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The Push and Pull in Stepfamilies

To my dear stepfamilies everywhere,

Please remember that most families must deal with many of the issues I talk about in my blogs. The last thing I want to do is discourage any of you from choosing to enter into a stepfamily situation, or give up on the stepfamily you are working so hard to maintain. While reading this blog know that these three situations are universal to all families although they may affect the stepfamily more.

Often we talk about a family as a system with members working together to maintain a feeling of comfort and security. Anyone in a stepfamily knows that all the members deal with a lot of change as they try to find an emotional balance that gives them that feeling of safety and security.

There are three situations that could help you find some balance in your family. I am going to talk about these three situations as “needs” to help your stepfamily.

  1. The need or wish to be a united happy family.

  2. The need to be a unique and a special individual within the family.

  3. The need for each member of the family to have their own space within the family.

1. The need to be a united family:

When the partners enter into stepfamily life there is a huge hope that your stepfamily will be “one happy family”. Of course everyone wants a familiar, loving and cooperating family. Maybe the partners think that will happen easily because the partners are happy together so therefore all the children will be too. Once more the partners think it will happen right away. This wanting to pull everyone together into a cohesive group requires everyone to have similar beliefs, values and ways of behaving. Of course that can be hard to do right away since both the past families have different backgrounds, histories and a different understanding of how a family works.

Hopefully since the partnership is the foundation of any family, the partners must share a strong love for each other. In stepfamilies all partners hope this family will be better for them than the last family or at least as good as the last family. Partners pick each other because they see themselves as similar to each other in many ways and they enter into this new relationship with big hopes and dreams of making this family loving and special for all the members.

However, that hope dies hard when the parents find out that the children are resistant to the new family and may be struggling to be accepted and liked by each other. Now the parents start the push for everyone to get along, be respectful and join in on the activities with a joyful attitude. Life is of course easier that way. The truth is that children can’t be forced to get along or like each other. This takes time and pushing for this before children are ready will only make them resent each other more.

Matthew and Susan made a house rule that everyone must say goodbye before they go out the door in the afternoon. Susan’s son Jim yells “Bye” to his stepdad and stepsister who were nearby. No one answers. Jim looks at his mother and then turns and slams the door as he leaves.

Susan feels badly for her son Jim and recognizes that this family is not going to be connected the way she wished. This reality is difficult for her to accept. She wonders what she should do in order to make everyone get along.

The point being that, parents in stepfamilies want the children to act the way they believe is appropriate. It might not be the way the children were brought up in their first household and they may resist being told to change their ways. Here lies a problem for stepparents when they try to force a child to be the way they want them to be. The push back by children is a natural reaction to change. They may say things like, “ mom lets me have candy before dinner” or “ dad always lets me stay up after midnight.” Many arguments result from children refusing new rules and behaviors forced on them by the new situation they find themselves in.

After many years of trying to keep all our children together and liking each other here is my take on this “togetherness force” as Margaret Newman calls it in her book Stepfamily Realities.

Try to let go enough and believe that the friendships between children will work out over time. Maybe some children will be closer to each other just like in all families. That is normal. Also, try to accept that there will be two families together in one stepfamily and that is ok. Respecting one another is the goal here, for partners as well as children/teens/and adult children.

Nathan and Brett are adults now and live in different cities. They are biological brothers. These two brothers stay connected and reach out to each other often. Nathan and Brett grew up with two stepsiblings but rarely see them now except on special occasions. The two stepsiblings are very connected with each other and see each other regularly. However, when they get together they and their spouses are all friends and get along very well. All four have healthy adult relationships with each other just the same. This is still a normal stepfamily.

Just like all families, it is important to let the children deal with each other as they wish. Forcing them to be good friends will only cause you grief.

2. The need to be accepted as a unique individual.

Everyone in a stepfamily has been in at least one family before. Many members have been in a single parent home as well. Each of these past families had their own traditions, rules and beliefs. The experiences of being in these different families plus the unique personalities of each parent and child will contribute to the uniqueness of each member in the new family. All members of the family will want to be recognized as a unique person, different from their siblings and stepsiblings.

