Fixing Families

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Stepfamily Success

Creating a stepfamily is a challenge: 5 common mistakes to avoid

All stepfamilies come with challenges - the combining of different households and family cultures, the weekend visitations, the dealing with exes, the confusion that the children feel in trying to make sense not only of the divorce, but now this new parent and stepbrothers and sisters that they didn't ask for. The stress can take its toll. It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the struggles between stepparents and stepchildren are one of the primary causes of second divorces. The move from divorce to singlehood to stepfamily certainly requires time and patience, but like most life transitions also benefits from some awareness and skill. Here are the most common mistakes you want to avoid:

Disciplining too soon. One of the big, yet easy, mistakes that a lot of new stepparents make is stepping in a disciplinarian too soon. While the intentions may be good, the kids are likely to show resentment, rather than respect - the proverbial "You're not my father!"

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This is particularly true for teens who are likely to see the stepparent as nothing more than another authority telling him what to do. The antidote to a child or teen's resistance is a supportive relationship. Hold back and develop a connection before taking any disciplinarian role. If your partner needs support, be the sideline coach or sounding board, but let him or her take the lead. Once a strong trusting relationship is established, gradually step up the discipline.

Nurture first, discipline second.

Failing to develop individual relationships. Each child in a family will have a different response to a stepparent - one child quickly warming up, while another remains aloof. Children who are particularly close to the other natural parent may hold back, believing that they become close to the stepparent they are in some way being disloyal.

The way around this emotional quagmire is remaining patient while at the same time initiating one-on-one activities. Choose places and activities - movies, picking up a pizza, playing cards or legos - that offer comfortable distractions to break any awkwardness, yet allow you to step out of your "parent" role, and give you both an opportunity to engage and enjoy each other's company. Whenever the child talks, be quiet and listen. If the mood seems right throw out quick, one-liner questions - "It seems like you are not excited about coming here some weekends. How come? Is it hard to move between two houses?" - and see what happens next.

What's likely to happen next is not much - a "It's okay" or grunt, though you might be surprised. Whether the child or teen talks about themselves or not is less important than your showing an interest in his world, and by casually bringing up topics letting him know what type of things can be talked about.

Build your stepfamily one relationship at a time.

Not having clear rules and routines. Dealing with sibling rivalry can be difficult in the best of families, and are quickly multiplied in stepfamilies. Stepfamilies need nurturing yet strong leadership. Clear and enforced rules and routines - knowing when and how chores or homework are to be done, having a consistent and age-appropriate bedtime routines, understanding that hitting will not be tolerated and has consequences - helps children and teens feel safe and able to settle. In their absence - when rules seem arbitrary, when enforcement is inconsistent or non-existent - children are prone to not only test the limits and act out more, but being essentially leaderless and anxious, argue and fight among themselves. Unable to relax and trust, they can't develop positive relationships with each other across family lines.

When setting priorities and expectations, keep the children's differing developmental needs and personalities in mind. Younger children, for example, tend to thrive with parent-set routines, while older children and teens may grumble a bit and appreciate more say in establishing their own. Be careful the quiet middle child doesn't get lost in the shuffle, that the loudest or oldest doesn't dominate the others, or that one child acts up and learns to only get attention in a negative way. Anytime any of the children is doing what is expected of him, reinforce the positive behavior with praise.

And when misbehavior does arise, act calmly but decisively and follow through with consequences. If conflicts arise between siblings try to be more the mediator, less the arbitrator. If necessary help them both to calm down. Once they are, help them talk about and work through their own solutions to their problem.

Realize that while you can make sure that the children are respectful to each other, you can't make them like each other. This they will have to do at their own pace. What you can do, however, is encourage their interaction - asking an older stepbrother to help a younger one with his math homework, having two stepdaughters go with you to pick out a new dress for a special event, or creating a family ritual of Friday night pizza and DVD that the kids have to decide upon among themselves. Through your leadership and this mix and match approach, the children will not only get to know each other better and build their own relationship, but will, through their shared experiences, create shared memories.

Provide the structure the children need.

Not being on the same page. As all the other tips suggest, none of this really works unless you both as parents are able function together as a team. Divided parents create divided children. They may fight among themselves, act out their anger, or fall into depression. Inconsistency and cracks in the family structure will encourage them to play one parent against another, and leave the children feeling that the parents are not reliable, that life is unfair and arbitrary.

While your natural instincts as a parent are to protect and defend your own children when situations become difficult, the counter-intuitive but better approach is to protect each other as parents instead. Think of yourselves as cops sharing the same beat. When you are on the same page, are able to discuss and decide on clear rules, are able to see yourselves as the leadership team first, and advocates for your children second, you avoid the divisions that can develop in stepfamilies. You need to agree on the ground rules, and be able to back each other up, especially when one of you is feeling stressed. Your support provides the balance that can prevent the over-reaction or the giving in.

Work together as a team.

Not making time as a couple. If being on the same page is the administrative side of parenting, making time for yourself as a couple is the true connecting side. Unfortunately, it's easy for this side to wither even in the best of circumstances given our frantic lifestyles. When you add the stresses and challenges of stepchildren to the mix, this part of a relationship can quickly be pushed to some back corner.

Don't let this happen. Make time for yourselves - the date night, the times after the kids go to bed or before they get up in the morning. Resist the urge to stay glued to the TV or computer. Instead take the time to talk about your day, talk about yourselves. Periodically take stock of what is working well, decide on what needs to changed or fine-tuned. Take the time to remember why it is that came together in the first place. This is what will help you both weather the normal ups and downs that come with change.

Put your relationship on the front burner.

So there you have it - mistakes to avoid and keys to success. Again remember creating your family is less a project more a process, one that requires clarity, commitment and sensitivity. Learn from your mistakes, pat yourselves on the back often, keep a sense of humor. With patience and perseverance you are both bound to succeed.

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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