Advice Column, Parenting

Guidelines For Step Families

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Stepfamilies are very common in today’s world. However, the complications can be numerous and it can be a significant amount of time for everybody to adjust to their new set-up. Relationships with new partners have to be negotiated as well as relationships with ex-spouses, one’s own children and the children of one’s new partner.

Psychologists at the Sandton Psychology Centre who work with families offer the following advice:

The couple must make time to nurture their relationship.Embarking on a new relationship or marriage where two families come together needs a solid foundation.The couple (or the new spouses) will have to deal with numerous challenges and therefore it is essential that they can communicate effectively and that their needs are met within the relationship. It is also important that the new spouses/partners have worked through their past anger and all the emotional “baggage” that comes from a former relationship. This is especially important, as to thrive in a new relationship one has to know where the previous one failed, and what role they played in the demise of the previous relationship. (This is often not as easy as it appears, as one tends to blame the previous partner and their shortcomings for the failure of the relationship).

The couple needs to support each other and discuss parenting issues (which will be numerous). In new stepfamilies it is often better for the biological parent to do the majority of the parenting and disciplining of their biological children initially. The new partner or spouse should be encouraged to build a relationship with the child prior to partaking in the discipline of the child, for example. Authority as a stepparent should therefore be gradual. Children will feel aggrieved and usually oppose the authority of somebody that it is not their “real Mom or Dad”. Some children even worry that their parent has changed if somebody else takes on the disciplinarian role. Communication is key in discussing issues that will inevitably crop up regarding the children. Parent and step-parent should be clear about, and communicate their boundaries, their expectations, their hopes, their fears, their values, their beliefs and their thoughts about consequences of various behaviours and so forth. These talks should be held in private, as children should not be privy to disagreements. Issues relating to biological and step-children are one of the most common reasons for new step-families to falter. If you do not feel that this aspect of your relationship is functioning effectively it is highly recommended that you seek couples counselling/marriage therapy or guidance from a child psychologist.

Don’t waste time playing the blaming game. In a complex set-up like step-families it can be very easy to fall in the trap of blaming others (the ex-spouse, the present spouse, step-children, relatives..…..) for problems that arise. Be aware that blaming doesn’t solve the problem but just serves to make matters worse. Especially be careful of blaming or talking badly about a stepchild’s biological parent as the child will only feel angry, sad, depressed or confused. The biological parent will always be the parent of the child no matter what they’re like as individuals. Instead of blaming, one’s mindset has to be changed into “ this is the problem……and this is how we are going to resolve it…”

Respect, respect and more respect. Show respect for all members of the nuclear family and the new blended family. Think about what respect means for you (for example, you may disagree with another’s viewpoint but it is no reason to cut them off or speak badly about them). Respect of others is especially important when there are children in the mix. If children feel that they are being treated with respect it is much more likely that they will become respectful members of society. Respect does not mean that you give to a child’s every whim, however respect is when you acknowledge the child’s feelings, even if you don’t necessarily agree or understand why they’re saying what they are. If, for example the child is missing the other parent, to be respectful of their feelings means to allow them that feeling. It is no use, therefore in this case, to say to the child “you’re just being silly, you just saw your Mom/Dad the other day”. It is more beneficial to acknowledge their feelings “…I can see you are feeling sad…. it must be really hard not to see Mom/Dad everyday like before…..”

Encourage children to enjoy time with their biological parents. This is two-fold scenario and means that the biological parent and step-parent need to be positive about the child/children visiting the other parent. This means no bad mouthing of the ex-spouse and no interrogating children about what transpired at the other household and so forth. In addition it also means that the new spouse has to “allow” some time for the parent and their biological child in their new set-up. Be especially aware of what activities the biological parent partook with their child/children prior to the new relationship as it is often wise to continue this special time together. Remember that children will have suffered numerous losses after their parents separated, divorced or broke-up. Whilst some losses are inevitable, try to limit them as much as possible.

Stepparents cannot and shouldn’t try replace the biological parent. First of all it is a no win situation. Sometimes stepparents fantasize that they will be a better parent than the biological parent and that the child will love them more etc.This is unlikely, (although there are definitely some stepparents that can parent better than a biological parent), the fact remains that the biological parent is always the parent of that child; it is a role that cannot be replaced by someone else. In other words no matter how bad the biological parent is and how good the stepparent is, the child will always have only two parents. This, however does not mean that the child cannot have a loving relationship with their stepparent, they certainly can – but just not the same as the biological parent-child relationship. Stepparents should therefore focus on building their relationship with the step-child and realise that this does not mean that they’re going to replace the biological parent but it is going to be a new and unique relationship between them.

Make the new family a functional family. For a family to be functional it is necessary for it to be a safe and secure ‘space’ for everybody in the family.Spend time together as a family such as eating together and doing fun things together. Establish new rituals that are special and particular to the new family. If, and when problems arise make sure that they’re dealt with and not swept under the carpet. Be especially considerate of children’s emotional needs as they do not have the coping resources and life experience adults do. If you feel that you are struggling in any aspect of a step-family or feel that you are not coping, don’t be afraid to get professional assistance

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