Steps to Stepfamily Success
Typical multi-home stepfamilies are like intact biological families in many ways. But, they differ structurally, developmentally and dynamically in many ways too.
Stepfamilies who aren't aware of these differences risk using biological family norms and expectations to guide their day-to-day lives. That's like trying to play baseball with soccer equipment and basketball rules -- guaranteed to create confusion, conflict and stress.
Learning to live well in a new family takes time. Everyone has a lot to learn, including how to cope in a new environment. One of the first things you'll want to do is to recognize some of the myths of stepfamilies. For example:
Myth #1: "I love you, and I must love your kids."
Reality: "I love you and will patiently work at respecting your kids. They and I may never love each other. If we do, it will feel different than biological parent-child love, and that's okay.
Myth #2: "Your or my ex-mate is not part of our family!"
Reality: "As long as your biological children from your previous marriage live, their other biological parent, and their new mate(s), if any, will emotionally, financially, legally and genetically influence all of your lives. Ignoring or discounting the needs and feelings of these other adults will stress everyone for years.
Myth #3: "We're just like a regular biological family."
Reality: Not really. Your new extended family and the linking of stepfamily co-parenting homes add up to loads of relatives with many major losses to mourn, and many conflicting values and customs to resolve. You are, however, normal -- a normal multi-home stepfamily.
Myth #4: "Your or my kids will never come between us."
Reality: Stepfamily adults' inability to resolve clashes over one or more step-kids, including related money issues, is the most quoted reason for a stepfamily divorce. Underneath this usually lie your own unhealed wounds.
Myth #5: "Stepparenting is pretty much like biological parenting, without the childbirth."
Reality: While stepparents' primary goals are about the same as those of biological parents, the emotional, legal and social environments of average stepparents differ in numerous ways. This usually leads to confusion, frustration, and stress, until all the stepfamily adults agree clearly on what each other's key responsibilities are.
Myth #6: "Your and/or my biological kids(s) will always live with us."
Reality: In about 30 percent of U.S. stepfamilies, one or more minor biological kids move into the home of their other biological parent at some point. The resulting emotional and financial shock waves can be extremely challenging. The key is to build realistic expectations for your new stepfamily homes, roles and relationships. If you don't, ongoing frustrations and disappointments can end up harming your marriage. Learning together what's normal in average stepfamilies -- early on -- can help considerably.
Here are a few more ideas on how to keep your new family on the right track:
1. Adopt an open learner's mind to new ways of doing things.
2. Award yourself patience, permission to mess up and learn, and strokes for the smallest triumphs.
3. Expect some people to misunderstand and to criticize your new values, goals, and plans -- or you. Realize they probably are stuck in a biological family mode of thinking. That's their issue.
4. Keep your emotional knees flexed, hold hands, and enjoy the adventure and challenge together. It's worth it!
Your relatives and friends might mistakenly expect your new household and kin to feel and act like a biological family. They also may not approve of either the prior divorce(s) or the remarriage. Yet, when well-run by confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security -- and often (not always) the love -- that adults and kids long for.
What's your biggest challenge as a stepparent? How are you dealing with it?
This article was originally published on PBS Parents by Gloria Lintermans. Gloria Lintermans is the author of The Secrets to Stepfamily Success: Revolutionary Tools to create a Blended Family of Support and Respect, The Healing Power of Grief: The Journey Through Loss to Love and Laughter, and The Healing Power of Love: Transcending the Loss of a Spouse to New Love.
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