Stepfamilies and How to Survive Them

Tue 21st Jul 2015

The difference between step families and our own children is that we don’t set out to have them. They come as a package with our new partner. They are born out of divorce, and, after being part of an often heart wrenching transition, they are thrust into the bosom of their parent’s ‘new love’ (and the ‘new love’s’ offspring) which they are inevitably expected to adjust to. Fortunately most stepchildren are able to accept their new ‘family’ situation and most challenges are ironed out. However it takes open discussions, a great deal of planning, positive attitudes, mutual respect and lashings of patience on the part of the adults to make it work.

The Emotional Divorce

Whilst the parents may have legally divorced, emotionally there may still be unresolved feelings of anger and hurt. This means there is potential for an ex-wife or husband to create problems. This is really difficult for the children who may want to be loyal to both camps, but feel guilty when they leave mum to stay with dad or vice versa.

That’s why it’s vital for a divorcing couple to learn how to ‘divorce emotionally’. This takes time, understanding and skill. As an experienced Divorce Coach and Mediator, I help couples ‘complete’ their marriages by giving them the exact skills and strategies that will allow them to move forward with their lives free from blame and guilt. Of course, if you want to remain bitter and angry, you can do so for as long as you wish. All you have to do is hold on to how right you are and how wrong your ex is. However you will not move on and you will make it hard for your kids. Kids don’t divorce, parents do. This is not their choice and whilst a ‘snide’ comment may feel fabulous at the time, the fall out usually lands on the children.

Are you ready for your Brady Bunch?

So you have chosen your new partner and the deal is, you get their kids to combine with your own. The first job now is for couples to discuss the following:

  • The role each step parent will play in bringing up their respective children.
  • The household rules
  • The children’s behaviour, how it might impact the whole family and who is allowed to say and do what.
  • Time for themselves as a couple (which we will look at later)

I have coached many newly ‘blended’ families and the vital key to making this work is communication. Being able to talk to your new partner openly and agreeing together how you would like to raise you new ‘family’ is a skill by itself. If ‘dad’ insists that ‘mum’ is not allowed to comment on anything their ‘own’ child does or says, alarm bells should ring. You must be able to speak out when a child’s behaviour impacts you. Of course you need to know the most effective way of doing this so that you keep the relationship in tact. But these are skills that can easily be learned.

Building Bonds Takes Time

Each of ‘your children’ has their own personality and will have different needs, interests and ways of reacting. You will, given time, learn to respond differently to all of them but they will all need to be treated with respect, interest and at the very least, an intention to love them.

Some of the feelings that children of all ages experience are feelings of loyalty to one parent (or even you) which could mean disloyalty to the other. They may feel rejected by one parent but feel resentment towards you for replacing the other parent. They may experience jealousy at having to share their parent with you and your kids. Perhaps they feel insecure, because life as they knew it has crumbled around them and they have no power to do anything about it. It follows that there may also be the sad feelings of disappointment as it hits them that their parents will never be together again. This is not by any means a comprehensive list, but you can see what you are taking on, can’t you. Does this sound like something which will fall into place over night? Probably not. This is going to take courage, patience and commitment.

If it seems like your partner’s children are rejecting you or purposely making your life difficult, please don’t give up. It will be because they are reacting to a situation they just don’t like and have no control over. Don’t take it personally because it will eat you up. It’s not about you per se. They would behave like this with anyone their parent lived with. Get out of your own way and find new ways of building your relationship with each of them. Be available for them. Ask for help from other family members that they respect and always refrain from saying anything that is not positive about their absent parent.

What if it’s never enough?

Having said all that, you cannot allow yourself to give until you are drained. There must be boundaries that the children learn to respect. This especially applies with older children and adult children. If you become a pushover in your earnest effort to build a relationship, they will push you until you really lose the plot. At which point some children will be quick to point out that ‘they knew you were like that’ or tell you in no uncertain terms not to speak to them like that because ‘you are not my mum/dad’. It really is a fragile line and might remain that way for a long time. Even if a child has a loving home with you, it could be that he or she is terribly hurt that it simply is not that way with the other parent. However much love you offer or however generous you are, it might never be enough especially if it shows up clearly what they cannot have from the other parent.

Never, Ever ‘Collude’

There is a word I use a lot with my clients and its ‘collusion’. To explain what I mean I use an extreme example of ‘collusion’ by asking the question “why do some men and women beat their spouses”? Most people give me reasons like, ‘they want to be in control’ or ‘they need to exert their power’. Well, maybe. But the bottom line is that they beat their spouses – BECAUSE THEY CAN. If you keep beating me and beating me and one day you come home and I am not there, can you continue to beat me? Of course not. To a much lesser extent (I hope), you cannot allow your step children to ‘beat’ you in any way. If they are behaving in a way that impacts you, unless you stop it immediately you are virtually giving them your full permission to continue with their behaviour. You are, perhaps, silently telling them that it’s ok for them to treat you this way. And, if you carry on being giving and loving in an attempt to placate them, you are virtually rewarding them for their unacceptable behaviour. Do not under any circumstances collude. Notice that you are doing this and address the behaviour immediately with your partner as well as the child in question.

Does Age and Gender matter?

Well, yes it does when it comes to understanding the behavioural issues of each child.

Statistics show that children under 10 accept their new family more easily. They are still in need of hands on love, routine and stability. They may exhibit jealously if they think their parent loves their new partner more than they love them – so bear this in mind. Kissing your partner on the settee is ok for the under 10’s as long as the children get hugs and kisses in the same measure.

