or the classroom. 

In a blended family where expenses are often shared between biological parents there can sometimes be confusion or resentment over how to divide this and who pays for what. 

Sometimes a stepparent can feel a little burdened by the outlay of money for a stepchild at the start of a school year. Especially if they don’t have children of their own and the expense is a surprise.

Money is the top cause of conflict in families and this is just one of the ways it can show up. 

Deciding who goes to school meetings during the year. 

Schools have a lot of paperwork and a lot of meetings. 

Which adults can and will attend the meetings in a blended family can be a point of contact. 

A family might take a divide and conquer approach and split up the various meetings between the parents. Or maybe they might both want to attend all the meetings. Or you might have a family where the parents both work and it’s hard for anybody to get to most of the meetings. 

What can pop up in a blended family is that people may feel excluded or pushed out from meetings and this can be a parent or a stepparent. Or flip it and one person in the blended family may feel burdened by the responsibility to go to all the meetings. 

A difference in routine or expectations between houses or guardians on homework, attendance and overall academic expectations. 

It is very common that in a blended family each house will have its own distinct routine that is not like the other house. Sometimes this is not just two houses but if a friend or relative steps in for afterschool care maybe that house has different rules and standards that causes a conflict point.

If you have one house that prioritizes   school and school work and the other house does not this can create conflict between adults and stress and anxiety for the children. This can show up that the child performs well academically when they are at one house and falls behind at the other house.

I first learned of how this can impact children from a friend who was a school counselor. She tried to find the kids in her school who would turn in work one week but not the next. Or children who were on time with one parent but often late or absent with the other parent. She would try to intervene to find out if the reason was that there was not support or supplies for any reason from week to week. Not every teacher and not ever counselor is on the lookout for this.

I’ll be honest, this can be a challenging situation to resolve and it sometimes requires the help of school staff. 

Deciding who gets to go to school events like performances, parties and for older kids things like prom photos. 

First day of school. Last day of school. Kindergarten graduation to prom school included many things that kids and parents and stepparents may see as childhood milestones. 

When a child is part of a blended family this may or may not be a point of confusion or conflict between the adults. 

Stepparents may feel unwelcome or unwanted at some of these moments by the children and even by other adults. 

Parents may be unsure of who gets to go. 

There are no rules about this. But I’ll go ahead and share what we all hope to avoid. When my youngest son was in kindergarten the kindergarten classes got to do a costume parade around the school campus. It was adorable. Parents were invited to watch and take photos. The older kids came out of the classrooms and clapped and cheered for the younger kids. It was a very cute event. 

One of my son’s classmates had divorced parents who had both remarried. This is a blended family. All 4 adults attended this event and unfortunately these adults got into a heated discussion that turned into a physical conflict between 2 of the adults. The adults were removed from the event by school security (which was actually the PE coach and 2 janitors). The kids were all very upset.

Nobody wants that. 

The logistical challenge when you may have children attending multiple schools who live in your home at least part-time. 

If you blend a family and you have children and stepchildren that are similar in age they may not always attend the same school. 

The schools may be in different parts of town. 

They may have different schedules. 

Sometimes the logistics can be complicated.

After school activity logistics and expenses. 

As students get older they often want to participate in after school programs. This can be art, music, sports, robotics, languages – the possibilities are a lot. 

Each of these commitments will include a financial investment and a commitment to go to the practices and whatever else is involved. 

These can sometimes create conflict in blended families. 

I’ll give you an example from a true story I know. The parents before they divorced agreed to not participate in religious training. After the divorce one parent changed thier mind and signed the children up for after school religion training and asked the other parent to pay for it and commit to taking the children during their time together. This was something the second parent did not want to do. The children approached one of the stepparents and confessed that they didn’t want to go to the religious training either but to please not tell mom or dad. 

It was a spicy situation for a while. 

Sometimes people in situations like this will look for “the answer” or “am I wrong here?”

In my opinion, each situation is going to be different and the solutions may also be different. 

How to set up communication between teachers / school administrators and the parents. 

Who gets the information? 

Who has the primary responsibility to reply.?

Some schools are actually unable or unwilling to list more than one contact for a family. This can be a big complication. 

What if each class has it’s own app to track?

Who will follow up on homework?

What if the child doesn’t go to school on transfer day? 

Communication impacts everything. 

The feeling of being an outsider or being seen as different if you are divorced or remarried or a stepparent at school events.

Can a stepmom go for the mother’s day tea?

What if there is no father in the picture does the child just sit out Daddy and Donuts in the morning? 

Will I be singled out if I’m the only single mom at this event?

This is one thing that I would love to just waive a wand and make it go away. 

It is estimated that perhaps 60-70 % of children in the USA have some sort of blended family or custodial sharing arrangement. 

There is no reason why any of us should feel unwelcome or singled out at school events. And yet the reason I’m writing this article is that basically ALL of the back-to-school information is written with a single marriage concept as if it’s the only way families come to schools. 

It makes zero sense. 

