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Successful Step-Parenting

When two people chose to remarry with children, they must commit to the complexity of marrying both as parents and as a couple. In other words if they want to keep their marriage together, they must keep their parenting together. This parental dimension to their union requires additional communication, as they not only need to learn how to function as a couple, but as a family, as well. The biggest mistake that stepparents make are trying to make the stepfamily just like a copy of a nuclear family. Stepfamilies are not the same as nuclear families. They are very different and by having a preset notion of what a stepfamily is and forcing it to fit into a mold you are creating problems that could have been avoided

The first Adjustment

Before remarriage, there might have been a certain honeymoon harmony among all, with everyone on his/her best behavior, playing together but still not living together. However, once they actually form a blended family unit, the easy-going shine quickly wears off, and hard reality sets in. Now, differences between stepparent and stepchildren over household conduct, between parent and stepparent over child raising, between parent and children over respect for the new marriage, begin to dominate the idyll, causing conflicts as incompatibilities become hard to deny and harder to accept. It can frustrate a remarried mother or father to have a child whose discontent threatens to spoil the happiness that parent seeks. "Why must you make things so difficult at a time when I want everything to go well?" At this point it is worth remembering that remarriage is an adult decision, selfishly made, at least of one of the parents, for his or her personal happiness. Like divorce, it is not a decision made by the child or necessarily pleases the child who may feel jerked around by family changes over which he or she has no control. "I liked things better living with my parent alone, and I still miss having Mom and Dad and us all together". Divorce and remarriage both create a powerful conflict of interest between parent and child. These family changes are chosen to advance happiness of the parent, to some degree at the child's felt expense.

The Children’s adjustment

The transition from marriage - to divorce - to remarriage creates a lot of changes for the child to accept. By divorcing, the life together in the original family ends and creates separate households. Remarriage means learning to live on daily intimacy with a stepparent whose ways are unfamiliar and who is in many ways a stranger. Additional in the original family, both parents were fully there; divorce meant one parent was always gone; and with remarriage the resident parent is only partly there. "I get less time with my parent now that my stepparent is here." Also in the original family, the child assumed the parents would always be together; divorce meant accepting they would never be together again; remarriage means parent and stepparent will be together for the foreseeable future. "First they tear up the old family, then they expect me to get used to a new one!" Finally in the original family, parents were the same, as the child had always known them; after the divorce each parent starts making personal changes; and with remarriage the influence of the stepparent changes how the mother or father has always parented. "What I hate most about your remarriage is the way you've changed!"

Bonding and acceptance

Central to the dream of a happy remarriage may be the dream of a loving bond between child and stepparent. Chances for this to occur are largely dependent on how old the child is at the time of remarriage. The period of age when acceptance tends to become harder is at the beginning of early adolescence, around years nine or ten, when the developmental separation from childhood usually begins. Below that age, attachment is more likely to occur; but above that age, adolescence makes bonding much more difficult because divorce and remarriage tend to intensify the natural grievance and rebellion of adolescence. The sense of injury and being treated unfairly by disruptive family change can fuel the young person's anger. The stepparent is an easy target for this resentment since in this relationship there is no history of love, so there's no love to lose. Now the stepparent/stepchild relationship is easily inflamed by mutual blame, each one scapegoating and stereotyping the other for what is wrong in the family, pitting the "evil" stepparent who is always "mean and moody" against the "no good kid" who is " bad mannered and uncooperative."

Dealing With Differences

When two cultures come together for the first time, some clashes are bound to occur. "Whose way is the right way?" is the common issue in many conflicts. Stepparent and parent (plus children) need to work out on whose terms they will live and which way of family life will prevail. The outcome is always some mix of the two and the stepfamily starts creating a cultural identity of its own.

In remarriage, stepchildren come to represent the cultural difference between parent and stepparent. To attack each other, arguing over who is right and who is wrong, will not serve the new marriage partners well. It will only polarize and antagonize their relationship. Parent and stepparent will never see the children through the same perceptual lens. Typically, the parent sees the child more affirmatively ("He is really trying!"), and the stepparent sees the child more critically ("He is not trying hard enough!"). The parent (attached and approving) tends to see the glass (the child) as half-full, and the stepparent (fatigued and frustrated) tends to see the glass as half empty. Parent and stepparent need to turn their contrasting perspectives to advantage. What the parent has to offer is consistency and acceptance. What the stepparent has to offer is distance and perspective. It is this mix of parental acceptance and stepparent perspective that can be combined to great advantage, depth of caring and breadth of vision both contributing the children's well being.

