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Achieving Harmony in Blended Families.
A step family, or as some call it, a blended family, is one where at least one parent has children not genetically related to the other spouse. Either parent may have children from a previous relationship.
A child in this type family is referred to as the stepchild, stepdaughter, or stepson of their biological parent's new spouse. That person becomes the stepparent, stepfather, or stepmother of the child.
A "simple" step family is one in which only one spouse has a previous child, and the couple hasn't yet produced additional offspring. When both members have at least one preexisting child, the new family is "complex" or "blended" from the beginning.
If a stepparent legally adopts the partner's child, they become the legal parent. In such cases parents may desire to drop the term "stepparent" and "stepchild" from their vocabulary. However, some emotional and psychological issues common to step families may still be present. It can take years to bring harmony to a blended family, but today success is attained much easier than in the past. In fact, today it's almost an accepted norm.
The Challenge. When planning to remarry, children from previous relationships can present unique problems. Before making any commitments discuss finances, discipline, childcare and other important issues that are sure to arise.
Discussion Tactics. When children are present, talk calmly and rationally. Don't allow discussions to become heated arguments. Any children may feel they're responsible.
Discipline and Punishment. Don't assume your discipline methods will be accepted by the stepchildren or spouse. Discuss rules and punishment methods existing before you became part of the family. A sudden change of rules can leave children confused.
Creating Personal Relationships. Set aside time to develop a bond with the children, and never refer to them as the spouse's stepchildren or stepchild.
Jim and Mary found love after their first marriages failed. She had two daughters; he had a son . Both were determined to make their second marriage work. In the weeks before their wedding, they talked excitedly about the new life they were going to have. The marriage took place, promising a better life. They were in for a big disappointment.
Mary's oldest daughter, 15 year old Sharon, was unhappy with the new marriage. But the newly weds, being engrossed with their new romance, were too busy to pay attention to how the children felt. They assumed Sharon would eventually accept the new arrangement, or so they hoped. At the wedding, Sharon arrived sporting a black armband. At the reception, Mary exclaimed “I didn't know she was so upset about us getting married!” Jim replied “She'll eventually get used to it. Don't worry.”
However, the couple did worry. That is until they set off on their honeymoon, then worry took a back seat. However, upon returning home they were met with cold, hard realities.
Jim's son didn't like her cooking, or family rules. “That's not the way mom did it!” was an expression heard repeatedly. Additionally, his new stepdaughters refused to recognize him as a parent. If he tried disciplining them or exercising any parental authority, he ran into opposition from them as well as his new wife. The couple soon discovered they had very different parenting styles. Their new marriage became a stressful conflict, and before a year had passed, they felt their marriage was "on the rocks."
Blending and becoming a strong, whole, healthy family is a five-stage process:
Let's examine them:
Five Steps For a Strong Blended Family
When a previously married people come together, they enter a fantasy period. The children of both parents are likely to react in one of two ways during this stage.
They may resent the idea of a new stepparent, viewing them as an intruder trying to replace their biological parent.
They may actually welcome the idea and look forward to having two parents again.
Usually during this period, no one has taken an interest in what the future holds for them. Stepparents expect to be welcomed by the stepchildren. When thoughts of possible problems arise, they're shaken off as adjusting to their new environment. But as time passes things don't seem to improve? Why do the children seem to resent them? The fantasy stage has ended.
Next, reality begins to set in. It becomes obvious they didn't marry one person, but a whole family with different values, rules, and traditions.
The most common blended family consists of a divorced man, whose biological children live with his ex-wife. She and her offspring have begun functioning on their own. Together, they have experienced the trauma of divorce, and learned to function without a man around.
Then, a new stepdad enters the picture. Although theoretically part of the family unit, he often feels left. The children tend to continue running to mom for protection from this man who they don't consider their father. At this stage, the children of stepparents begin entertaining the idea their mom and dad will get back together.
Children are often left to deal with this loss alone. And because children aren't mature enough to cope with these feelings, they are often acted out in ways parents don't expect. An otherwise well behaved child may turn hateful, silent, angry, or depressed. And it's not uncommon for them to play one parent against the other.
When a stepparent comes on the scene, the absent biological parent, whether living or dead, takes on a special quality. Any unpleasant memories fade away, and they become the embodiment of perfection. The stepparent becomes an imperfect image by comparison.
During the reality phase, new issues emerge. As the wife enters into the new marriage, she has to return to sharing authority, and consulting on decisions. She may not consciously resent her new husband, but unwittingly senses he is invading her territory.
The husband also has problems. He wants to be accepted, as a good guy. He knows he can never replace the biological father, but still wants to make a better life for them. Instead, he encounters hate or cold silence, and is accused of favoring his own children. At the same time, he's managing conflicts with his ex-wife, and new husband. He struggles to maintain a relationship with his biological children and the guilt feelings he has failed them. The stage is now set for the next step.
This is a crucial stage. Unfortunately, few seek counseling until they enter the crisis stage. It's recommended all seek counseling from the outset, even before the marriage. This gives family members an opportunity to express feelings and learn about the new family structure. Unfortunately, by this time, it may be too late.
In the crisis stage anger and vexations may have grown to practically unbearable levels. There can be fears this marriage is deteriorating like the previous one. If they are unwilling to participate in counseling, they may never understand what's happening.
If parents face their issues, the family will more than likely emerge from the crisis. And they can use what they learned in counseling. Those adjustments may include:
Negotiation of Roles. Every member must find their place and what's expected. Parents and stepparents may ask, “How much parenting is expected of me? Should I get involved in the children's quarrels and conflicts?” Children may wonder, who they should obey, and rules they're expected to follow?
Relationship Building. Relationships should not be rushed, but built carefully and patiently. At this point, family members are beginning to trust and except the new stepparent.
It's no revelation, relationships are built on fond memories. But relationships are also built on conflicts and crises. They force the family to deal with each other honestly.
Validation of the New Family Unit. Everyone remembers their first family with a sense of longing. The new family doesn't feel real compared with one no longer existing. Eventually the blending family will accept their new environment.
If the marriage survives, the acceptance stage has been reached. The blending family has become a unit and major issues have been dealt with. They have accepted each other.
But acceptance extends beyond the family home. It extends to grandparents, in-laws, and in some circumstances ex-wives and husbands, still having an ongoing relationship with their children.
It's natural for a stepparent to fight the urge to say, “This is our family now. You don't have any business being here, so mind your own business!” However, children need to relate to their biological parents, and family. Once everyone has learned to accept the new family, real peace and stability can be achieved. There will always be other issues to deal with, but that's true of any family.