Weddings Remarriage & Children Articles | Neighborhood | Community | Family vows
by Deb Clemmensen
My family began with Mom and Dad and Sam and me. Then Mom and Dad divorced, and boy, I cried. "Cause suddenly, instead of four, my family felt like three, and it took a little while 'till Sam and me could see that what we'd really done was multiplied."
-from "Friendly Neighborhood" by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in Free to Be ... A Family, edited by Marlo Thomas.
Adjusting to Change
There is an accumulating body of anecdotal and research data on stepfamilies that can be useful in anticipating or, hopefully, avoiding some of the common problems that arise. For example, stepparents are advised not to expect to love their stepchild right away, or to expect love in return. Instead, focus on building friendship, based on mutual appreciation and respect. Anticipate that the development of a trusting, rewarding relationship is likely to take time, and will be tested often along the way. Although the stepparent will be co-parenting the family in terms of upholding family rules and providing nurturance and discipline, he or she should not expect to psychologically replace the missing parent. The stepparent should particularly avoid making negative statements about this parent in the presence of the child, and remain sensitive to issues of divided loyalty that often exist for stepchildren. Stepparents may need to draw on reserves of patience and tolerance to learn to understand their stepchild's apparently obnoxious or disrespectful behavior patterns before rushing in to intervene or correct them (and in the process escalating tensions by implying or stating a negative opinion of the parenting ability of their new partner). Being able to take the child's perspective into account will help, as will having a genuine interest in getting to know the familiar child and family routines before insisting on changing either.
Building New Relationships
It is not only stepparent-stepchild relationships that can be problematic; additional issues of boundaries, belongingness, and interesting chemistry are raised in step-sibling relationships. For some children, the addition of new brothers or sisters is positive and welcomed; others will have a harder time coping with this change,and may even have an active dislike of their step-siblings. Perceptions of parental favoritism can be heightened, and the not uncommon clashing of family traditions, such as holiday rituals, can create problems when one or both sets of children are unhappy with the loss of the familiar. To help bridge these potential trouble spots,parents can encourage children to find the skills and strengths of their new siblings and to explore areas of mutual interest. Adult modeling of acceptance, interest, and respect for the step-siblings is helpful, as is allowing space for the children to work out their differences without parental interference. Each child in a blended family will also benefit from provision of some physical space that is theirs alone. This also is helpful to the "visiting child" who is not a full time member of the new household. Recognition of the issues of "belongingness" and displacement that often arise when a new baby enters the blended household is also important to helping the step-child cope with this change. Extra time, attention, and reassurance from each adult may be necessary during the transition.
Consider Developmental Needs
It also helps for the parent and stepparent to have a clear appreciation of the temperaments and coping skills of the children in the stepfamily. Some children are temperamentally better equipped than others to handle transitions, and become less emotionally aroused and distressed by expected or unexpected frustrations or disappointments. Other children are more emotionally sensitive or reactive, and require extra time and more careful preparation to handle frustration or change. These children can be expected to take a longer time to settle in and adapt to the new relationships and routines in a stepfamily. However, even the most resilient child can feel overwhelmed at times and react in emotionally charged ways. This should not be viewed as a failure of the child or of the stepparent relationship, but as a temporary overload of the delicate emotional circuitry that is exposed and tested during the process of creating a new family system.
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