Blending Families: a Guide for Stepparents TIPS FOR AVOIDING PROBLEMS AND ADVICE FOR HEALTHY BONDING • Today, at least one-third of all children in the U.S. are expected to live in a stepfamily before they reach age 18. The blended family is becoming more of a norm than an aberration. Born of conflict and loss, newfound commitment, and often heart-wrenching transition, stepfamilies face many lifestyle adjustments and changes. • Fortunately, most blended families are able to work out their problems and live together successfully. But it takes careful planning, open discussions of feelings, positive attitudes, mutual respect and patience. In This Article: • Eight myths about blended families • Preparing to blend two families: tips for avoiding problems • Building new, strong bonds in stepfamilies • Advice for new stepfamilies from those who’ve been there • When to seek professional help for blended families
Eight myths about blended families • To a child who does not belong to one, the term stepfamily may suggest Cinderella's troubled family or the eerily perfect Brady Bunch. Actually, neither situation tells the whole story. In a stepfamily, or blended family, one or both partners have been married before. Each has lost a spouse through divorce or death, and one or both of them have children from their previous marriage. They fall in love and decide to remarry, and in turn, form a new, blended family that includes children from one or both of their first households. • Here are some common myths about blended families:
MYTH #1: Love occurs instantly between a stepchild and stepparent. • Although you love your new partner, you may not automatically love his children. Likewise, the children will automatically love you because you are a nice person. Establishing relationships does not happen magically overnight. • Even when you recognize the time involved, it is hurtful to want a relationship with someone who doesn’t want a relationship with you. When people hurt, they may become resentful and angry. • Stepfamily adjustment will be easier if you begin your relationships with your stepchildren with minimal, realistic expectations about how those relationships will develop. Then you will be pleased when respect and friendship blossom and less disappointed if it takes longer than you anticipated
MYTH #2: Children of divorce and remarriage are damaged forever. • Children go though a painful period of adjustment after a divorce or remarriage. Adults often feel guilty about this, and want to “make it up” to their children. This makes it hard to respond appropriately to each child’s hurt and to set appropriate limits (an important part of parenting). • Research has demonstrated that in time, most children recover their emotional equilibrium, and will be no different in many important ways from kids in first-marriage families.
MYTH #3: Stepmothers and stepfathers are wicked. • Because many fairytales feature stepparents who are unkind or unfair, new stepparents may be confused about their roles. You may be a wonderful person who wants to do a good job, but the negative model of the stepparent can impact you in a very personal way, making you self-conscious about your new role.
MYTH #4: Adjustment to stepfamily life occurs quickly. • Couples are optimistic when they remarry. They want life to settle down and to get on with the business of being happy. However, it can take a long time for people in newly blended families to get to know each other, to create positive relationships, and to develop a family history.
MYTH #5: Children adjust to divorce and remarriage more easily if biological parents withdraw. • Children will adjust better if they have access to both biological parents. Sometimes visitation is painful for the nonresidential parent, but it is important for the child’s adjustment and emotional health – except, of course, in the rare instances of parental abuse or neglect. • It helps if all the parents involved - both biological and step - work toward a parenting partnership. Sometimes this can’t happen right away, but it can be something to work toward.
MYTH #6: Stepfamilies formed after a parent dies are easier. • People need time to grieve the loss of a loved one. A remarriage may reactivate unfinished grieving, which can have a detrimental effect on the new relationship. • A person who is deceased exists in memory, not in reality, and sometimes gets elevated to sainthood. When people remarry after the death of a spouse, they may want a relationship similar to their previous one. New partners may find themselves competing with a ghost.
MYTH #7: Part-time stepfamilies are easier. • When the stepchildren visit only occasionally, perhaps only every other weekend, there is not enough one-on-one time to work on stepchild/ stepparent relationships, and less opportunity for family activities and bonding. Since stepfamilies follow an adjustment process, the part-time stepfamily may take longer to move through the process.
MYTH #8: There is only one kind of family • A stepfamily doesn’t have to be – and probably won’t be – “just like” a biological family. Today, there are lots of kinds of families: first marriage, second marriage, single parent, foster, stepfamily. Each type is different; each is valuable.
