Stepfamilies have a bad image. Think of Snow White’s jealous stepmother or Cinderella’s ugly sisters or at the other end of the spectrum, picture the unrealistically positive stepfamily, such as the Brady Bunch.
But real life is more complicated that either of those stepfamily models and stepchildren have to come to terms with lots of new and often confusing situations – their “new” family, their parent’s new partner, their new stepbrothers or sisters and a whole new way of life, different rules, different schools, different routines.
The whole experience can leave children feeling isolated, confused, anxious, or resentful and there can also be pressure to be a ‘perfect family’, but it takes time to get to know one another.
So I’ve been exploring stepfamily myths in my research for my next Stepfamily Made Easy CDs, toolkit and book to help you create a great positive stepfamily easily, effortlessly and naturally.
Cinderella doesn’t live here anymore.
Here are some stepfamily myths that need looking at:
Myth 1: Marriages are easier the second time around.
Fact: All marriages are different. Of course, both parents learn things from their first marriage, but each relationship is different, unique, and special.
Myth 2: All stepfamilies learn to love each other eventually.
Fact: Some do, some don’t. Some family members will grow to love one another; others merely tolerate each other. But respect is a vital key energy that helps families work and bond together.
Myth 3: Stepfamilies work the same way as first-time families.
Fact: Families develop individually and have their own styles. Blending a family takes time and patience.
Myth 4: Children are so adaptable and they’ll quickly and easily accept the situation.
Fact: Adaptability depends on the child. Some children whose lives change dramatically find accepting others difficult, while others don’t. You can’t predict how your child will come to terms with the new situation that they find themselves in.
Myth 5: If I’m kind and loving to my partner’s children, everything will be okay.
Fact: It’s a lovely sentiment, but it only looks at a relationship from one side – which is from your perspective. Sometimes children need to grieve and come to terms with the loss of the family they knew. So no matter how nice you are to your stepchild, they may still be unhappy.
Myth 6: Relating to stepchildren is just the same as relating to my own kids.
Fact: Stepchildren and natural children are different. Expecting to feel exactly the same way towards stepchildren as your natural children is unrealistic and remember the feeling can be mutual. If you’ve ever heard ‘You’re not my Dad -you can’t tell me what to do,’ you understand that step parenting takes patience, skill, and self-control.
Ron L. Deal, in his book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family, uses a very interesting analogy when talking about stepfamilies. He suggests that rather than ‘blending a family’; ‘cooking up a stepfamily’ is a better description.
Blending suggests that everyone merges together easily, whereas in reality, families integrate slowly – just like in a casserole!
To continue the cooking analogy a step further, as a parent you must understand that time and low heat make a healthier family combination.
Let your stepchild dictate the pace of the relationship. Accept that being ‘Daddy’ to your own child, ‘James’ to your stepson, and ‘Mr Harris’ to your new teenage stepdaughter is okay. Be flexible and adaptable in your relationships.
Dealing with the disruption
Going through any change is difficult, so expect to experience a series of stepfamily stages:
1. Fantasy stage: Family members are on their best behaviour. During this period everyone imagines they’ll love one another and create one big jolly family living happily ever after.
2. Confusion stage: Tension grows, happiness begins to slip away, and differences emerge. The romance seems to disappear.
3. Conflict stage: Anger can start to erupt as family members realise that their needs are not being met. Arguments can begin, and true feelings start to appear. Hopefully, if you’re prepared, negotiations and honest communication can also begin.
4. Comfort stage: Family members start to relax and begin to look forward to their future together. Communication is deeper and bonds build.
Here are some guidelines for making an easy transition through the various stages of becoming a healthy stepfamily.
- Start out in a home that’s new for all, if possible. Doing so makes for less territory squabbles and hurt feelings and can help to get rid of your ghosts from the past.
- Develop new traditions as developing new rituals and special celebrations speeds up the sense of belonging and connectedness. This deceptively simple tip represents a key part of successful stepfamily life. It doesn’t matter what your rituals are – pizza on a Wednesday night or bike rides on Sunday afternoon can be effective rituals.
- Celebrate every member of your new family. For example, if you keep family pictures on your desk, be sure to include photos of your step kids too.
- Nurture your new couple bond. When couples have a good relationship, they’re able to work together on meesting the needs of their children. A good marriage also reduces your feelings of being caught in the middle between the children and your new partner.
Be prepared to adjust visitation and custody timetables. Particularly as your children enter adolescence, you may need to let go of some time with your children, which can be a painful experience. Remember that your teenager’s needs are the overarching concern here. Teens want to spend a significant amount of time with their friends and it’s important they have it.
Words of Wisdom
- Love generously. As one stepmother said on a course of mine about divorce and stepfamilies, ‘The children taught us there’s enough love to go round and we don’t have to ration love!’
- See life through different perspectives. Trying to see life and situations and problems for a different perspective can be an especially effective tool in creating a loving stepfamily and it’s one area where Parent Coaching really excels to help parents and children move forward to create positive changes really easily.
- Communicate, communicate and communicate. Doing this isn’t always easy and if you find it difficult to listen to one another getting someone outside of your immediate family to help you step out from the wood for the trees really helps.
Happy families don’t happen over night they take time, patience and persistence just like anything worthwhile in life. It’s about moving slowly and steadily forward while you all adjust to your new circumstances and it needn’t be painful, fraught with animosity and stressful.
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About the author
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
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Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
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