When my first biological child was in preschool I also had a stepchild getting ready for college. My husband felt like he didn’t fit in with the parents of the other preschool parents. I dragged him to most things anyway. I also proudly brought my older kids to things with their younger siblings and if anybody had any issue with that I just kindly asked them to mind their own business. 

Over time I learned that there were other families in our preschool class who had a similar (not exact) but similar situation. I promise you – you belong.

Another quick story. My daughter had a classmate. I learned when they were in kindergarten that her dad had died when she was a baby. Her mother had remarried. She and her new husband had baby twins.  

This was not a secret. 

But people often would find themselves in a situation where they would call the mothers husband the dad of the oldest child. And the child would often say something like – nope my dad died. 

I watched this happen over the years at least 30 times. Neither the kid, nor the mom or her husband were at all uncomfortable but oh boy the person who made the assumption often felt horrible. 

The lesson is – it’s a good idea to try to never assume what the connections are between children and caregivers.  

Keeping track of items that are needed for school that move between houses. 

This applies to uniforms, books, supplies, and lunch boxes as well as a bunch of other things.

A common scenario is that both houses will start the year with supplies and part way through most things end up at one house or another. 

School is often a place where children will change between custodial parents. So a kid will go to school with one parent and be picked up by the other parent. Keeping track of where stuff is and where it needs to be can get challenging.

I will say that this may be a little tougher today than it was a decade or so ago because schools are not as open as they once were (in terms of security).

I remember that once one of my stepkids had an ear infection and that meant that we had refrigerated liquid medicine that needed to go between the houses. We were able to send it to school, it stayed in the fridge with the nurse and then the other parent collected it. I talked to a mom recently who was not able to do that because of security and when and how adults were allowed on campus. 

This can get complicated. 

I remember once when we had the stepkids on a school night and we realized in the morning that we had exactly ZERO uniforms that fit anybody. YIKES!

Being or feeling the perception of being excluded from special milestone moments for your children like missing the first day of school because it was on the schedule for the other house. 

I shared the story of adult poor behavior at the halloween parade above. There are lots of situations where divorced couples or blended families do not like to be in the same physical space.

Sometimes this becomes where there are no-contact instructions and parents use what is called a parallel parenting plan. 

They are never in the same space and that can mean that one parent or caregiver feels left out. 

This can happen to stepparents too. Sometimes parents will ask that the stepparents not be present at school meetings or events. This can be a very unpleasant experience for the stepparent. 

This is also not always because it’s a high conflict situation. In my family growing up my parents were in different states. I do not remember having both my parents at any school event until my high school graduation. To be fair – they were pretty high conflict but the distance was also a reason for this.

Feeling unwanted or uncertain or unwelcome by the child at school events as a stepparent.

When I was a new stepparent I remember being at an orchestra performance for one of my stepchildren. I came with my husband. His ex-wife and her husband were there. The other stepchild. At least a few grandparents too. 

I ended up sitting all the way at the end of the line of adults. Not near my husband who was near his son and his ex-wife. I felt like a 25th wheel because the kids really only seemed to care about mom and dad and the grandparents. 

It took me a long time to make peace with this feeling as a stepparent. I’ll be honest.

However, I did make peace with it. My stepkids first priority is and will always be their parents. I can tell you that after 20 years they did appreciate that I came to a lot of their stuff.

When my stepson graduated from law school he was only allowed 2 tickets to the graduation. He was so stressed how he would make that work. But when my husband told me I said – that’s okay you go with your ex. His mom – you both are his parents. I would have love to have been there in person. But if there are only two tickets – that’s mom and dad.

Feeling like we don’t fit because we’re a big blended family. 

Sometimes kids with blended families have to ask for extra tickets for everything from school parking passes to performances or events and they may feel like they have to choose or that they are singled out as different by this process. 

When my stepkids were little they felt singled out when it was time to ask for extra tickets. Eventually it was something we were all very comfortable with working with. 

I have become a ninja at getting extra tickets to shows and school events because often we have a large number of family who want to attend. For my stepdaughter’s high school graduation we needed tickets for 2 parents, 2 stepparents, 6 grandparents and 5 siblings … there may have even been a few aunts and uncles. It was a project to get it all together but we did it. 

This is not an exhaustive list. Each family can and will experience different things. 

If you are reading this and thinking – well hey there I’m not in a blended family and these are some of the stresses in my family too. You’re right. These can just be slightly more (or a lot more) complex in a blended family. 

The good news is that there are tools and strategies that can help parents, stepparents, children, teachers, and school administrators to be empowered and show up in a way that is effective and feels good. 

Awareness is always a good place to start. If you identify with any of the items on this list in your family. You are not alone. This is not unusual. You can do this. Then you can explore what you think the reasons might be. Here is an article with 4 reasons that I think come up frequently. If you want some support I invite you to reach out to me to talk about coaching. 

Training for You

Grab my Steps for Happiness as a Stepparent

Stepparents - Homework, Studying and Grades in a Blended Family

Amy

Amy Stone (she/her/hers) is a life coach who helps adults in blended families. She is a mom, step-mom and a step-grandma. Other random fun facts include that She is a 7-time Ironman triathlon finisher and many many marathons and shorter races. She created amysaysso.com.

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