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Stepfamily Solutions

Building a successful remarriage can mysteriously bring out your deepest personal fears, longings, and hopes. The key to not only survival, but living this journey well, begins with discovering opportunities to succeed; it is not about blame or...

Gloria is a winner of Top 25 Moms with Blended Families - 2012

What aspect of being in a blended family has surprised you?

Studies show that only 18 percent of re-married parents who have all of their children after the remarriage are happy; the rest see family life as mildly stressful to miserable. One reason is that within our society, there are no cultural scripts, no set of socially prescribed and understood guidelines for relating to each other or for defining responsibilities and obligations in these families. Although our society tends to broadly apply to second marriages the rules and assumptions of first marriages, these rules often ignore the complexities of stepfamilies.
I am also now aware that the term “blended family,” currently popular and often used interchangeably with stepfamily, can also be confusing; you do not blend in the sense of losing the character and identity of your original family. Nor are families reconstituted or put back together. However, there is a difference between step- and blended-families in that in stepfamilies the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents. For the purpose of this book, both will be referred to as step, yet apply to both.
In blended and stepfamilies, although one biological parent lives elsewhere; virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss; the children are members of more than one household; and one adult—the stepparent—is not legally related to the stepchild unless legally adopted. For children, the transition from one family structure to another, and another, creates a long period of upheaval and stress. Generally, children are forced to adjust first to a new single-parent household before adjusting again to the new two-parent stepfamily—two difficult transitions. And, more likely than not, a very tight, emotional bond developed in that single-parent household.
Children can also find it difficult to bond with their new stepfamily because there is a biological parent outside the new family unit. Remember, most of these children hold membership in two households, with two sets of rules. Additionally, role models for stepparents are poorly defined and blended/stepfamilies come together from diverse backgrounds, which means everybody needs to have (or develop) the ability to tolerate differences.
Relationships in blended/stepfamilies are new, untested, and not a given as they are in traditional families. Even when everyone is in tune, what is missing is the comfort of knowing that there is a bond taken for granted, a biological bond of caring and love. Now, outward signals and signs are continuously needed to show that caring and loving, or respect, really exist. Children in blended/stepfamilies also have at least one extra set of grandparents and extended family which can leave everyone on both sides confused about what to do.

What's a good tip for preventing sibling rivalry?

Silbling rivalry happens in all families, even biological families. However, it is much more complex in step and blended families. Your children become siblings, residential stepsiblings, nonresidential stepsiblings, residential half-siblings, and nonresidential half-siblings. There are even two subtypes of half-sibling roles: those of children related by blood to only one of the adults, and the half-sibling role of the mutual child. Children also have step-grandparents and ex-step-grandparents.
Even though blended/stepfamilies are a large segment of the American families today, our language has not yet caught up with the proliferation of new family roles. As family members separate and join new families, the new kin do not so much replace as add to kin from the first marriage. What are the new relatives to be called? There may be stepparents, step-grandparents, and stepsiblings, but what, for instance does a child call the new wife that her or his non-custodial father has married? Or, if a child alternates between the two households in a joint-custody arrangement, where does he or she call “home,” and where is his or her “family”? It takes the entire family working together to make the adjustment easier for everyone.
About half of the women who remarry have a child, usually within two years after the wedding. This is most often the case when women have no children, or only one, from a previous marriage. Adding another child to your stepfamily is bound to be a complex adjustment. Even though these children bring none of the complications that come with expanding families across households, or the complex structure of family roles and relationships, the complication is from the viewpoint of the children from the previous marriage.
Stepsiblings may not get along because they resent sharing their room, their possessions, and their parent. Ties between your stepchild and their non-custodial parent may create a triangle effect that makes your spouse’s previous marriage seem “more real” than this marriage. Children, upset after visits with their non-custodial parent, are forced to make major adjustments that make life difficult for everyone, and you might often feel caught between loyalties to your biological child and wanting to please your new spouse.
So what is the answer to handing sibling rivalry, step or biological? It is important that each child, bio and step, feels HEARD and honered for their uniqueness. If at all possible, spend one-on-one time on a rotating basis with each child - the best way I know of to make each child feel heard and valued.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to moms who are about to become part of a blended family?

Although all stepchildren and stepparents are to some degree uncomfortable with some aspect of their new family role, certain difficulties are more likely to affect stepmothers. Conflicting expectations of a stepmother’s role make it especially hard. As a stepparent, your best shot at happiness is to ignore the myths and negative images and to work to stay optimistic.
As a stepmother, yes, your work is cut out for you. In fact, the role of stepmother is thought by some clinicians to be more difficult than that of stepfather. One important reason is that stepmother families, more than stepfather families, may be born of difficult custody battles and/or have a history of particularly troubled family relations.
Society also seems, on the one hand, to expect romantic, almost mythical loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel, vain, selfish, competitive, and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with). Stepmothers are also often accused of giving preferential treatment to their own children. As a result, a stepmother must be much better than just okay before she is considered acceptable. No matter how skillful and patient you are, all your actions are suspect. Is it any wonder that stepmothers tend to be more stressed, anxious, and depressed than other mothers and also more stressed than stepfathers?
Some researchers have found that stepmothers behave more negatively toward stepchildren than do stepfathers, and children in stepmother families seem to do less well in terms of their behavior. In fact, the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter is often the most difficult. Yet, other studies indicate that stepmothers can have a positive impact on stepchildren. Because stepmothers are much more likely to play an active part in the lives of children than stepfathers, perhaps there is simply more to go wrong.
Still, some step-mothering situations can make this role especially complicated -- such as a part-time or weekend stepmother if you are married to a non-custodial father who sees his children regularly. You may try with all your heart to establish a loving relationship with your husband’s children, only to be openly rejected, or you may feel left out of part of his life because of his relationship with his children. In addition, a part-time stepmother can feel left out by her husband’s relationship with his ex-wife; for example, non-custodial fathers need to spend time communicating with their ex-wives about their children’s school problems, orthodontia, illnesses, etc.
Yet, well-run by knowledgeable, confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