Children aged 10-14 are a little more challenging. They understand more and have their own opinions. They are often very sensitive. This is a tricky time for girls hormonally and boys too. So all of this is added to the mix. Keep open communication, always explain your actions. A good ‘because’ will a generally create buy in. For example “we are going to turn the TV off now because it will give us a chance to talk to each other while we have our meal” is a fair enough ‘because’. However, “‘because’ I say so”, is just not good enough. These kids are astute. Be honest and clear at all times.

15+ children are much more independent so you won’t be wiping noses or tucking them in. However they are not so keen on open displays of affection between the two of you. This is a time for them to discover their own sexuality. Seeing you being overtly ‘touchy feely’ in the home or in public will probably evoke comments like ‘gross’ and ‘sick’ to use their current phraseology. So you’ll need to respect this so you can respect them. This age group can either be the easiest of the three groups or exactly the opposite. They should be labelled ‘handle with care’ to give you some idea of the eggshells you could be treading on. Once again though, do not collude. These guys need boundaries every bit as much as their younger counterparts. Make rules that make sense and invite them to participate in family events whilst not being offended if they say no. They’ll still appreciate the invite.

Girls and Boys

Girls and boys in blended families really appreciate verbal affection in the form of praise, acknowledgement and compliments. Girls are usually uncomfortable with physical displays of affection from their stepfathers. Boys, on the other hand, often accept a stepfather more easily than girls. Be kind and communicate warmth and allow the trust to grow because this will help you create the bonds for the future.

Is this more than I can handle?

It may be that the transition into a step family is creating serious issues for a child that it’s just not possible for you or your partner to handle. If this is the case know your limits. Professional help is never far away. Consult your family doctor, perhaps get a psychological evaluation, but don’t struggle alone. Don’t think a major problem will just go away. It may escalate. You know your children and you’ll notice the signs when something is seriously wrong. You cannot always heal the hurts of the past for your ‘children’ with a hug. Sometimes the sadness is so deep it needs special help. Don’t hesitate to ask for it.

How to have a happy family

Still with me? Great because I know I’ve given you some worst case scenarios. I just don’t want you to go into this thinking that happy families just happen. You now know it takes commitment, persistence, strength of character, courage and the intention to love.

The good news is that there are thousands and thousands of very happy step families out there and yours can be one of them.

Stay realistic about what’s possible. Take it one step at a time and don’t rush the process. Contrary to the opinions of our gloom and doom press, children of divorce are not damaged forever. Yes it may shape their attitudes and sometimes their beliefs but everything that happens to us from the cradle onwards does that. Don’t be riddled with a guilt that stifles your happiness. You all deserve to be happy. Stay optimistic. Have the intention of helping the children make the transition between one home and another. Try not to have an in-depth discussion with the children if you are:

  • Upset
  • Angry
  • Feeling detached
  • Having a bad day
  • Too tired

But don’t be too hard on yourself. You are always doing your best at any given moment.

Make Your Marriage Work

Finally, and this is probably the most important priority of all, make your marriage work.

Let’s face it, the last one bit the dust. For whatever reason it didn’t work out. This one will be different – if you are. Make time alone together. Go away together for at least one or two nights four times a year. Take a week’s holiday at least once or if possible twice, without the kids. Go out to dinner or for a drink just the two of you. Plan in advance and make the necessary arrangements to be sure that this happens. Always have a ‘Plan B’ in place. Don’t spend all this alone time talking about the kids either. Take the time to catch up with each other, discuss your feelings, your goals, and your plans. It’s vital that you don’t lose touch with each other.

If you haven’t fully worked out your old emotions or you still have some lingering ‘luggage’ from the past, make an appointment with someone like me and get some great coaching so you can get over it and get on with your life. It’s not like it’s just the two of you sailing off into the sunset. You have a crowd to live with and you are going to need to let go of your own fears and insecurities pdq if this thing is going to work.

Relationship Reminders

So just to recap, here are some reminders of the do’s and don’ts of step parenting:

  • Have calm open communication with your partner
  • Have the same with the children
  • Always apologise if you make a mistake
  • Be patient
  • Allow bonds to evolve slowly and naturally
  • Give everyone time and space to adjust
  • Don’t expect to be called ‘mum’ or ‘dad’
  • Give respect and expect respect
  • Create boundaries
  • Do not ‘collude’
  • Establish your parenting approach and apply it fairly.
  • Create stability and have a ‘parents in charge’ attitude
  • Agree with your partner about how to handle unexpected parenting situations
  • Create a ‘this is how we do it in our family’ approach so that everyone experiences a feeling of belonging to this new group
  • Spend time alone with each child to build your bond with them
  • Hold family meetings where everyone gets to speak and be listened to
  • Establish your new family traditions. Build your own history and memories by sharing unique ways of being together
  • Always respect former partners and make sure the children have time with them
  • Don’t argue in front of the kids. This is exceptionally upsetting for them
  • Invite your step children’s close family members to their celebrations, school plays etc
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself and know that every day you are being the best step parent you can be.

You can do this you know. You can make this work and live happily ever after. Simply see a sign around everyone’s neck that reads “MAKE ME MATTER”. See it resting there even when the opposite is screaming at you. Make each other matter and you will have your own special Brady Bunch. A great step-family can bring you immense joy and happiness as well as loads of grandchildren and very expensive Christmases! Have fun.

This Article was written by Francine Kaye, founder of The Divorce Doctor and author of the The Divorce Doctor published by Hay House. She is also Relationship Expert for The Wright Stuff, Trisha, GMTV and writes regularly for the national press as well as feature writer for Psychologies, Red, Woman and Home and many others.
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