By Dan Blair, marriage and family therapist
The three top things I hear about from clients (and I wish I knew almost 20 years ago) all relate to stepfamily loyalty binds, losses, and limit setting. We all go into a new marriage with high expectations that this one will be better than the last one, with many lessons learned. Unexpected stressors though, often fall into one of these three categories.
Loyalty binds can make it difficult for a stepchild to connect to a step parent. What one may think is a child not wanting a relationship with you, may actually be the child not wanting to like you more than his or her own parent. That may be a compliment to the stepparent (if the relationship is not conflicted), but the resistance reflects the child’s anxiety. Stepparents often feel like an outsider the stepkids, and may feel guilty for not being more like a parent to the child. The lesson is often related to accepting a different relationship with stepkids than one may with biological kids. One in which the stepparent, and stepkids, let the relationship happen naturally without feeling pressured. The better the connection between spouses, the better potential for connection with step-kids.
Wrestling with the losses that came with a divorce is a challenge for both stepparent and stepkids. What is perceived as resentment toward this new relationship may actually be reflecting serious and profound loss. Because one stepparent often may not have his or her own kids around as much, or even be under the same roof at night, being around the stepkids can trigger sadness that time is lost with one’s own children. Once again, a stepparent may self-blame thinking they are not doing enough for the stepkids. The stepparent may have to learn how to deal with this grief. The biological parent may have to learn to accept these feelings as valid and not take it personally that feelings of loss are about rejecting his or her kids.
The biggest tension affecting stepfamilies is related to limit-setting in parenting. Kids behavior is at times more irritating to stepparents than it is to parents. Stepparents are often harder on the kids than the biological parent. Or, they may want to avoid conflict and step back from a parenting role. In many healthy, thriving step families, step-parents do not have a disciplinary role. Some do, and it depends on the circumstances (and the kid’s other parent). The step-relationship is much more tenuous, like a paper chain versus the metal chain of a biological relationship (blood is thicker than water). It may not be able to withstand stepparent discipline. Either way, it’s more important to connect with the kids than correct the kids. The payoff will be when the kids are grown.
While the challenges of a blended family may bring you to some of your darkest days, it can also lead to some of your brightest. Getting on the same page as your new spouse on these issues will minimize their impact.
More information can be found at What to Expect When Blending a Family