How to succeed as stepparent

Being a stepparent is one of the most difficult roles any adult will ever assume. So much frustration can be avoided if you can agree on some very basic definitions of that role. The best way to handle the challenge efficiently is to begin with an open and candid discussion about the fears and expectations regarding the relationship with the children. Both parent and stepparent should know what the other expects concerning the stepparent's involvement in guiding, supervising and disciplining the children. Once you understand each other's expectations, you have a place to start shaping what the stepparent role will be and by narrowing your differences it becomes easier to identify what you can agree on.

1. Look at it from the child’s point of view

Unless the child is a toddler, all children want their parents together. They do not see the problems that their parents have as sufficient reasons for separation. They never really accept the fact that their parents would never reconcile. The arrival of the step parent make the change permanent and the children see the step parent as the person who killed all the chances of reconciliation. Now you understand why most of the times, children are hostile to the stepparent. So be patient and make them understand that you are not taking the place of their real parent. You are a different adult in their life to offer them friendship and companionship so never insists that they call you mum or dad. Allow them to decide what they want to call you – and respect that. Reach out and focus on pleasurable things rather than establishing an order immediately.

2. Set ground rules with your spouse

Both biological parents and stepparents should discuss the rules of the house and negotiate an agreement for what standards the children will be held to. This element of family life should be subject to the same negotiation and joint ownership as any other family situation.

3. Leave the punishments for the real parent

Reinforcement of the rules would always mean punishments when they are broken. Let the rule be that the real parent will name the punishment – at least until the stepparent is fully accepted. This way, the children will not see the stepparent as the enemy. Though it is not recommendable for the stepparent to be a direct disciplinarian, it's extremely important that the stepparent is an active supporter of the biological parent's disciplinary efforts.

4. Talk, talk, talk

Learn to dialogue with your stepchildren. This is one of the most effective ways to break prejudice and build acceptance. Talk with each one of the stepchildren and listen deeply to what they say. Spend some time together without the parent present. In this situation there is no parent time and attention to fight for, so each is usually more open to finding ways to get along. Be there for them when they need you – and be aware that many times they will not ask for your help. You will have to offer it.

5. Be supportive

The stepmother or -father should actively support the childs relationship with the biological mother or father no longer in the home. This may require some real internal commitment on your part, but don't let your jealousy or envy get in the way of the bond and history they share together. Be realistic about the connection that will always exist between biological parents and their children and be supportive of that relationship.

6. Be aware of equality

If you're the stepparent in a truly blended family, where both you and your spouse have children being merged into a "yours, mine and ours" scenario, you must be very careful not to favourite your own children in such a way that they enjoy a better standard of treatment than your stepchildren. As time goes by and you share life experiences with your stepchildren, there will be a levelling of emotions toward all of the children and they will be more accepting of the biological bond. In the meantime, you should be hypersensitive to the need to deal with the children equally by e.g. quantifying and balancing the time, activities and money spent on biological and non-biological children.

7. Use family meetings to solve problems

It is extremely important that everybody feels responsible of solving problems in the family. Organize meetings with the whole family and let everyone raise their opinion. Given the age of the children and the intensity of the problem you will either reach a collective decision or the adults will decide based on sound judgement and experience.

8. Do not compete with the real parent

In your anxiety to please the children and build a relationship, do not fall into the trap of copying their real parent. You need to stick to your own personality, build new traditions in the house, and obtain a separate, yet very important place in the children’s heart.

9. Be loyal to the real parent

Whatever be the reason of the divorce and whatever be the flaws in the real parent – never ever berate her/ him in front of the children. Even if they are the worst possible human beings, it is not your place to make the children aware of it. As they grow they would understand things on their own. You would only need to help them discover you and your love for them.

10. Be genuine

It is important that the stepparent do not have unrealistic expectations about their level of closeness or intimacy with the stepchildren. Relationships are built, and it takes time and shared experiences to create a meaningful one. The best thing you need to do during the time you are busy building a relationship is to be genuine. You should also be aware that the child may be experiencing a fair amount of emotional confusion and may in fact feel guilty that they're betraying their biological mother or father by having a close and caring relationship with their stepparent. Great care and patience should be taken to allow the child to work through those feelings. Let the bonding come by naturally and be aware that children have a special gift of sensing authenticity. So unless you are genuine, you will never be able to pick up any serious bonding.

In summary, talk frequently about good and bad experiences and evaluate your approach. Learn to see the challenge from the other's point of view, that way you will be more supportive and understanding of each other. If both of you have good intentions and a loving heart, this can be worked out.

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