Building a new family is an exciting but challenging time. Stepfamily life can be a happy experience for many people, however, the stepfamily experience can become difficult and joyless. According to Newman (2004, p. 3) many people make the mistake of thinking that a stepfamily is like a first time family and they try to be like the families they just came from. Also, starting a stepfamily has often come about because of loss such as divorce and death, and maybe starting a stepfamily is surrounded by current losses for example, children moving to a new home and losing their own bedrooms (Healy 2002, p. 24). Stepparents may be faced with many difficulties, however there are practical strategies that can be implemented to help stepfamilies come to terms with their challenges and adapt successfully to their new lives.
According to Newman (2004, p. 4) “A stepfamily is a family where at least one partner has at least one child from a previous relationship. Stepfamilies come in many different shapes and sizes. They have many different types of living arrangements and patterns of interaction”. Stepfamilies don’t start with an empty slate and as Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2008, p. 47) state they are born out of relationship losses and the abandonment of hopes and dreams in the previous family. According to Einstein and Albert (1986, p. 15) for the children, the remarriage might be the event that crushes their hopes and dreams that their parents will get back together and for the parents, unfinished business from their previous relationship can trigger negative feelings that can invade a new relationship. Healy (2002, p. 24) states that if there are unresolved feelings such as anger, grief, shame, anxiety or guilt then professional support is essential before entering a new relationship. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2008, p. 47) postulate that “structurally, remarriage and consequent stepfamily life is complex, whereby a variety of parental figures, siblings and extended family members from current and previous marriages are usually involved”. As a result of this complex life, an ambiguity of status evolves. According Balswick and Balswick (2006, p. 317) this ambiguity of status is the effect of the lack of structured boundaries that existed in the previous family. Now, many of the shared experiences, symbols and rituals that helped maintain the boundaries of the first family are missing (Balswick & Balswick 2006, p. 317). Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2008, p. 47) discuss how children often have to live in two different homes for varying periods of time during any given week, and, in these situations they have to deal with different rules, for example, (bedtime, table manners), ambiguous boundaries and different roles, for example, (an only child in one home may be the eldest sibling in another). It is inevitable that relationships, which predated the new marriage, undergo changes as the new system makes room for new members and changing responsibilities and obligations as discussed by (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 47).
Balswick and Balswick (2006, p. 319) postulate that previous marriages can be a source of financial problems for stepfamilies. Child support can be the main issue here. Resentment can occur when promised child support does not arrive or a stepfather’s/mother’s hard earned money goes to pay debts from his/her stepchildren.
According to Chedekel and O’Connell (2002, p. 18) children can often become use to being the primary focus of attention when they are with one of their separated parents, so when their parent’s new partner enters into the family, children can be totally uninterested in the new person and can assume the new person will only bring disruption into their lives, therefore the new person is clearly the outsider. The outsider parent becomes the ideal target for the children’s negative feelings and actions and the perfect person to blame for their upset experiences as discussed by (Chedekel & O’Connell 2002, p. 18).
According to Healy (2002, p. 24) a new partner is not immediately a new mother or father and may never be if children are older. An unrealistic expectation from the stepparents according to Balswick and Balswick (2006, p. 318) is that all members of the new family will love each other and share their lives equally. However, this is not the case. Society conditions children to trust only their own parents and can often have feelings of resentment, suspicion and overcaution towards stepparents as discussed by (Balswick & Balswick 2006, p. 318). Even if a child really likes a new stepparent, he/she may not become friendly because of a fear of becoming disloyal to a natural parent (Healy 2002, p. 24). Competition between a stepparent and a natural parent may occur as well as rivalries and jealousies between stepchildren. In the light of these issues, assuming parental roles becomes increasingly difficult, according to Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2008, p. 48) however, relationships within stepfamilies that are allowed to blossom slowly, undergirded with love and patience, often lead to caring and loving bonds that last a lifetime.
Irrespective of format, all families must work at promoting positive relationships among members, attend to personal needs and be prepared to cope with developmental or maturational changes as discussed by (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 4). However, with stepfamilies, according to Balswick and Balswick (2006, p. 320) it takes an even more intentional effort to connect in healing ways. It is, therefore essential that information and education is available to stepfamilies, and as they are better informed and have more understanding of the challenges that lay before them, they are much more equipped to come to terms with them. The following are some practical strategies that will assist with these challenges.
·Before entering into a new relationship identify and recognize all losses for all individuals. Create an environment where open communication is valued and feelings (weather positive or negative) and needs can be expressed. Listen to what is being said. Accept the insecurities of change. Inform all members of the family about plans that involve them. Try to give children some control over things that will affect them (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 401).
·Be aware of repeated patterns of “dysfunctional structures within family transactions” from the first marriage Minuchin (cited in Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 260). Also, lack of “differentiation” which leads to “emotional fusion” (Schnarch 1998, p. 108). When these ways of relating have been identified, seek professional help.
·Keep the new marriage strong through planned activities and time alone. Also establish appropriate boundaries so children will respect and not intrude on the marriage relationship (Balswick & Balswick 2006, p. 320). ·Understand the strong bond between your new partner and his/her children. Make time for them to be together. Develop tolerance and flexibility (Healy 2002, p. 25).
·Establish new traditions and rules. Stepparents need to take on discipline roles very slowly. Have family meetings for problem solving and giving appreciation. Retain/combine appropriate rituals (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 401).
·Make sure all members of family have privacy and their own space. Encourage individuality and interests. Accept and value differences. (Healy 2002, p. 25).
·Never speak negatively about any of the children’s parents in front of the children. Avoid power struggles between households. Respect former spouses’ parenting skills. Help children understand that you will support and encourage their relationship with their natural parents. Develop effective communication between households (Healy 2002, p. 25).
·Allow children time to sort out their feelings and adjust to their new situation, that is, the ongoing changes as they move between families (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2008, p. 401).
·Do not expect stepchildren to love their stepparents. It will take time and patience for stepchildren and stepparents to establish a real connection and for understanding each other’s values and beliefs. Be fair and gracious when stepchildren do not respond in a way you may like. Don’t give up and don’t take it personally and try not to feel rejected (Balswick & Balswick 2006, p. 320).
·Always be honest about your financial situation with your partner and never hide anything from him/her (Balswick & Balswick 2006, p. 320).
Remember, each family is unique and what works for one stepfamily may not work for another. It is also important to consider blending families with racial, cultural and religious differences as well as gay, lesbian, adoption and foster care families. Despite all the difficulties, Goldenberg and Goldenberg (2008, p. 48) postulate that resilient, well functioning stepfamilies are more the rule than the exception – so all stepfamilies take heart!
Balswick, J & Balswick, J 2006, The family a Christian perspective on the contemporary home, Baker Academic, Michigan.
Chedekel, D & O’Connell, K 2002, The blended family sourcebook a guide to negotiating change, Contemporary Books, Crawfordsville.
Einstein, E & Albert, L 1986, Strengthening your stepfamily, American Guidance Service, Inc, USA.
Goldenberg, H & Goldenberg, I 2008, Family therapy an overview, 7th edn, Thomas Brooks/Cole, USA.
Healy, J 2002, Parenting, The Spinney Press, NSW.
Newman, M 2004, Stepfamily life why it is different and how to make it work, Finch Publishing, Sydney.
Schnarch, D 1998, Passionate marriage, Owl Books, New York.