Preparing to blend two families: tips for avoiding problems • In order to successfully blend two families, there are a number of important matters that should be discussed. By dealing with these issues before blending families, you can help keep potential problems from arising. Practical matters • Once a couple has decided to remarry, they should agree on where they will live. Many couples find that moving into a new home rather than one of their prior residences reinforces the idea of a new beginning for them as well as the children. The couple also needs to decide if they will share their money or if each wants to keep his/hers separate. • Partners should also determine how they will handle medical care in case the other biological parent isn’t available to sign a release for one of the children. Stepparents do not have the legal authority to sign a release, unless permission is given to them (preferably in writing).
Resolving feelings and concerns about the previous marriage • A second marriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurt from the first one, both for adults and children. For example, a child can no longer hope that his biological parents will reconcile. Or an ex-wife may stir up trouble with her ex-husband when she hears he is about to remarry. The new couple must negotiate a final emotional divorce to clear the way for a fresh start.
Anticipating parenting changes and decisions in blended families • Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules that may be in order. Even if the partners lived together before marriage, the children are likely to respond to the stepparent differently after remarriage because he/she now has assumed an official parental role. The following tips can help make this difficult transition a bit smoother: • Set up a relationship with the children in which the stepparent is more like a friend or camp counselor than a disciplinarian. • Let the biological (custodial) parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of the children until the stepparent has developed a solid bond with them. (cont)
(cont) • Until stepparents can take on more parenting responsibilities, they can monitor the children’s behavior and activities and keep their spouses informed (without appearing to be spies). • Working together, stepparents can come up with a list of family rules. Discuss the rules with the children and then post them in a prominent place. This way the stepparent is removed from the custodial parent-stepparent-stepchild triangle because he or she is simply following the house rules, rather than acting like a policeman.
Maintaining marriage quality in blended families • Newly remarried couples without children usually use their first months together to build on their relationship. Couples with children, on the other hand, are often more consumed with their own kids than with each other. • Newlyweds need to build a strong marital bond. This will ultimately benefit the children by creating a stable home environment. Couples should set aside time for each other, either by making regular dates or taking trips without the children.
Building new, strong bonds in blended families Blended family members can form strong bonds by: • developing new skills in making decisions as a family • fostering and strengthening new relationships between parents, stepparents and stepchildren, and stepsiblings • supporting one another • maintaining and nurturing original parent-child relationships
How does the age and gender of the children affect blending families? • Forming a stepfamily with young children is usually easier than forming one with adolescents, Both biological and stepparents will find it helpful to understand basic child development so they don't mistake developmentally normal behaviors as inappropriate, uncooperative or hostile towards them.
Young children under 10 • Find the adjustment easier because they thrive on close, cohesive family relationships. • Are more accepting of a new adult in the family, especially when the adult is a positive influence. • Feel a sense of abandonment or competition if they think their parent is devoting more time and energy to the new spouse than to them
Adolescents aged 10-14 • May have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. • Because of their sensitivity, stepparents need to be especially aware of having time to bond with them before stepping in as a disciplinarian or authority figure
Teenagers 15 or older • Need less parenting and may have less involvement in stepfamily life. • Prefer to separate from the family as they form they own identities. • Are less interested in closeness and bonding but may be disturbed by an active romance in their family.
Gender Differences – general tendencies: • Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, like hugs and kisses. • Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical shows of affection from their stepfather. • Boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
How do attachment relationships affect the ability of stepfamilies to bond? • Individuals who had a secure attachment relationship with a parent or caregiver when they were very young may have a better chance of relating well in their new families than those who did not. This is true whether they be the biological parent, stepparent, or stepchild. • People who have an insecure attachment history may have problems establishing close, loving bonds in a stepfamily. Fortunately, it is never too late to overcome this deficiency. An insecurely attached child can learn to trust others, to communicate and relate to people who treat him with consistent affection, attention, and respect. A connection will take place if the caregiver stays centered and welcoming. Successful relationships build an internal sense of security for the child. They also foster the creation of the interpersonal skills that will enable the young person to make meaningful connections in the future.
