Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stepfamilies: Only Grown-Ups Need Apply

Creating a loving stepfamily out of two other families comes with big challenges and big potential rewards. It's not quite like other families, because it's a family forged after loss. There has either been the death of a parent, a divorce, or a single parent going it alone, or maybe a combination of these losses. You are starting out trying to build a family out of people---adults and children--- who may be sad, grieving, adjusting, hurt, bitter, frightened, angry, or possibly just used to doing things their own way. It helps to know what is normal for a blended or stepfamily.

Dating as a single parent is like dating with an audience. Correction: make that a critical audience who may write bad reviews. While I want parents to keep their children out of and protected from your dating experiences, at some point a partner you are serious about having a life with needs to meet your child or children, and you need to meet theirs. If you have children, you need to think about being a package deal. (As in, love me, love my child.) It's a make it or break it issue for responsible, loving single parents. Only mature grown-ups need apply for the role of stepparent. Starting with anything less than that is heading for trouble. You need a partner who really supports you being an excellent parent, not resenting it. Not acting loving for a time to secure a marriage, and then resorting to immaturity. That's why premarital counseling for couples contemplating blending families is so important.

If your child feels criticized, marginalized, or otherwise uncomfortable around your intended new partner, you may want to break it off now and save yourself, your child, and the other person a great deal of pain. You want to make sure you both fully understand the complicated feelings involved in stepfamilies.

To be a good stepparent you need to be kind-hearted, sensitive to the developmental needs of children, secure, loving, and grounded. A good stepparent cannot be petty, jealous, controlling, negative, selfish, or judgmental. It takes a mature person to carve out a role as a stepparent, and play it well. In most situations, the child won't need you to "be" their parent. If they have two solid biological parents, you are another adult to love, support, and help them.

The American Stepfamily Association estimates that it takes a full seven years for a stepfamily to fully hit critical mass and blend in most cases. It doesn't happen overnight. Each person has to adjust. It helps to start with realistic expectations. Stepfamilies start with divided loyalties, and loyalty conflicts are normal. How the adults handle the first few years really makes a difference.

Here are some guidelines that will help:

Be patient.

Never criticize the child's other biological parent.

Hold weekly family meetings, at least for a few years so everyone gets a chance to work out rough spots.

Date nights are extremely important for couples blending families, as you are most often surrounded by a crowd. Don't discuss the kids on date night.

Schedule 1:1 time with your own child/children.

Spend positive activity time with your stepchild/stepchildren.

Create some new family traditions, with input from the children.

Try not to do important family events/celebrations/vacations unless all of the children are with you.

Be mature at each child's important school and life events, so the child isn't stressed (it's not about you).

Greet the child's other biological parent graciously at the child's events. Don't make it more difficult.

Let the natural parent be the disciplinary one when needed.

Recognize developmental stages that are difficult for children and teens/don't take it personally.

Look for a common interest or activity with a stepchild.

Support your partner spending some time with their child/children without you.

Find a way to make each child feel important and special to you. Don't compare them.

Try to find a common faith or religious practice. It will help.

Plan some family day outings and trips that include all the children and help build cohesiveness.

I never planned to make a subspecialty out of treating step and blended families. Sometimes life experiences change us. Because I spent some of my own childhood years in a stepfamily, and have lived through building a stepfamily of my own, I feel a special sensitivity to the needs children have in stepfamilies, the importance of assembling the right cast, and using best strategies to help everyone in the family feel welcome, loved, secure, and an important part of the new family that is created over time. Nothing positive happens instantly in stepfamilies, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Stepfamilies? Big challenges, but even bigger potential rewards if you do it well. If you are considering becoming a stepparent or blending families, remember that only mature grown-ups need apply. Starting with anything less is a bad idea, and a set-up for disaster. Two mature adults can weather the challenges and make something beautiful happen for all involved.

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