How Stepfamilies Succeed
How Step-Families Succeed
The adjective “blended” is frequently used to describe stepfamilies. Unfortunately, this term makes the stepfamily process sound like a smooth transition, uninterrupted by conflict or disagreement. Anyone who has been a member of a stepfamily—myself included—knows that this is not the case. Dr. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships, identifies five challenges that almost every stepfamily faces, regardless of ethnicity, gender orientation, or ages of parents and children involved.
1. The Insider-Outsider problem.
Many kids direct their attention almost exclusively to the original parent, excluding the stepparent from conversation and even from eye contact. Such behavior alienates the stepparent, treating him or her as an “outsider.” Both time (usually years, not weeks) and one-on-one conversations and interactions are crucial for solving this problem. Most kids need one-on-one time with their original parents to maintain those special bonds AND one-on-one time with the stepparent to begin to form a warm bond or at least a respectful, cooperative relationship. Just throwing everyone together and expecting to have one big happy family will NOT work.
2. Loyalty Binds
These arise when a child feels compelled to reject the stepparent out of respect for his or her “missing” parent (whether divorced or deceased). In these cases, it is advisable for the natural parent to speak frankly with the child about the situation without being accusatory. A sentence structure like “I understand that kids in your situation might feel guilty about liking a stepmother because she’s not their real mom” is helpful and non-confrontational.
3. Conflicting Parenting Styles
Not all challenges come from the children. Many disagreements come as a result of conflicting parenting styles. For instance, if you, as a stepfather, are accustomed to spending $30 on new sneakers, you might find it problematic when your new stepson wants a pair of high end running shoes that cost $90, but the $90 shoes may be what your new wife has always bought for her son. Other conflicts may be more difficult to manage because they pertain to overall parenting styles, such as authoritative versus permissive parenting. Frequent, creative problem-solving conversations with your new partner both before and after your wedding will be necessary.
4. Culture Clashes
The next challenge is often camouflaged with the term “blended families.” In reality, there is usually a “culture clash” when stepfamilies form. Sometimes conflicts appear trivial but have real emotional significance for someone in the stepfamily. For example, there may be two different family traditions about whether Christmas tree lights should be white or multi-colored. Sometimes the differences are more pervasive. For example, if the stepmom and her kids usually have meat and potatoes for dinner and the stepdad and his kids are vegetarian, the family may need to do some creative thinking about how they can enjoy preparing and eating dinner together. Often a gradual approach works best. The stepfamily shouldn’t be mixed together suddenly—thrown into a metaphorical blender.
5. Others Who Are Still Connected to the Stepfamily
Another challenge all nascent stepfamilies face comes from the vestiges or continuation of previous relationships. Children usually continue to love their other original parent and are often also attached to some aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents from that side of their family. If possible, honor these relationships. Each of the people who matters to your child probably makes a unique positive contribution to your child’s life.
Do not let these challenges discourage you. As Dr. Papernow demonstrates, many stepfamilies are successful and, over time, start to resemble first-time families. Knowing about the challenges you will need to meet will help put you and your loved ones on a path toward success.
Afterword: When forming a stepfamily or solving stepfamily problems that are hard to talk about on your own, many couples find family mediation helpful. For a free consultation about whether family mediation would be helpful for your family, contact Dr. Virginia Colin at mediatorQ@gmail.com or 703.864.2101.