Last Thursday night, March 26, 2009, I presented a tele-class about issues related to re-coupling after divorce. Susan Epstein of Parenting Powers asked some great questions and contributed a stepfamily story of her own.
Below are a few of the things I talked about:
1) How fairy tales, books, and movies inaccuracy depict step families (AKA blended families).
They either portray the stepfamily as one in which they overcome many problems and then live "happily ever after"; Or the step parent, and sometimes step siblings, are "evil". In this scenario, the stepfamily member usually ends up leaving the family by the end of the story, or she/he gets offed. And that is considered a GOOD thing!
These portrayals of stepfamilies are profoundly offbase to say the least. Unfortunately, they contribute to the confusion and misconceptions that pervade our society. In fact, many children fear getting a stepmom because they hold on to this fallacious notion that she will be mean. Furthermore, many women who become stepmothers are ALSO intensely concerned about having the title of "stepmother". They detest the title so much that they go above and beyond the usual motherly acts with the hope and expectation of overcoming this wicked stereotype.
In reality, the vast majority of step parents have only good intentions. They make sincere efforts to do the right thing. However, their words and deeds do not elicit the result they expect, even though the exact same words and deeds would only have a positive result in a first-time biological family. The main reason for this difference is that first-time families are borne out of happiness and bliss, whereas step families are borne out of the many unfavorable emotions related to divorce.
I mentioned a few emotions that children often feel after the divorce, and how these emotions are manifested through ill-manners and misbehaviors. I also mentioned a few things step parents can do about these situations to possibly minimize the effect.
2) The terms "stepfamily" and "blended family" are synonymous, but I prefer the former term.
A copy of my published article, "Blended Family? Stepfamilies are Like Quilts" was on-hand for all attendees.
3) Stepparents should NOT take anything personal. Nothing the kids say is about you.
Each person in the family is mourning the loss of the original family. Parents stop mourning this loss a lot sooner than children. They fall in love with another person and get married. Instead of having a honeymoon phase like in their first marriage, they have an instant family to manage. Children have usually not fallen in love with the step parent when the family unites into 1 house as a step (blended) family. This adversely affects their opinion of the stepparent, as well as everything the stepparent does. Even if the child says he/she hates you or disobeys you, remember that it is NOT ABOUT YOU. The child is really expressing how he feels about his/her new environment and family. Still, this is about the loss of the original family. It has nothing to do with the addition of a new person into the family as much as it is to do with NOT having the other parent around.
4) Respect the past family history and differences of personalities or habits.
It is human nature to reject what we don't understand, which is usually anything different than ourselves. Other people and families do things very different than what we do. When one family marries another, 2 diverse groups of habits and personalities are coming together. Some of the things each one does may conflict or interfere with the ways of the other family. This is one source of contention and arguments between siblings. In first-time biological families, the family members have already developed ways of resolving the conflict, as they've had many years together to learn how to deal with the other family members. They reach the point of accepting these differences as natural. However, dissimilar attitudes and behaviors of stepfamily members are considered weird or deviant. I discuss this a little more in detail in my published article, "Who's on the Inside? Who's on the Outside?"
Think of creative ways to resolve conflicting family habits. Both Susan and myself shared a short story from our own experiences.
5) Creating memories and taking advantage of bonding moments are extremely important.
Stepfamilies lack previous history and memories as a "family". This means that step parents have to patiently listen to their step children talk about their "family" memories with both biological parents, which does not include the step parent. It takes time for the step parent to create new memories with him/her included as part of the new family. Therefore, vacations to new places and having a weekly or bi-monthly family night is recommended. I also recommend you take pictures in order to capture the fond moments and reminisce about them later. Place the pictures on the wall or mantle, which will help to establish a healthy family environment of good memories.
Eating meals as a family is a superb way of becoming a more cohesive stepfamily. It is a time to get to know the new family members, build rapport, and bond as a family. I highly recommend eating together as a family - both biological and stepfamily members. If this cannot be done daily, a good-faith effort should be made to do it as often as possible, even if only once or twice per week. Connie Fitzmartin has some great suggestions for making mealtime fun in her book, Magical Meals Manual. It is worth the time to check out. You'll be glad you did.
Judy The Stepfamily Coach
Repairing and building relationships in step and adopted families
through Sensible Steps,
Solutions for Today's Families