Most people go into a blended family situation desperately wanting to make it work. They've previously suffered from a relationship loss, either by divorce or death, and don't go easily into a new alliance, especially because children—theirs, the new spouse's, or both—are involved. But regardless of how hard they struggle with major issues, the men and women who have created and lived in blended families say it often is the little things that trip you up and lead to the big fallout. According to many experts, over half of all remarriages end in divorce.
Below are twelve ways in which people trip in stepfamilies. Become aware of these potential stumbling blocks so you can keep both your balance and your blended family intact.
- Being impatient
Biological families are created slowly, with the couple having time to get used to themselves as a unit and each other's extended family before a child comes into the fold. In a blended family, however, two thirds of the family exists before the newcomer is admitted. The children have finally gotten used to being with one parent at a time since the divorce and don't welcome yet another change.
Suddenly, the new spouse and addition to the family pops up on the scene. It's like suddenly being the new boy or girl in the classroom or on the team. Everyone else knows the rules and group history but you. Too often the biological parent pushes the new spouse onto a fast track, expecting that the children will automatically fall in love with the stepparent just because he or she did. Just like two positive (or negative) fields of a magnet held together, the kids are repelled to the opposite direction immediately.
Sometimes it is the new stepparent who wants to "prove" that he or she is going to be a great addition to the family. The stepparent tries too hard for affection and approval, and by doing so, inadvertently pushes the kids away because they feel resentful and guilty about this person who is trying to supplant their mom or dad. The harder the stepparent tries to win the kids over, the more they resist. It's frustrating for the adult who only wants to reach out to the loved one's kids.
Remember to keep doing those things you did when you were dating their parent, such as bringing little gifts from time to time, occasionally slipping teens some gas money, or arranging some special time alone with the stepkids. Be patient. Love grows slowly, and it doesn't seem to matter if the stepchild is two or twenty.
"I was twenty-two when my mother remarried," a professional woman said. "My father had died a year ago. His two sons came to live with us too. I terribly resented them all coming into our home. It was ten years into their marriage before I finally accepted it.
"My stepfather tried to be kind and to be there for me. He even took me to a movie once without the other kids (my siblings and his kids) so we could get to know each other better. The movie was Carnal Knowledge. He thought it was "Cardinal," about Catholic priests. We left after the first five minutes and went out to dinner. But I rejected his attempts to get closer and fought to remain loyal to my father's memory. It wasn't until I was well into my thirties that I realized how much I really liked him and how good he had been to all of us. It made me sad to realize how much time and friendship I had wasted."
When I asked her what her stepfather could have done differently, she answered:
"I wasn't very nice to my mother and he tried to protect her. I think it made things worse. He shouldn't have tried to take sides and gotten into the middle of things. He should have encouraged my mother and me to work things out without his involvement."
- Speaking without listening
Babies have it right. They do a lot of listening before they start to babble. And they really don't start talking until they've listened a great deal more. Somehow we adults have lost this ability, and this lacking causes a lot of problems.
When you really listen to your stepkids without thinking about what you're going to do next or how you will respond, you often hear what they're not saying. Their hesitancy to bond with you may be that they're afraid you'll leave them (or die), Just like their biological parent did. They may still be angry with their parents for getting a divorce and their anger spills over to you just because you're there. They also may be saying that you're moving too fast; telling you to just put on a "friend face," as they're not ready to accept another adult in a parenting mask just yet.
If you're the biological parent, you may be jumping in to tell your new spouse to stop criticizing your kids, without listening to discover that maybe they really do need a little tighter rein. You may not hear your spouse's unspoken plead, "Let me be part of the family, rather than a mute who stands by while your kids treat you with disrespect."
Listen before you speak. That's a part of communication too.
- Having to always be right
You probably wouldn't go to a foreign country and begin to tell the natives what they're doing wrong. Yet many stepparents report that they feel a little like the Marines—needed to come in to clean up the mess.
"My stepson was ten when I married his mother," a New England sports personality said. "He had been the man of the house since he was three. I had never had a child so I guess I came on a little too authoritative. My wife still tells me I can't give orders. My advice to others would be not to come on too strong. You have to understand that kids operate by a different set of rules. You have to change the way you listen and speak."
There is more than one way to do most things. Check out the landscape and see what your spouse has been accomplishing as a single parent. If you think yours is a better, faster, more economical, or simpler way, discuss it in private before you suggest it to the children.
"It's different if you've never been a parent before," a thirty-three-year-old architect said. "You need to know something about parenting, developmental stages, and basically, how kids work. Coming in when your stepson is four is a little like opening a book in the middle of Chapter Four, not at the chapter on infancy. Healthy communication with your spouse helps a lot. My wife listens to my advice (even if she doesn't always take it). She thinks it's good to have a partner willing to find solutions. We really work well together."
- Staying angry or bitter
Staying angry or bitter at your ES (or your spouse's ex) is a good way to fall flat on your face in a blended family. Kids can read your expression and hear in your voice that you really hate their other biological parent. It makes them feel disloyal, guilty, and insecure, emotions most parents don't want their kids to feel.
These emotions also are not healthy for you, as they create additional stress, which raises your blood pressure, affects your digestive tract, triggers head and neck aches, and can also affect your immune system. While you don't have to actually like your ES, remember that your kids have his or her genes, too. Put the past behind you. Use exercise to rid yourself of the anger you've stored up. Anger can be harmful to your health and your kids' health as well.
- Arguing for the sake of arguing
George Bernard Shaw said, "The test of a man or woman's breeding is how they behave in a quarrel." Today he might have added, "...with an ex-spouse." Can you honestly say that you have never argued with your ES just for the sake of winning the argument, of proving your point? Chances are the issue really wasn't that important, if indeed you even remember what it was.