What role should the nonresidential parent have in the blended family? • After a divorce, children usually adjust better to their new lives when the parent who has moved out maintains a good relationship with them. When parents remarry, the nonresidential parent often decreases or maintains low levels of contact with the children. Fathers appear to be the worst offenders; on average, dads drop their visits to their children by half within the first year of remarriage. • The less a parent visits, the more likely a child is to feel abandoned. The nonresidential parent can remain connected by developing special activities that involve only the children and him/herself. • It is not a good idea for parents to speak negatively about their ex-spouses in front of their children. This undermines a child’s self-esteem and may put him or her in the troubling position of defending that parent.
Advice for new stepfamilies from those who’ve been there The Do’s and Don’ts of Blended Families • Do… …reassure children that the divorce/death was not their fault. Invite questions and discussion. …start talking with your children about the possibility of blending your family long before your marriage. …assure children that they will continue to have a relationship with the non-residential parent. …begin a dialogue about the future family life, letting everyone acknowledge and mourn losses through an open discussion of feelings. …present a unified parenting approach that is evenly applied to everyone in the family. …spend some time alone with each child and stepchild, connecting one-on-one. … establish new traditions for the blended family
Advice for new stepfamilies from those who’ve been there The Do’s and Don’ts of Blended Families • Don’t… …push your children into creating relationships. Allow bonds to evolve slowly and naturally. Give your children the time, space and flexibility to adjust to the new situation. …expect your stepchildren to call you mom or dad. Let them decide what they want to call you, or mutually select a name that you are comfortable being called. …forget your marriage by focusing exclusively on the family. Make alone time with your spouse consistently, and nurture your marital relationship. …allow conflict to arise between adults in front of the kids. …hesitate to ask for help from family members, friends, or support groups. Blending two families can be hard!
When to seek professional help for blended families • Studies show that children of stepfamilies face a higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems. They also are less likely to be resilient in stressful situations. Although most parents are able to work out these problems within the family, they should consider seeking professional help for their children if the children exhibit strong feelings of isolation, being alone in dealing with their losses, torn between two parents or two households, or uncomfortable with any member of their original family or stepfamily. (cont)
(cont) • It might be time to seek outside help for the entire family if: • a child directs her anger upon a particular family member or openly resents a stepparent or parent • one of the parents suffers from great stress and is unable to help with a child’s increased need for attention • a stepparent or parent openly favors one of the children • discipline of a child is left to the parent rather than involving both the stepparent and parent; • members of the family derive no pleasure from usually enjoyable activities such as learning, going to school, working, playing, or being with friends and family. • By devoting the necessary time to develop their own traditions and form caring relationships, stepfamilies can create emotionally rich and lasting bonds for each member. In the process, the children acquire the self-esteem and strength to enjoy the challenges that lie ahead.
Growing pains • Getting stuck in the middle between children and spouse will happen at sometime. The goal is to minimize the triangulation. Be soft and assertive. Try not to stuff important problems. • Stuffing feeling can be overlooked and not rewarded as an effort to make peace for the family. The person can begin to feel invisible and discounted. For the sake of the marriage the parent can recognize the stepparents efforts, thereby reducing discomfort and invisibility, then the stepparent can work out the differences with the stepchild without pulling the parent in the middle. • Remember these are growing pains. Any marriage takes a substantial amount of effort, but its worth it.
Time for the new marriage • There is significant importance in simply sending time with each other. • This seems obvious but can sometimes be left out. Escape parental roles for a brief time and remember why the decision to married came about in the first place. When coming back together remember when stepparents love your children it feels like there loving you too. So remember that when you are caring for “their” children. Then both people can fell love two fold, and the children will feel unity.
http://www.helpguide.org/mental/blended_families_stepfamilies.htmhttp://www.helpguide.org/mental/blended_families_stepfamilies.htm • www.athealth.com/consumer/disorders/steprelationships.html • www.focusonthefamily.org By Dr. James Dobson