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STEP-PARENTING

Finding Balance in a New Life

Recognizing the Challenge

When re-marriage follows divorce, many couples seek counseling because step-parenting conflicts and leftover divorce trauma quickly threaten the bonds of these new marriages. Recognizing that the odds are against you – the U.S. Census Bureau reports that over 60% of second marriages end in divorce – will at least mentally position you to work a little harder to make things work this time. Two areas that will need a lot of your attention are the overall family dynamics and the individual reactions of the children who are being connected in a new, and possibly challenging, way.

Blended family problems are complex and often involve several family members with doubts about their future and stress caused by a new or potentially new living environment. Imagine if you were that child who has not only lost the stability of the first marriage, but has been further de-stabilized by the relocation and remarriage of one or both parents. Then add a few new siblings for them to adjust to, who are also struggling with the remarriage of their parents, and you have a management problem that will require a lot of extra attention. Potentially, one stepfamily can have up to six adults invested in the raising of a child, and a half-dozen siblings and stepsiblings in the wings. This situation is ripe for problems if the parents do not prepare ahead of time with the well being of the children in mind. 

Loyalty and Resentfulness

Two problems that come up regularly in blended families are resentful step-relationships and authority issues. While there are supposedly only two adults making up rules for a blended household, there is always at least one outside parent who wields a lot of power from the shadows, and many times there is more than one. This creates special difficulties for children especially when these parental instructions are in conflict – who is right and who is wrong?  Many times it left to the child to decide.

As a result, children struggle most with loyalty. If they try to get along in the new stepfamily, they may judge themselves disloyal to the missing parent or siblings. Causing trouble can actually make them feel they are being loyal to the original family system. Add to that children being treated differently in the same house and you have a recipe for significant trouble. Has bedtime always been 8 p.m. for one child, but another child of the same age has never had a bedtime?  Bedtime, as one example, is going to be a battleground until some new rules are hammered out and enforced. And, major breakups of blended families have occurred over much smaller issues than the inability to set bedtime rules. 

Pre-Family Counseling

Pre-family counseling with all parents involved may be uncomfortable to coordinate, but it can save a lot of heartache later. Ideally, all invested parents need to negotiate a peace and openly lay out the ground rules of how they will consistently parent instead of slipping rules in arbitrarily or subversively breaking them. The biological parents, if possible, and not the step-parents, should be the ones to set up such sessions and take the lead role in establishing the blended family rules which both groups would then be expected to follow.

It is no easy task to pull together this group of people some of whom may not be invested in the success of this new blended family; with new habits, old traumas, loyalties and a myriad other issues to address. A pre-meeting agreement to practice open/honest communications, provide forgiveness when needed and to show respect to all involved are the three most important keys to making these sessions a success – and, more importantly, helping the children involved to successfully adjust to the new environment.

Authority Issues

A study done among young adults in Australia found that respect by stepparents toward stepchildren was the most important foundation not only of relationship success, but the confidence and success of the children during adolescence and into adulthood. This relationship was shown to be the strongest guard against drug abuse, early pregnancy, and poor educational achievement. Across the board study participants who felt negatively about their stepparent also saw them as dominating and heavy-handed with discipline. Those who had the best things to say about their stepparents felt they were loved and respected. 

This a very important point. If a person loves another person enough to marry them and take on  their children, there must be consistent love and respect for the children. Children who don’t feel wanted, loved or respected will act out that sense of de-valuing by making self-destructive choices in adolescence and early adulthood. They probably also witness the de-valuing of their parent after the romance has worn off, which happens more quickly in blended families. Selfish love will not produce happy, well-adjusted children.

Stepparents should only be placed in a position to discipline if both biological parents are unavailable. Then the ground rules need to be in place for exactly how far that discipline should go. When children do not experience loyalty from their biological parents they lose hope that life is worth living or that they are worth fighting for.

Family blending is not for the faint-hearted, but if all parties have the best interests of the children in mind a well-adjusted family will ensue. When it’s time for the kids to graduate, marry, or celebrate other milestones of life, the blended family can then be a source of strength and joy.

“Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.”
Helen Keller

Written by Heidi Densmore

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“Would that life were like the shadow cast by a wall or tree, but it is like the shadow cast by bird in flight.” Talmud