Keep your discussions with your ES to the point, focused on what's best for your children. Any time the discussion moves off subject and perhaps onto an issue from your former marriage, pull it (dragging and screaming, if necessary) back to your central concern: your kids.
Still enjoy arguing? Join a debating society.
- Making children the messengers
This is a massive no-no. You might as well play tug-of-war with the kids, substituting them as the rope. When you force your children to carry messages back and forth, you put them in a difficult and stressful position. They feel resentful at being used—which they are—and disloyal to one or both of you. (They also may mess up the message and quote you incorrectly.) What's more, when you make your kids your messenger, you also are empowering them to represent you. Are you really sure you want to do that?
If you really are miffed that the kids come to stay with you looking like characters from Oliver Twist, call Fagin (or Ms. Fagin) yourself and ask that the kids be returned in the clothes they were wearing when they went to "the other" house. Better yet, ask yourself if, in the real scheme of things, it is all that important. Just keep the good stuff at your house.
Don't have the kids ask the other spouse for money, either. If you haven't received your child support, that's an issue to be discussed by adults, not kids. If you need to put someone in the middle, make it your lawyer.
- Using money as a power play
Using money as power play should be restricted for games of Monopoly only. Don't use it for punishment, such as telling your ES that he or she can't have the kids because the child support money is late. When you do that, you punish your kids, who may have been looking forward to seeing their other parent. You may turn out to be the bad guy.
If you're the steppparent, don't try to buy your stepchildren's favor by getting expensive gifts or paying for lessons in order to outshine your spouse's ES. The kids will probably see through your attempt, accept your expensive gifts, and then resent you for thinking they could be bought. Kids work in mysterious ways.
- Forgetting that the children's well-being is your first priority
It's easy to get so caught up with "getting even" with your ES that your motive for most of your actions and decisions is revenge. Try changing this destructive attitude by using a technique known as "thought stopping." It involves changing your thoughts by consciously replacing them with a positive and healthier message. You can't hold two thoughts in your head simultaneously, so if you're thinking, "This discussion is for the good of my kids," you can't also be thinking, "This son-of-a-gun is going to tell me he can't pay for camp again," or worse, "She always makes me question my parenting skills."
Practice banning all violent or emotional language and substituting an objective approach. If necessary, repeat a calming mantra, such as "Avoid emotional traps." You may quickly discover that not only are your encounters with your ES less stressful, but that he or she also becomes less emotional and more objective during your meetings.
- Neglecting your health
Just as football teams acknowledge an enthusiastic crowd as "the twelfth man," you and your spouse need to acknowledge the presence of the other biological parent as having an influence over your lives. Unfortunately, it may not always be a positive one. While you can control just how invasive the influence may become, it is there, and to deny that fact is not facing reality.
This added person in your lives often places extra stress on your new marriage, which can have harmful and often debilitating effects on your physical and emotional health. In addition, many remarriages involve two-career couples, which adds to the stress level. Be aware of these added pressures and take extra care to protect your health. This includes:
* maintaining a balanced diet
* making exercise a part of your lifestyle
* utilizing stress reducing techniques such as massage, relaxation exercises, yoga, biofeedback, meditation, and self-hypnosis
* avoiding known harmful activities, such as smoking, use of illegal drugs, excessive use of alcohol, and overexposure to the sun
* seeking therapy, if needed
* getting enough rest.
While you may laugh at the possibility of your ever getting enough rest, it is a vital and often overlooked part of reducing stress.
- Trying to take the place of the biological same-sex parent
Many new stepparents express a desire to bond immediately with the stepchildren. Unfortunately, it's probably a wish that is bound to be unfulfilled. As stated throughout this book, it takes time for real trust and love to develop and grow. Stepparents who have no children of their own seem to be the most inclined to jump right in. Those who do get bruised and their feelings hurt.
"Although I would love to have my four-year-old stepson call me 'Daddy,' 1 wouldn't ask him to. I know he'd feel disloyal to his own dad doing that," said a stepfather of less than a year. "I try to stay open to his needs, not mine. I have different skills than his natural father, and share those with my stepson."
- Forgetting to laugh
The English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, said "A good laugh is sunshine in a house." And so it is. Laughter reduces stress as it relaxes facial muscles and turns off the "fight or flight" response. It teaches children to laugh at themselves and take things in perspective, so they can learn from mistakes, rather than agonizing over them or becoming frozen for fear of repeating errors.
In her book, The Male Stress Syndrome, author Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., includes in her checklist of behaviors that may identify potential marital stresses, "I seem to have no sense of humor when I am at home."
That's not to say that there aren't problems in merging two families. There are. But laughter and the use of kind and gentle humor can help smooth over some of the rough spots. Make sure laughter finds a place in your blended family home.
- Closing your heart to love
You may not realize that you have closed your heart to love. But the need for self-protection runs deep. You may be afraid to share your children with their stepparent because some hidden part of you fears the stability of your new marriage. "After all, if my first marriage failed ..." you whisper in the secret part of your soul. So you protect yourself from vulnerability, not realizing that in giving and receiving love we must risk being vulnerable, must open our heart.
Those who are stepparents may deeply love their mate, but keep their heart closed to the stepchildren for the same reason: fear of failure. But the best way to bond with these children is to open your heart to them, and yes, to risk being rejected, to risk being hurt, and to risk losing them if your marriage fails. But oh ... the benefits are grand.
- How Can You Keep From Tripping?
You can keep from tripping by employing the same techniques you use when you find yourself in a strange hotel room and know you may need to get up in the middle of the night.
* Take notice of your surroundings
* Become aware of potential dangers
* Remove obstacles so you won't trip over them
* Use a night-light (otherwise known as love), to help you find your way.
Avoiding The 15 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make: A Pediatrician'S Perspective
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