How to flourish in a Stepfamily
The Brady Bunch has a lot to answer for! A common misconception among couples starting out in a stepfamily is the expectation that it will be warm and loving with the occasional drama or squabble, just like Mike and Carol Brady’s extended household. But a stepfamily is not just a larger version of a first-time or nuclear family; the relationships are often a little more complex.
Being part of a stepfamily means there is emotional baggage from the past, children from different relationships, and ex-partners to deal with. If you believe there is only one right way to be a family (a traditional nuclear family, for instance), you might need to adjust that assumption.
Stepfamilies need different operating principles from nuclear families because its members are performing many roles at once, with responsibilities spread across their present and former families, and they are negotiating complex relationships among all their family members.
However, it is possible to create a loving, healthy stepfamily, but it takes time and effort. The key is recognising the different history, emotions, values and expectations that each family member brings. Some of the unique features of stepfamily life include:
Loyalty conflicts and struggles. In a nuclear family, both parents are strongly invested in the welfare of their biological children. But this isn’t the case in a stepfamily. You have unbalanced loyalty triangles as well as divided allegiances between mother and stepmother or father and stepfather.
No roadmap. There can be a sense that you have to make it up as you go along because things don’t always go as planned. Being part of a stepfamily is not part of most people’s vision for their family. At times, it feels like a family but at other times it doesn’t
. Progress is slow: crock pot speed, rather than microwave speed. According to James Bray, stepfamily expert “the adaptation to stepfamily relationships depends on the timing of the transition in the children’s lives, the individuals involved, and the unique changes and stresses presented to the group.”
Love is not instant. A common misconception is that a stepparent and stepchild will love each other instantly, or at least grow to love each other. This does happen in some cases, but sometimes a stepparent and stepchild don’t even like each other. While they can learn to live together in a respectful way, a close and loving relationship might not happen. Although you may love your partner, you may not automatically love your partner’s children. It’s OK to feel differently about your partner’s child.
Ways to flourish in a stepfamily
Be realistic. Adjust your expectations about life in a stepfamily. There is no right way to be a step-parent – you will have to do what most biological parents do and make it up as you go along.
Give relationships time to develop.You can’t force people to get along, so don’t try to rush the process. Stepfamily formation moves through a series of stages; it generally takes 5-7 years for a stepfamily to create a new family history. Take it slow and gently, talk it over with your partner as you go, and don’t ever go along with anything that makes you uncomfortable. Give children time to adjust to the new situation and each other. Establish rules and responsibilities.
Establish “house rules” by including all the children in a family meeting. This will help them feel included and valued. Each child can nominate the jobs they will do on a daily and weekly basis. Use a job chart so they can clearly see what they need to do – there are no mysteries! Determine roles in the family.
Allow the biological parent the authority to discipline his or her child and play the primary parent role. The stepparent’s responsibility is to support their partner in discipline situations. As trust and respect grow, the stepparent may become more involved or share the role of disciplining children.
Focus on integrating, not blending. Expecting that family members will “blend” slows down the bonding process. Stepfamilies need to integrate, not blend. Family stability depends on the environment that parents create for their children, not whether it is a nuclear family, stepfamily or single parent family.
Seek out support. If you are struggling, see a counsellor or psychologist who is familiar with the complexities of stepfamily life. Stepfamilies experience most of their troubles in the first two years so it’s important not to let the situation get worse.
Set aside time to nurture the various relationships. Introduce a “family day” when you do something together as a family: it might be a picnic, a special meal, a sporting activity – keep it simple and make it fun. Make sure you also have regular time as a couple by including “couple time” in the course of each day. Make your couple relationship a priority: think of it as the foundation from which all of the other relationships in your family draw strength. If you don’t gel with your stepchild immediately, look for a common interest or an activity you can share: maybe you both love going to the cinema or cooking, or tennis. Find ways to strengthen the bond.
Communication is key. Open and honest communication is vital in a stepfamily because of the complexity of issues that arise. It’s important to talk to the other partner about what is going on in your family. Try to be encouraging and supportive as well as understanding and accepting of differences. It’s important to back each other up in front of the kids. It’s also helpful to try and merge your parenting styles to create a new family culture. Talk together about issues like discipline, chores, roles, family celebrations and finances. You can make a conscious decision to treat all of the children with affection, attention and respect. Once a stepfamily begins to stabilise and a sense of “our family” emerges, it is possible for adults to consider all children as “ours” regardless of where they have come from. Given all the complexities of stepfamilies, it is possible to create a supportive and loving family.