Being in a stepfamily is almost always challenging, but ultimately can be very rewarding. Whatever your position in the stepfamily, you will feel experience conflicts of loyalty, competition for attention, understanding and respect. In short, stepfamilies are wonderful training grounds for dealing with the challenges of life. This article presents some of the issues that present themselves in stepfamily life.
Have patience. Establishing new families takes time. Just because you love your new partner, it is unrealistic to think that you will automatically love his or her children. It is equally unrealistic to expect that your new partner’s children will instantly love you. It can be difficult to accept that even though you wish to have a relationship with your stepchildren, they may not be ready for a relationship with you.
Expect to adjust. With proper help and guidance, children can recover from family disruption. All children experience a difficult adjustment period following a divorce or remarriage. It takes time, patience, and perhaps some professional assistance, but most children are able to regain their emotional bearings. It is critical that the adults manage their own emotional recovery in order to help the children adjust without trauma.
If you are part of a part-time stepfamily, you may need a longer adjustment period. All relationships take time to grow and develop. When stepchildren see you less often, you have less time to get to know each other. This is why it may take a part-time stepfamily longer to move through the adjustment process.
Don’t expect your new family to be like your first family. If you expect that your stepfamily will be just like the family of your first marriage, you are setting yourself up for frustration. Your new family will have its own unique identity and will evolve in its own special way.
Expect confusion. Forming a stepfamily is a confusing time for everyone. Think about how confusing it is for a child to become part of two new families. All of the family members—parents and children—must learn to understand the new structure and learn to navigate the boundaries.
Allow time for grieving. Stepfamilies begin with an experience of loss, and everyone needs to grieve. The adults’ losses are not the same as those of the children, and both must be respected.
Acknowledge the absent parent. When one of the original parents is absent, the children need a special kind of understanding. An absent parent (who has died or who lives elsewhere and doesn’t visit) is part of a child’s past. The child must be allowed to have memories of this parent. The children who have access to both of their parents are those who adjust the best to divorce. They should be allowed to regularly speak with, visit, and write to their non-custodial parent.
Help the kids fit in. Children of stepfamilies belong to two households. It is understandable that they have questions about where they fit in. They are usually able to adjust to having two sets of rules as long as they are not asked to choose which is better.
Be clear about the rules. Ideally, both sets of parents should discuss the family rules and what will happen if rules are broken. When the adults agree on the rules, they should explain them to the children. Most successful stepfamilies have learned that the rules should be decided together in the beginning, and that the biological parent should do the explaining and disciplining. The stepparent may have more involvement after the relationships with the stepchildren have been established. All of this works best when the parents can agree to be flexible and cooperative with one another. This may be difficult immediately following a divorce or remarriage, but it is important to work toward this objective.
Educate yourselves and seek emotional support. Read books about managing stepfamilies, attend classes, and participate in stepfamily support groups. Seek the help of an experienced mental health professional to help you through the rough spots. Marriage and Family Therapists have specific skills and training for working with families and stepfamilies.
Give the kids their own space. Make physical space available for the children who don’t live with you. Children need a sense of belonging. Creating a room or section of a room for visiting children will help them feel like part of your family.
Expect them to think it’s temporary. Accept the fact that your children may expect you and their other parent to reconcile. They may fantasize that your new relationship with your partner is only temporary. This is especially true in the beginning. Find a time to sit down with the children and explain that when two people are unable to live together anymore, it doesn’t mean they love their children any less. This is especially important for the parent who has moved away, since the children will inevitably feel a sense of rejection.
Show children love. Sometimes children need love the most at a time when it is the most difficult to give it to them. While bad behavior should never be rewarded, always praise children when they are behaving well.
Remember that as a stepparent your role is not to come in a clean up Dodge. Being a stepparent can be a very rewarding experience but it requires wisdom and practice to first merge with the existing culture family, and then to find a way to make your own personal and important contribution.