(All adults want this also.) A stepfamily is lucky to have members who are different from each other. If you think of your stepfamily as being unique and special, it will encourage everyone to be proud of who they are.

Sometimes family members in all families have to push back to be understood and have others accept them. It is normal for all of us to protect who we are no matter our age.

Amy went up into her bathroom one day and came out with green hair. She was saying “this is me now” and I am different from the rest of you. So like it or not, my hair is staying green until I decide to change it.

As the saying goes, trying to make the family members conform to the parent’s wishes is “a losing game.” That would require everyone to act and think the same way. So while the parents are trying to unit the children into their idea of the new family, the children (and even the partners) are fighting to be allowed to be themselves. Eventually all the member of the stepfamily will want to accept that everyone does things differently. Treating each member with respect requires talking through the differences and trying to understand why it is important for a child or a partner to do things a certain way. Trust will develop from the patience and tolerance of accepting the different ways of thinking. After all, healthy stepfamilies are always adjusting to change, negotiating and learning from one another. Allowing children/teens/adults to be separate and different from the other members of the family is important. Parents will want to see the family unit as a team made up of individual and unique members.

Doreen decided that she always wanted to be a veterinarian. Her husband Sam and their children were not pleased to have her out of the house so much. Sam saw his wife and the children’s mother a certain way and objected to the changes in her. No matter how they disagreed with her going back to school, Doreen persevered and continued with her studies. She felt it was never too late to be who she wanted to be and over time the family members began to encourage her instead.

It is important for parents to help children/teens to build a positive sense of themselves while they still live at home.

Parents can teach them to speak up and to tell their side of a story. They can respect their children’s feelings when others disagree with them.

Also, parents can encourage independent thinking. They can express how much they care about the child no matter what happens and parents can praise children and teach them how to manage their anger in a healthy way.

It is here that I need to remind you about the development stage of teenagers. They are naturally separating from their family and trying to find their own identity. Because of all the changes being part of a stepfamily at this stage in their lives can be difficult for a teenager. Attempting to make a teenager comply with the wishes of a parent in any type of family can result in troubling times for all.

Teens want to be similar to their friends at this stage, not to family. They have little desire to be part of any “togetherness force” except with their friends and that is universal. (See chapter 8 in my book.)

3. The need for each member of the family to have personal space.

There is comfort and familiarity in the house/apartment each person may have left behind when a new family is created. Most people grieve the loss of the house/apartment they have lived in for awhile. Moving is stressful for everyone but those members that end up sharing their house with new members can feel just as resentful as those who move away from the old neighborhood. Where you create your stepfamily matters!!

Ralph lost his wife to cancer and a year later he married a woman he knew for some time. They both had two adult girls. His two adult girls were shocked to find their dad married again so soon. What made it worse for them is that Ralph’s new wife moved into their childhood home and renovated it. Not only were they grieving the lose of their mother, but also they felt they lost their home as well. They were not happy to have another woman in their childhood home where their mother used to be. The girls felt displaced even though they had homes and children of their own now.

Of course, as I said in my book, it is ideal if the stepfamily can get another house or a different apartment. ( find ideas in my book on page 121 if moving isn’t possible) Although this sounds like a hassle, is costly and even though at least one of the partners might feel attached to the home you have, it is by far the very best plan in the long run. Starting another family, and for the partners a new married life, deserves a new setting where everyone is equal and the changes are the same for all members.

It is really important that everyone has a safe place to call their own especially in a stepfamily where not all children/teens know each other well. Children need privacy too and their own space will help. They can decorate their room or space and put their own special belongings out to give them comfort. They can have a place to be themselves and a special area to go when the world becomes overwhelming.

As the parents, you can encourage each member of your family to tell you what they need. (The partners need to speak up about what they need too.) It is hard to help your children if you don’t know what is worrying them. Maybe you can’t make the changes they want but you can listen and try to understand. That will go a long ways in helping the members of your stepfamily feel safe, loved and special.

Have faith that your family will be just fine no matter how “together” everyone seems. Give everyone space to be themselves and you will find your stepfamily is a source of contentment for all of you.

All the best

Blythe Ward



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