This was first published on KSL.com
I have received numerous questions lately that involve stepfamilies or blended families, and I understand why. All family relationships can be hard, but these families face many more challenges than a biological family. Additionally, people who haven’t been in a blended family before are often unprepared to handle them.
Many couples marry thinking their love will be enough to make the family work, but they soon find out that’s not true. To create a successful blended family you will need to learn about the challenges and gain some new skills.
I share the following statistics from Pew Research and the Stepfamily Foundation not to discourage you, but to motivate you to get some help, education, skills and tools so your blended family can beat these odds.
Fortunately, that last statistic is changing, as there are more resources today than ever before. I highly recommend that couples who are in a blended family or are thinking about getting married, find a coach or counselor who is familiar with the challenges. You should also find every book, conference or seminar you can on the topic and read them together. These steps can considerably up your chances of making it. Knowledge and awareness of the challenges make all the difference.
Tips for blended families
Jeannette Lofas, an author and stepfamily expert, says the No. 1 factor in the success or failure of a blended family comes down to getting outside education, help and resources to deal with the inevitable challenges. Here are some important facts about blended families, from her book “Step Parenting,” which I highly recommend.
1. A blended family is very different from a biological family.
The issues that arise in a blended family will be some you haven’t ever had to deal with before. In a birth family, there are natural roles everyone falls into; but in a blended family, these roles can look very different.
No stepmother can fully replace the child’s actual mother (even if she is deceased). The stepmother role is a unique one that most people have never had before. The rules are completely different, and the same goes for the father, mother, stepfather, and even the oldest child, who now might not be the oldest anymore.
It takes time for everyone to understand and master their new roles. This cannot happen overnight and the road will be bumpy. All parties must be patient, easy-going, and slow to get offended or defensive. Everyone has to give everyone else some slack to learn and get comfortable with their new roles.
2. Love is not required, but respect is.
You cannot force your child to love a stepparent, but you will need a firm rule about respect, consideration and kindness. These are required from all parties all the time, even from the adults toward the children.
Everyone has the right to be honored, respected, heard and thanked for what they do. If a child or adult is struggling with giving respect, that is a sign that a conversation needs to happen where they can express their frustrations, pain or fears around the situation. As the adult, you must be able to listen to the child’s feelings and honor their right to have them, even if they are attacks at some level.
Everyone has the right to their feelings, but being disrespectful is not an option. If the adults are behaving emotionally or defensively, they need to seek some professional help with processing their own fears and feelings so they will be able to show up mature and stable and earn the family’s respect.
3. Your individual emotional intelligence is vitality important.
If you struggle with strong emotions, losing your temper, feeling mistreated or offended, you may want to seek some professional help to work on your triggers. Do not wait to see if things improve. Get professional help at the first sign of trouble. Every expert I talk to says this is the No. 1 thing they recommend. It is so much easier to fix relationships and families at the onset than to wait until things get really bad.
4. Blame the stepfamily situation, not the people involved.
Lofas says "One of the greatest mistakes is blaming yourself for the feelings and difficulties of the stepfamily situation. Such blame only makes you feel helpless, and it often keeps you from taking steps to deal with the problems."
It is not easy for anyone to be a stepparent. It is not easy for any child to have a stepparent. The entire experience is complicated and, at some level, can be scary or threatening. Everyone needs someone to talk to and resources to help them sort through the emotions involved.
5. Remember that transfer moments can be painful.
Every time children go from one home to the other (these transfer moments), all the pain around the divorce is brought to the surface again. Expect children to struggle and have emotions that can lead to behavior issues at these times. Overlook most of this and give them some room to feel bothered and even act out to some degree, because this type of behavior is natural as they process loss.
6. Everyone will have feelings of guilt.
Parents feel guilty for breaking up the family and loving someone their kids don’t like. Stepparents feel guilty that they can’t feel loving feelings toward these children that don’t belong to them. Children feel guilty for liking the stepparent or for disappointing the parent they aren’t with.
All this guilt leads to feelings of failure, which creates all kinds of bad behavior. A trained professional can help you process the guilt and, again, blame it on the situation, not on yourself.
7. Stepcouples should set rules together — alone.
Stepcouples must spend a great deal of time having validating conversations about rules, consequences, boundaries and who will do the disciplining and how. Do not have these conversations in front of the children. These things need to be worked out in private and then facilitated the right way (usually, this means having the biological parent do the discipline when possible).
Everyone must have a voice and feel heard and validated about their feelings. Even if you disagree, it will go over better if the other party at least feels heard. If you don’t have the skills to have these conversations in a validating and productive way, seek some professional help to learn how.
These are just a few tips and tricks to shine the light on some of the challenges stepfamilies face. In upcoming LifeAdvice articles, I am going to share advice and tips for fathers, mothers and stepparents in their unique roles. There is also a conference on blended families coming to Utah on Jan. 21 that I highly recommend you attend if you have, or are considering having, a blended family.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.