How do you handle difficult step-children?

Gloria Lintermans

All children need to believe, without ambivalence, that their lives have intrinsic worth, promise, and real meaning. And when children, step and biological, are not treated with respect, the entire stepfamily suffers. What does discipline in stepfamilies look like? Consider the following: Decide up front if you are all going to try to co-parent your dependent kids as a team of informed, cooperative caregivers, or as independent, competing (or indifferent) adversaries. Accept that typical stepfamilies are very different from average one-home biological families, and often need fundamentally different rules and standards than typical biological homes. Go slowly on changing pre-remarriage child discipline rules and making new rules and/or consequences. Ideally, biological parents should do much of the discipline with their own minor kids until the kids learn to trust and respect their stepparent(s). Expect loyalty (or values) conflicts over child discipline issues in and between your related homes. Evolve a way to deal with them that works often for your unique stepfamily. Try viewing discipline values that clash as different, not good/bad or right/wrong. Doing so helps avoid destructive, stressful power struggles. Expect dependent step-kids to test and retest your home’s child discipline rules. This is (usually) far more about their learning to trust that they are safe in confusing and alien new stepfamily surroundings than it is about defiance, rebellion, or “badness.” Help step-kids see and accept that a stepparent is not trying to replace or “become” their biological parent, but is (1.) doing parenting things like guiding, teaching, and protecting, and (2.) legitimately co-managing his or her own home. When a stepparent is the only one available to perform child discipline—especially in a new step-home—it helps if the biological parent(s) verbally “authorize” the stepparent in front of the step-kid(s) to act in their place. Stepparents should try not to confuse a biological parent’s natural tolerance for his or her own child’s behavior with being “too easy.” Stepfamily adults should experiment over time with who sets the child-behavior rules, and who enforces them and how. Avoid rigid, black-and-white child discipline rules. A stepparent who resents a stepchild talking disrespectfully to a biological parent should try something like, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to my wife (husband)” rather than “…to your mom (dad).” If step-kids visit their other stepfamily adult(s) regularly, it helps if all stepfamily adults inform each other of key child discipline values, rules, and consequences in their respective homes, and try for a collective united front where possible. It can be helpful if child discipline, usually considered from the stepparent's point of view, is explored via stepchild’s perspective. Consider the following "memo" from and about your stepchild: Set clear limits for me. I know very well I shouldn’t have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you, which is part of my job. I need a parent, not just a pal. Be firm with me. I prefer it though I won’t say so. It lets me know where I stand. Lead me rather than force me. If you force me, I learn that power is what really counts. I’ll respond much better to being guided. Be consistent. If you’re not, it confuses me and makes me try harder to get away with everything I can. Make promises that you can keep, and keep the promises you make. That grows my trust in you and my willingness to cooperate. Know that I’m just being provocative when I say and do things to upset you. If you fall for my provocations, I’ll try for more such excitement and victories. Stay calm when I say “I hate you.” I don’t really mean it. I just want you to feel upset and sorry for what I feel you’ve done to me. Help me feel big rather than small. When I feel little, I need to act like a “big shot” or a whiney cripple. Let me do the things I can do for myself. Your doing them for me makes me feel like a baby, and I may keep putting you in my service. Correct me in private. I can hear you better if you talk quietly with me alone, rather than with other people present. Talk about my behavior when our conflict has calmed down. In the heat of battle somehow my listening gets bad and my cooperation is even worse. It’s okay for you to take the actions needed, but let’s not talk about it until we all calm down. Talk with me rather than preach at me. You’d be surprised how well I know what’s right and wrong. I need to have my feelings and ideas respected, just like you do—so please listen to them. Tell me of your anger at my actions without name-calling. If you call me “stupid” or “jerk” or “clumsy” too often I’ll start to believe that. Help me learn how to handle anger without harming. Help me feel that my mistakes are not sins.I need to learn from my errors, without feeling that I’m no good. Talk firmly without nagging. If you nag over and over, I’ll protect myself by growing deaf. Let my wrong behavior go without demanding big explanations. Often, I really don’t know why I did it. Accept as much as you can of what I’m able to tell you. I’m easily scared into lying if my honesty is taxed too much. When you teach me things, please keep it simple. If you use big words or get into long confusing explanations, my mind goes somewhere else. Enjoy me! I have a lot to offer you! Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press).
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