Stepfamilies are growing at a rapid rate in our country and community. A stepfamily is a family where one or both of the marriage partners have children from a previous relationship. Statistics from the Census Bureau report that since the turn of the century, stepfamilies have become the most common form of family life in the United States. As these families attempt to “blend”, they are frequently faced with many challenges and difficulties, and life is usually very different from the picture painted by “The Brady Bunch.”
In the most ideal situation, persons prepare to blend families before the wedding day. Research shows that 75% of couples who remarry and have children involved do not make it (Redbook, June 1987). Therefore, preventive measures such as pre-marital counseling should be taken to give each partner insight and tools to effectively work through the challenges they will most likely encounter.
As children adjust to a new stepparent, they often experience many feelings that range from excitement to anxiety to fear. Smaller children seem to adjust and accept stepfamily living more readily than older ones. But, it can be that smaller children simply do not have the skills to express dissatisfaction as obviously as older children. If the biological parents have divorced, the remarriage permanently dispels any spoken or unspoken hope a child may have had of their parents reconciling – the remarriage can be a trauma instead of a celebration. The resulting feelings of disappointment are often directed towards the new stepparent in forms of anger and resentment. Parents are often confused about the children’s behavior after marriage because they seemed all in favor of the marriage. However, what the children favor is a fantasy they have about what the new family will be like. When they realize their fantasy is very different from their new life, their favor quickly turns to frustration, rapidly followed by anger. A parent’s remarriage can cause children to experience many losses; children can often benefit from being assisted with their feelings of grief. Other common obstacles that children in stepfamilies encounter are: 1. Household rules changing, 2. No time alone with the biological parent, and 3. Family traditions changing.
Since the marriage is viewed as a trauma rather than a celebration as stated above, the stepparent is often blamed for all the bad feelings children encounter while adjusting to stepfamily life. Time alone with the new spouse is often hard to arrange, and becomes a point of frustration for the stepparents as they see their new spouse spending what appears to be most of his/her time with the children. Since the bond between biological parents and their children is so strong that it can seem impenetrable and uncompromising, stepparents often feel like outsiders who do not fit or belong in the new spouse’s family.. When stepparents try a variety of approaches to gain acceptance, they often fail because the doorway can only be opened by those on the inside. Children grow up reading stories that depict stepparents as being wicked, and consequently stepparents often begin with a negative image in everyone’s mind. Many stepparents attempt to change this impression, but may find that such change is more easily attempted than accomplished. Other common obstacles that stepparents face are: 1. Lack of respect shown by stepchildren, 2. Being ignored and unappreciated by their stepchildren, and 3. Feeling as if their stepchildren go out of their way to sabotage the relationship between parent and stepparent.
The biological parent…
Biological parents are perceived as having the easiest role in the blended family, but they often feel like they are in the middle of a tug of war, balancing their relationship with the spouse (who wants a primary relationship as husband or wife) and their relationship with the children (who want to keep the “friendly” relationship they had with their single parent); trying to keep peace in the family; and feeling as though they are walking on egg shells. Their role is usually just as demanding and challenging as the other members of the family. Biological parents sometimes mistakenly assume that the people they love will love one another. They usually discover that love between stepparent and children is not automatic. It is important that they remember that the children were not the ones who met and fell in love with the new stepparent, they were. And, love takes time, attention and caring to grow. Often biological parents will assume the role of “juggler”. In an effort to keep conflict and tension down, they will attempt to keep their spouse and children apart. While this decision can provide an escape from the tension, it also ensures that harmony, love and the blending process are never developed. Other common challenges for biological parents are: 1. Always feeling like they’re stuck in the middle, 2. Having to establish a new relationship with their children due to the change in the family make up, and 3. Maintaining/developing a positive relationship with the other biological parent.
- Since children are also adjusting to a lot of transitions, that they did not request, it is important for parents to choose their battles carefully, considering which rules are most important and which can be delayed for a while. Trying to change everything all at once will inevitably lead to major conflict.
- Ensure time is spent alone with each child on a weekly basis. This will help children realize that they are still loved and wanted.
- Have family conferences each week where each family member is allowed to say whatever is on his or her mind, and family problems are discussed and solved using each member’s input. On weeks the meeting is deemed unnecessary, play a family game to further establish unity.
- Recognize that the key to solving family problems is the strength of the coupleship. Parents should take the necessary measures to nurture their relationship. Setting aside problem-solving time ensures that all of the couple’s time together is not spent discussing problems.
- Parental decisions should be made and presented jointly with the biological parent taking the lead when necessary.
- Participate in a support group. Support groups can get parents to realize that their frustrations and feelings are common. Participants are often able to hear “their story” told by others, and discover solutions to problems they thought were impossible.
It seldom happens quickly, but for those who persevere, there is a great sense of accomplishment. The Stepfamily Association of America says that the average stepfamily will take anywhere from four to seven years to achieve a good working relationship. Stepfamilies are encouraged to utilize resources such as marital and/or family therapy to assist with navigating through the challenging years.