One Stepfamily at a Time
Many of our notions about
stepfamilies are based on hypothetical comparisons to an idealized, and largely
mythical, form of the nuclear family. Contrary to popular understanding,
today's marriages don't have shorter durations than our ancestors'. The
average marriage in the late 1700's
lasted only seven years before one partner died. In fact, a hundred years ago,
20-30% of marriages were second marriages, just as they are today. The only
difference is the reason for the ending of the first marriage. Divorce is
largely a function of our increased life span; namely there is substantially
more time 'til death do us part.
Our concerns about
children are also heavily influenced by a nostalgic view of ages gone by.
Estimates are that in the 1800's, 23% of children had lost both parents by age
5, 50% by age 13, and 70% by age 24.
Researchers report that it
is not the structure of the family that determines how happy, academically
proficient, or socially well-adjusted children are and that prolonged exposure
to conflict is almost always harmful to children. It is the quality of the
relationships, not the type of family, that makes a difference in a child's
This does not mean,
though, that divorce is not generally an extremely painful event. It is. We
need to get much better at working out the difficult aspects of these
transitions so we can provide safe and secure families for our children. We
also need to get much better at working out the relationships between all
members of stepfamilies.
Where a nuclear family has
a number of years for negotiating the first two developmental stages of the
family - marriage and the birth of children the stepfamily must cope with the
equivalents of these stages simultaneously. Because one or both partners have
already established bonds with their children from a previous marriage, it is
imperative that a strong couple bond also be established and maintained.
Private time and activities for the new couple must be planned to support the
crucial primary bond between the partners. This bond not only protects children
from another family loss, but also gives them a positive example for their own
eventual adult relationships.
Although stepparents can
relate to stepchildren in several ways, it seems that the time it takes
children to accept another adult in a parental role is greatly underestimated.
Most children need a time period equal to their age at the time of transition.
Therefore, a child of six months would only need six months to accept the new
adult in a parental role, but a child of six years would be twelve before the
stepparent is fully accepted as a parent.
With this formula in mind,
stepparents shouldn't anticipate they will assume a parental role with children
who are teenagers at the time of transition. The developmental task of adolescence
is to experiment with independence from parents. This doesn't mean, however,
that older children can't develop and benefit from a relationship with another
adult. Remember, stepparents, you are different from all other adults in your
stepchildren's lives. You have your own special qualities and talents to offer
in the role of friend, confidant, and mentor that will enrich these children's
No matter what role a
stepparent chooses, it is best for the biological parent to remain in charge of
decision-making and limit-setting. Stepparents can remind children about Mom's
or Dad's rules, but not to create them. The stepparent's role is to
intentionally nurture the children in nonthreatening activities in an attempt
to bond with them. Once the children have had time to learn to respect and
trust the stepparent, usually 18 - 24 months, they will adjust more easily to a
Of course, comfortable
rules for living in the home should be negotiated by the adults together. Explore
your parenting styles and consider taking a parenting or stepparenting workshop
together. Some rules will be non-negotiable, but invite children in
establishing the other guidelines. This is an excellent time to share how
things were done in former homes, discuss why some things are meaningful to
different family members, and generally get to know each other. Keep in mind
that it is the task that is important; not the way the task is accomplished.
Remind family members that there is no "right" way to get things done
in the new household.
with the divorced biological parent should be supported. Although courteous
relationships may be difficult to maintain, studies have shown that children
who have contact with both parents on a regular basis adjust better to divorce
situations and ultimately step family arrangements. It is important to
communicate directly with the other biological parent, in person, by telephone,
or through a counselor or mediator. Keep your child out of the middle. Keep
your focus on your mutual concern for the welfare of your children and on what
you can control in the situation. There is no way you can make everything work
the way you want it; you can't control how your ex dresses your kids or make
your ex return your children on time after every visitation. So be creative in
removing yourself from no-win battles, which would only leave you feeling
helpless and angry. Save your energy for enjoying your new family.
The stepfamily is a
different kind of family with special obstacles and opportunities. Trying to
make it like the family you came from, only better, will cause everyone
unnecessary stress. Be kind to yourself by remembering that creating a family
where everyone feels comfortable takes time. The benefits of living in a
stepfamily appreciating different value systems, learning to negotiate and
compromise, and having more caring people in your life - are worth the
struggles you will experience as you proceed through the normal passages all