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A Step in the Right Direction: Children in Blended Families
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.
The "friendly neighborhood" that Sam and his sister discover in the song is a network of support and positive new possibilities for enriching relationships in the stepfamilies that are created when their parents remarry. Although their adjustment to the changes is not easy or painless, they come to appreciate and feel a sense of belonging in their new family systems. As with many life changes to which children and their caregivers must adapt, the process of creating a stepfamily is one that poses significant challenges, yet offers many rewards.

Adjusting to Change
It is not an overstatement to say that each family situation is unique, and that there are no general rules or guidelines that will guarantee positive outcomes in parenting, especially when helping children cope with change. We know that even positive changes are stressful for both children and adults, and the stress becomes even greater when ambivalent or negative emotions are generated. We also know that there is a tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to adjust to change, that some of us are uncomfortable with strong negative emotions and may deny or minimize them, and that it is unusual for a parent to wish to deliberately cause distress to a child. All of these factors can interfere with realistic and objective expectations of the short and long-term issues involved in creating stepfamilies, particularly phases of adjustment when the "blending" feels more like "chopping" or "tossing." Anticipating that there may well be difficulties in the formation of a new family system, and that new relationships can be expected to have problems that will take time and considerable patience to resolve, can help parents and stepparents to maintain their sense of humor and perspective during the process.

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
Although often easier said than done, clear and direct communication is an invaluable tool for building and maintaining relationships in a stepfamily. Depending on the communication patterns that existed in the child's original family, and the extent to which the child was exposed to or involved in parental conflicts, the child may have unstated expectations for his or her role in the new family. It is not uncommon for children to assume a divisive role in the new adult partnership, particularly if they are actively grieving the loss of the pre-existing family constellation, or if they feel to blame for the breakup of an earlier parental relationship. Underlying issues can range from efforts to reunite original parents to resentment at having to share the time, attention, and affection of the single parent with whom they have lived. It is important to keep in mind that children are often expressing their feelings of powerlessness in situations by engaging in behavior that is aggressive or disrespectful. The adults in the new partnership can support each other in working through any feelings of guilt or resentment they might be feeling regarding the emotional reactions and behaviors of the children. Family meetings to air grievances before they escalate into power struggles, and to provide children with age appropriate roles in blended family decision making, can help deescalate emotional tensions and communicate a shared sense of purpose and commitment to the new family constellation.

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
Understanding and taking into account the developmental levels and needs of the children entering the stepfamily can provide insight in to some of the particularly sensitive issues. For example, the relationship between an adolescent and a new stepparent will generate a special need to be aware of and respect physical and emotional boundaries. Step-parents of teenagers are well advised to keep in mind how difficult it will be to balance the adolescent's developmentally appropriate need to emancipate and even push away from parental involvement, with the family need for a new relationship to develop and strengthen with the stepparent. It can be very helpful for the new stepparent of an adolescent to have a reference group of other parents and step-parents with whom to discuss parenting problems, obtain support, and learn to take rebellion of the teenager in stride. Of benefit to adults in blended families with children of all ages are the available support networks for stepfamilies, including resources such as parent groups and membership in the Stepfamily Association of America.

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.

This article is ©Copyright Deb Clemmensen. All rights reserved to the author.
Deb Clemmensen is a supervisor of the Outpatient Department at Washburn Child Guidance Center in Minneapolis, MN. She is a licensed psychologist and licensed school psychologist. In addition to therapy and assessments, she frequently does training and public speaking on child and family issues.

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