Guidelines for Stepfamilies
by Emily Visher and John Visher
1. It is difficult to have a new person or persons move into your "space," and it is difficult to be the "new" person or people joining a preexisting group. For these reasons, if stepfamilies can start out in their own apartment or house, it helps to cut down feelings involved with "territory."
2. Parent-child relationships have preceded the new couple relationship. Because of this, many parents feel that it is a betrayal of the earlier parent-child bond to form an intimate relationship with their new partner. an intimate couple relationship, however, is usually crucial for the continuing existence of the stepfamily, and therefore, is very important for the children as well as for the adults. a strong adult bond can protect the children from another family loss and strengthen their own eventual marriage relationship. the adults often need to arrange time alone to help nourish this important couple relationship.
3. Forming new relationships within the stepfamily can be important, particularly when the children are young. Activities involving different subgroups can help such relationships to grow. For example, stepfather and stepchildren might do some project together; or stepmother and stepchild might go shopping together.
4. Preserving original relationships is also important and can help children experience less loss at sharing a parent. Thus, it is helpful for a parent and children to have some time together in addition to stepfamily activities.
5. Caring relationships take time to evolve. The expectation of "instant love" or even "instant friendship" between stepparents and stepchildren can lead to many disappointments and difficulties. If the stepfamily relationships are allowed to develop as seem comfortable to the individuals involved, then friendship and caring between step-relatives has the opportunity to develop.
6. Stepfamilies are structurally and emotionally different from first families. Upset and sadness is experienced by the children and, at times, by the adults as they react to the loss of their original family or to the loss of a dream of a perfect marriage. Acceptance that a stepfamily is a different type of family is important, as is the recognition that many upsetting behaviors result from these feelings of insecurity and loss.
7. Because children are a product of two biological parents, they nearly always have very strong pulls to both of these natural parents. These divided loyalties often make it difficult for children to relate comfortably to all the parental adults in their lives. Rejection of a stepparent, for example, may have nothing to do with the personal characteristics of the stepparent. If fact, warm and loving stepparents may cause especially severe loyalty conflicts for children. As children and adults are able to accept the fact that children can care for more than two parental adults, then the children's loyalty conflicts can diminish and the new step-relationships improve. While it may be helpful to the children for the adults to acknowledge negative as well as positive feelings about ex-spouses, children may become caught in loyalty conflicts and feel personally insecure if specific critical remarks are made continuously about their other biological parent.
8. Courteous relationships between ex-spouses are important, although they are very difficult for many adults to maintain. If such a relationship can be worked out, it is especially helpful to the children. In such instances, the children do not get caught in the middle between two hostile parents, there is less need for the children to take sides, and the children are better able to accept and utilize the positive elements in their living and visiting arrangements. Direct contact between the adults can be helpful since it does not place the children in the sometimes powerful position of being message carriers between their biological parents. Although it may be strained, many ex-spouses are able to relate if the focus is kept on their mutual concern for the welfare of the children.
9. Children as well as adults in a stepfamily have a "family history." Suddenly these individuals come together and their sets of "givens" are questioned. Much is to be gained by coming together as a stepfamily unit to work out and develop new family patterns and traditions. Even when the individuals are able to recognize that patterns are not "right" or "wrong," it takes time and patience to work out satisfying new alternatives.
Values (the underlying approach to life and general ways of doing things) do not shift easily. Within a stepfamily, different value systems are inevitable because of different previous family histories, and tolerance for these differences can help smooth the process of stepfamily integration. Needs (specific ways individuals relate together, individual preferences, etc.) can usually be negotiated more quickly than can general values. Having an appreciation for and an expectation of such difficulties can make for more flexibility and relaxation in the stepfamily unit. Negotiation and renegotiation are needed by most such families.
10. Being a stepparent is an unclear and at times difficult task. The wicked stepmother myth contributes to the discomfort of many women, and cultural, structural and personal factors affect the stepparent role. Spouses can be very helpful to one another if they are able to be supportive with the working out of new family patterns. Stepparenting is usually more successful if stepparents carve out a role for themselves that is different from and does not compete with the biological parents.
While discipline is not usually accepted by stepchildren until a friendly relationship has been established (often a matter of 18 to 24 months or more), both adults do need to support each other's authority in the household. The biological parent may be the primary disciplinarian initially, but when that person is unavailable, it is often necessary for that parent to give a clear message to the children that the stepparent is acting as an "authority figure" for both adults in his or her absence.
Unity between the couple is important to the functioning of the stepfamily. When the couple is comfortable with each other, differences between them in regards to the children can sometimes be worked out in the presence of the children, but at no time does it work out for either children or adults to let the children approach each adult separately and "divide and conquer." When disciplinary action is necessary, if it is not kept within the stepfamily household, many resentful feelings can be generated. For example, if visitation rights are affected, the noncustodial parent is being included in the action without his or her representation. Such a punishment, then may lead to difficulties greater than the original behavior that caused the disciplinary action.
11. Integrating a stepfamily that contains teenagers can be particularly difficult. At this age, adolescents are moving away from their families in any type of family. In single parent families, teenagers have often been "young adults," and with the remarriage of a parent, they may find it extremely difficult or impossible to return to being in a "child" position.
Adolescents have more of a previous "family history" and so they ordinarily appreciate having considerable opportunity to be part of the stepfamily negotiations, although they may withdraw from both biological parents and not wish to be part of many of the "family activities."
12. "Visiting" children usually feel strange and are outsiders in the neighborhood. It can be helpful if they have some place in the household that is their own (for example, if not a room, a drawer or a shelf for toys and clothes). If they are included in stepfamily chores and projects when they are with the stepfamily, they tend to feel more connected to the group. Bringing a friend with them to share the visit and having some active adult participation in becoming integrated into the neighborhood can make a difference to many visiting children. Knowing ahead of time that there is going to be an interesting activity, stepfamily game of monopoly, etc., can sometimes give visiting children a pleasant activity to anticipate.
Noncustodial parents and stepparents often are concerned because they have so little time to transmit their values to visiting children. since children tend to resist concerted efforts by the adults to instill stepfamily ideals during each visit, it is comforting to parents and stepparents to learn that examples of behavior and relationships simply observed in the household can affect choices made by all the children later in their lives when they are grown and on their own.
13. Sexuality is usually more apparent in stepfamilies because of the new couple relationship, and because children may suddenly be living with other children with whom they have not grown up. There also are not the usual incest taboos in operation. It is important for the children to receive affection and to be aware of tenderness between the couple, but it ma also be important for the couple to minimize to some extent the sexual aspects of the household and to help the children understand, accept, and control their sexual attraction to one another or to the adults.
14. All families experience stressful times. Children tend to show little day-to-day appreciation for their stepparents and, at times, they get angry and reject their biological parents. Because stepfamilies are families born of loss, the mixture of feelings can be even more intense than in first marriage families. Jealousy, rejection, guilt, and anger can be more pronounced, and, therefore, expectations that the stepfamily will live "happily ever after" are even more unrealistic than in first families. Having an understanding and acceptance of the many negatives as well as positive feelings can result in less disappointment and more stepfamily enjoyment.
15. Keeping even minimal contact between adults and children can lead to future satisfaction since time and maturity bring many changes. With some communication between stepfamily members, satisfying interpersonal relationships often develop in the future when children become more independent in their relationships with both biological parents and with stepparents.
(Printed with permission from Stepfamilies: A Guide to Working with Stepparents and Stepchildren, by Emily B. Visher and John S. Visher, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1979.)
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