Date: 6/17/2008 11:46 am
One outcome of the growing divorce rate is the increasing number of people who are trying to find happiness in a “stepfamily” situation. My hope is to give you some information on how to successfully move from a “stepfamily” to a “blended” family. While many people and authors choose to use the words interchangeably, I believe that there are clear differences between the two. A “stepfamily” involves at least two adults in a romantic relationship where one or both have children from previous relationships. A “blended” family starts off as a stepfamily, but has worked to build attachment, respect, communication, and emotional intimacy.
There are three objectives or areas involved in successfully blending your family. These involve:
- Understand the role of loss.
- Develop and maintain a strong marital base.
- Integrating the children.
The first step to successfully “blending” families, involves understanding and respecting the role that loss plays. It is important to remember that all blended families are born out of a loss, whether through death, divorce, or separation of parents who are not married. Just as adults need to grieve the loss of a relationship, children go through a grieving process. Healthy grief in children and/or adolescents often involves shock, sobbing, guilt, anger/irritability, and possibly mimicking the behavior of the lost parent as a means of maintaining closeness. When people are allowed to mourn (express or feel their sorrow), the process ends in resolution and acceptance of the loss. Even with healthy grieving and resolution, it is possible that the wounds caused by the loss can be reopened. For example, the introduction of a new adult can trigger feelings of guilt, sadness, and/or anger, because the biological parent will not be sharing experiences. The child might also fear that their biological parent would be upset to be “replaced”. The general recommendation is to allow at least two years to grieve the loss and adapt to the new family structure before introducing a new adult into the family dynamic.
A strong and healthy marriage in the key to any successful family, either nuclear or blended. I often use the analogy of a house. The marital relationship serves as the foundation of the house. The healthier the relationship, the stronger the foundation. If there are cracks in the foundation, it will ultimately affect the stability of the rest of the house. Strong, satisfying marriages include:
- Shared values.
- Shared principles of parenting (e.g. bedtimes, TV, responsibilities, school, privacy and punishment.
- Shared rituals and gestures.
- Common problem solving styles.
- Similar world views.
- A “we” mentality that involves small, daily acts of self-sacrifice (e.g., attending an activity your partner enjoys).
- Time devoted to individual and marital needs.
In terms of integrating the children, I am going to address the stages involved that occur after marriage. Establishing a cohesive family unit involves three stages. The first stage, which I refer to as Building Relationships, takes about two years. Step one involves banishing your beliefs that being a “step-parent” means that you are a “second class” citizen. One exercise to help you with this involves defining what it means to you to be a parent. To do this, fill in the following sentence:
Being a parent means _________________________.
(Examples: showing unconditional love, teaching my child right from wrong, being available when my child needs me.)
Once you have examined your beliefs, the goal is to build a trusting relationship. Initially, you will bond through friendship. This involves learning to enjoy activities that the child enjoys. Next, you will work on establishing basic trust, then a mentoring relationship. Your role as a mentor is to offer
guidance, direction, and support. When these goals have been met, you will serve the role of a “parental guide”. Only at this point should the idea of discipline be attempted. Many families make the mistake of expecting immediate acceptance and love. Experts believe that it is reasonable to expect at least two years of “sweat equity” (friendship, trust and mentoring) before a stepparent can expect stepchildren to take “parental direction” or discipline.
To summarize, sweat equity involves:
- Regularly engaging in activities the child enjoys.
- Driving places.
- Help with homework.
- Being available to listen.
The second stage of building a blended family lasts from year 3 to year 5 and has been called a “Period of Consolidation”. During this period, the goal is to further connect and unify the relationships. Years 5 through 9 have been deemed “The Paradoxical Time”, where there are areas of stepfamily life that are going well, but there are also a few aspects that are getting difficult. Often difficulties erupt because at least one of the children has become a teenager. Therefore, there is the rebelliousness, testing of identity, and other concerns typical of this age group. Additionally, between the ages of twelve and fourteen, children might suddenly become interested in their “roots” and ask questions about their family or origin or probe more into the divorce.
To learn more about time, discipline, money issues, and characteristics of successful blended families, I invite you to my free workshop on October 11th at 7:30p.m. at Schaumburg Township District Library. To register, please call the library at (847) 985-4000.
Bloomfield, H. H. (1993). Making Peace In Your Stepfamily: Surviving and thriving as parents
and stepparents. Hyperion: New York.
Bray, J. H. and Kelly, J. (1998). Stepfamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting in the first decade.
Broadway Book: New York.
Lofas, J. and Sova, D.B. (1985). Stepparenting: Everything you need to know to make it work!
Kensington Books: New York.
Lisa Irgang, Psy. D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
1340 Remington Road, Suite T
Schaumburg, IL 60173
Phone (224) 622-5842
Most Insurance Plans Accepted
Hours: Mon, Tues and Wed 10am - 9pm
Friday 10am - 6pm