If you are a member of a stepfamily, you know how difficult it can be to integrate all of the new members and adjust to the new boundaries and rules. The following ideas have been discovered by thousands of stepfamilies before you who have learned how to adjust to their new arrangements and build a successful live together. These ideas may help you make a successful transition during this challenging process.
WHAT HELPS STEP FAMILIES ADJUST AND THRIVE?
Have patience. Establishing new families takes time. Just because you love your new partner, it is unrealistic to think that you will automatically love his or her children. It is equally unrealistic to expect that your new partner’s children will instantly love you. It can be difficult to accept that even though you wish to have a relationship with your stepchildren, they may not be ready for a relationship with you.
Expect to adjust. With proper help and guidance, children can recover from family disruption. All children experience a difficult adjustment period following a divorce or remarriage. It takes time, patience, and perhaps some professional assistance, but most children are able to regain their emotional bearings. It is critical that the adults manage their own emotional recoveries in order to help the children adjust without trauma.
Be flexible. If you are part of a part-time stepfamily, you may need a longer adjustment period. All relationships take time to grow and develop. When stepchildren see you less often, you have less time to get to know each other. This is why it may take a part-time stepfamily longer to move through the adjustment process.
Don’t expect your new family to be like your first family. If you expect that your stepfamily will be just like the family of your first marriage, you are setting yourself up for frustration. Your new family will have its own unique identity and will evolve in its own special way.
Expect confusion. Forming a stepfamily is a confusing time for everyone. Think about how confusing it is for a child to become part of two new families. All of the family members—parents and children—must learn to understand the new structure and learn to navigate the boundaries.
Allow time for grieving. Stepfamilies begin with an experience of loss, and everyone needs to grieve. The adults’ losses are not the same as those of the children, and both must be respected. Adults grieve the following losses:
- The loss of a partner.
- The loss of a marriage relationship.
- Lost dreams about the way they thought it would be.
- They must adjust to changes that result from the divorce or death (e.g., moving to a new house, starting a new job, adjusting to changes in lifestyle).
Help the children grieve. Their losses are usually different from those of their parents:
- They may now be living with one parent instead of two.
- They may have less time with one or both parents during times of dating and remarriage.
- There may be less stability in their homes.
- They must adjust to changes that result from the divorce or death (they may have a new place to live and go to a new school, and they may have lost friends in this process).
- They have lost the fantasy of how they wanted their family to be.
- Children have an especially difficult time resolving their grief when their parents are hostile to one another, when one or both of their parents remarry, and when they have trouble accepting their new stepparents.
Acknowledge the absent parent. When one of the original parents is absent, the children need a special kind of understanding. An absent parent (who has died or who lives elsewhere and doesn’t visit) is part of a child’s past. The child must be allowed to have memories of this parent. The children who have access to both of their parents are those who adjust the best to divorce. They should be allowed to regularly speak with, visit, and write to their noncustodial parent.
Help the kids fit in. Children of stepfamilies belong to two households. It is understandable that they will have questions about where they fit in. They are usually able to adjust to having two sets of rules as long as they are not asked to choose which one is better.
Be clear about the rules. Ideally, both sets of parents should discuss the family rules and what will happen if rules are broken. When the adults agree on the rules, they should explain them to the children. Most successful stepfamilies have learned that the rules should be decided together in the beginning, and that the biological parent should do the explaining and disciplining.
Educate yourselves and seek emotional support. Read books about managing stepfamilies, attend classes, and participate in stepfamily support groups. Seek the counsel of an experienced mental health professional to help you through the rough spots.
Participate in family therapy with a licensed family therapist. Ask your physician for a referral to a qualified, experienced therapist who is trained to work with abusive families. You may also wish to obtain a referral from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (www.aamft.org).
Develop communication skills (listening, empathizing, communicating assertively) by attending workshops, reading books, and practicing the skills in family therapy sessions.
Learn to manage your angry feelings. Participate in an anger management support group, read books, and work with an individual counselor.
Learn to manage frustration in positive ways.
Seek counseling to improve your self-esteem.
Find positive ways to get attention.