31 July 2007

Making stepfamilies work

Getting remarried? Are a couple of stepchildren and an ex-spouse part of the bargain? And how do the kids feel? Here's how to make it work.

Getting remarried? Are a couple of stepchildren and an ex-spouse part of the bargain? And how do the kids feel?

Health24’s new Step-Parenting Forum has been abuzz, because being a step-parent is obviously more difficult than people expect it to be.

We asked the experts from the Family Life Centre for some info and advice. We also let step-parents and stepchildren speak for themselves.

Some common misconceptions include the following:

  • You can open yourself up to loving new stepchildren fairly easily.
  • Step-families should be the same as nuclear families.
  • Death of a spouse makes adjustment easier.
  • Stepchildren are easier to deal with if they are sent away (for example to boarding school).
  • All stepmothers are wicked (as in nursery rhymes and fairytales).
  • Divorce ends the relationship between parents.
  • The new wife has an obligation to perform the domestic chores for her husband and his children when they turn up.

Common second-marriage difficulties
Second marriages, especially ones where there are stepchildren involved, are different to first marriages. Here’s why:

  • Differences regarding disciplinary tactics and values make many a step-parent’s life difficult. Read what this desperate stepmom has to say.
  • In a first marriage a couple has time to develop and consolidate their relationship before children are born.
  • In step-families the couple frequently has very little time to themselves and no time to consolidate their own intimacy and closeness.
  • Often the biological parent feels considerable guilt about the trauma he/she has imposed on the children and so tries to overcompensate for this, frequently causing resentment in his/her partner.
  • Differences in expectations of each other and of the family can cause conflict.
  • Often communication is not clear and honest.
  • There may be difficulty with problem-solving.
  • Confusion over roles and rules, and beliefs about what is important in life, can cause conflict.
  • The couple needs time to adjust to each other's personalities, styles of behaviour and differences.

A stepchild speaks
Having your parent remarry someone you did not choose, is a very painful experience. This stepchild speaks out on our forum.

The Family Life Centre made these points when it comes to the child’s experience of getting a step-family:

  • They experience anger at the re-marriage as their fantasy of their biological parents getting back together is shattered.
  • The children may still feel sad or angry at the loss of their original family.
  • The children fear that this marriage too won't last, so they withhold too much investment in this family.
  • They frequently feel guilty about causing the first divorce and fear a repetition.
  • They feel ambivalent about the new step-parent, both wanting and not wanting the marriage. This often results in disruptive behaviour.
  • There is considerable role confusion when a child moves from a single-parent home to one where a new parent and possibly new step-siblings have to be accommodated.
  • The children often experience divided loyalties and they fear betraying the biological parent of the same sex as the step parent if they like him/her.
  • There is confusion over different styles of parenting.

The ex that won’t go away
Read how a former wife and her family are making this step mom’s life a misery. When do these situations arise?

  • Where the couple have not emotionally divorced each other conflict often arises between the spouse and ex-spouse for the husband/wife's attention. Even where there has been an emotional divorce the frequent contact between former spouses can produce considerable anxiety in the new spouse.
  • The new marriage will have to accommodate the fact of the ongoing parenting relationship, but without a strong couple unit in the new marriage, this is not possible.
  • The children need to continue their relationships with both parents as well as with their grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the step-family to survive, the support and approval of these people is invaluable.

Here are a few survival tips for new step-parents:

  • Find time to spend on your own.
  • Talk about expectations and fears.
  • Don't try to change too much too quickly.
  • Develop your own relationship with each child.
  • Recognise the importance of the non-custodial parent.
  • Allow the children to have a special relationship with their biological parent.
  • Be flexible and co-operative about different rules and different disciplining styles.
  • Don't expect to be close - all that can be expected is politeness.
  • Go for counselling – individual counselling, couples counselling and/or family counselling. Do whatever it takes.

(Joanne Hart, Health24, July 2007)

(Source article by: Family Life Centre, Gauteng)



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