|Stephanie Burchell, PhD, LMFTA
Copyright ? 2007 Life Course Counseling, All Rights Reserved
Marriage Counseling, Family Therapy, Dallas, Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill ?
stepfamily is understanding the differences between stepfamilies and first-time families. The previous marriage may have
ended in divorce or in death. The original parent may be a never-married single parent or an adoptive parent. The new couple
may be gay or straight.
How Stepfamilies Are Different
Stepfamilies have "insiders" and "outsiders." In a first-time family, the adult couple is considered the "insider unit," but insider
and outsider roles shift. Sometimes mom is closer to Danny. Next month, dad and Danny are closer. In stepfamilies, insider
and outsider positions start out painfully stuck. Agreements about every day issues lie within the parent-child unit, not between
the adult couple. And single parent families usually have become a very tight unit. All of this makes stepparents outsiders in
their powerless, rejected and lonely. Biological (or adoptive) parents begin as the stuck insiders. They are most connected to
their own children, to their new partner, and to their ex-spouse. Insider parents often feel torn and anxious trying to balance
Children, too, occupy stuck insider and outsider positions. When Mike's 13-year-old son, Johnny, visits his dad's new family on
weekends, Johnny enters as an outsider. David and Jenny, Mike's new stepchildren, are stuck insiders. They must share their
space with a new stepbrother they did not choose and may not even like.
Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations
New couples naturally wish for their new families to blend right away. Stepparents want their stepchildren to love them.
Straining to make the impossible happen, however, creates constant failure. Stepcouples need at least two years to begin to
function as a unit. Some stepchildren will need even more time and some will need less. Letting go of understandable, but
unrealistic wishes frees you to meet the challenges.
Children's Losses and Conflicting Loyalties
For adults, new partners are thrilling. For children, however, the entry of a new stepparent often creates loss and change. Mom
spends the evening with her new boyfriend. Dad's new girlfriend bans a child's favorite sugar cereal. Stepparents also create
conflicts of loyalty for kids. A child may think, If I care about my new stepmom, I am disloyal to my mom. Arguing parents make
this situation even worse for kids. For all these reasons, children need time to adjust.
Spending regular time in pairs helps shift insider-outsider roles. Carve out couple time, without children, to form a bond and to
give stepparents time in the insider role with their new partner. Balance this with reliable parent-child alone time, including
some vacation time. Re-establishing consistent parent-child time can improve the behavior of an acting-out or depressed
child. Outsider stepparents maintain well-being and sanity by continuing activities with friends outside the new family. Develop
stepparent-stepchild relationships by engaging in "shoulder-to-shoulder" activities, without the parent present.
A stepparent might say to his stepchild: "I will never take the place of your dad. His place in your heart is permanent. You have
a big heart. Sometime, I hope there will be room in it for me. Even then, it will be a different place from your dad's place."
Further, expect civility-but not love. We can expect stepparents and stepchildren to treat each other with respect and decency.
We cannot, however, demand love of people who did not choose each other. A parent might say to her son: "You have a right to
be upset with all these changes. I will really try to listen. But you do need to be respectful to Mike, like any other stranger." ?
Recognize that Stepparents are Not Parents
Children benefit when stepparents can help parents become firmer. Biological parents need to help stepparents become
more kind. However, stepchildren cannot initially accept any parenting from stepparents. The parent must remain in charge
until children are ready. Stepparents can give input, but the original parent retains final say. Stepparents may consider
expressing caring and encouragement: "How was that test?" And reporting concerns to the parent: "I think Johnny didn't do his
homework." When parents are absent, stepparents aim for "adult babysitter," not parent. "While I am out tonight, Mike is in
charge." Stepparents then enforce the rules of the house. ??
The "Other" Household
Decrease conflict with the "other" household. Parental conflict seriously compromises children's adjustment. Keep drop-offs
and pickups peaceful. Handle differences between households calmly and neutrally: "You drink Coke at mom's house. We
drink milk here." Address problems with your ex out of children's earshot. In conflicted divorces, stick to a detailed, iron clad
A Therapist Can Help
Therapists with training and experience in stepfamily dynamics can help meet the challenges of stepfamily living. Couple
therapy can offer a safe place to share feelings and can help resolve differences. A skilled therapist can sometimes help
ex-spouses work together. If the children's behavior deteriorates, try increasing parent-child time, backing the stepparent out of
a parenting role, and easing loyalty conflicts. If depression or acting out continues, seek help for your child, or for you as the
parent. Children caught in intense loyalty conflicts sometimes appreciate a neutral therapist. Stepfamily living occasionally
exposes very painful old "bruises." A good therapist can help resolve some of the old hurts and make living in the present
Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families, by P. L. Papernow, 1998. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic
Custody Chaos, Personal Peace: Sharing Custody with an Ex Who is Driving You Crazy, by J. P. Wittman, 2001. NY: Penguin.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by A. Faber and E. Mazlish, 1980. New York: Avon Books.
Mom's House, Dad's House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by I. Ricci, 1997. NY: Simon Schuster.
Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage and Parenting in the First Decade, by J. Bray and J. Kelly, 1999. New York: Broadway Books.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: What You Can Learn from the Breakthrough Research to Make Your Marriage Last, by J.
Gottman, 1994. NY: Simon and Schuster.
STEPFAMILY ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, www.saafamilies.org. Resources for people in stepfamilies and for locating a local
Blended Families This article is written by Patricia L. Papernow, EdD.C. and provided by www.AAMFT.org
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