Step Families & Marriage Counselling
Adults in a blended family need to be alert to the needs of their children and patient as the family adjusts. They also need to be aware of their own emotions and allow for their own period of adjustment.
- It may not always be appropriate for a step parent to discipline their step child, especially early on in the relationship.
- Every attempt should be made to be civil and respectful to ex-partners as this shows respect to the child.
Stepfamilies can create wonderful opportunities for the development of new ties and close familial relationships, but even the Brady Bunch had their fair share of problems. Joining a family together to create a new or blended family is always a difficult process. Children may need to adjust to new people in their lives and/or homes, new partners might be jealous of attention given to children of past relationships, step parents may need to resolve their feelings towards their partner’s offspring, and sibling rivalry may take on new meaning.
In most instances, children are rarely enthralled with the prospect of a new parent and many harbour secret hopes that their natural parents will reunite and they can be a happy family once again. In these circumstances, children need to be aided to bring their expectations into alignment with reality, and the adults in a blended family are essential to this process (1). The adults in this situation need to be considerate, patient and loving with their children. However, they also need to be able to deal with their own emotions as they too learn to deal with the realities of a blended family existence.
TOMIKO AND RYAN’S STORY
Tomiko was in her late 30s when she met Ryan, a handsome man who was recently separated from his wife of 20 years. He had two children from this earlier marriage, but it was a difficult marriage and separation and he was determined that he would not return to what had been a miserable relationship. As he and Tomiko dated, it became clear that she was a woman of deep compassion and integrity, qualities he believed were severely lacking in his ex-wife. Over the course of a year, he and Tomiko dated and when his divorce was finalised, he asked her to marry him. Six months later, they had a small wedding and Tomiko moved in.
For her part, Tomiko was thrilled that Ryan had children. She realised that the likelihood of her being able to meet someone who wanted to start a new family was dwindling and she desperately wanted to experience motherhood, even if it was as a step mum. She was more than willing to accept his children, who were in their teens, if only they would accept her. Even after she and Ryan married, she was baffled and hurt at their constant and frequent rejections of her overtures of friendship and acceptance. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney)
Ryan’s children were not happy that their father was remarrying, particularly so quickly after the divorce. They did not understand why their parents separated and divorced and secretly thought Tomiko was responsible since they had started dating so soon after their parents separated, even though this was far from the truth.
After a year of complete frustration on Tomiko’s part and anger and upset on the part of Ryan, they were on the verge of splitting up. A friend recommended that they talk to a marriage counsellor about their problems with the children and Tomiko eagerly set up an appointment with a recommended marriage counsellor.
As Ryan and Tomiko met with Jerry, their marriage counsellor, they were pleased to discover that he had previous experience working with step families, particularly where the children were not supportive of a parent’s remarriage and their new spouse. Jerry spent a great deal of time with Ryan and Tomiko educating them on the role of step parents and how to maintain boundaries with children, while at the same time validating their feelings and encouraging them to communicate their needs. He talked with them extensively about the need to respect Ryan’s ex-wife as a way of respecting the children, and not distancing them. Ryan was able to talk openly and clearly about his hopes and expectations for his newly blended family, and Tomiko was able to truly uncover her own emotions around her new step children
Tomiko gradually learned that she had made an early mistake in trying to become a mother to Ryan’s children. Instead, she learned to lower her expectations and to be friendly but non-threatening, letting Ryan take on and maintain the parental role on weekends where the children were visiting. She learned to be friendly and open with the children, but to not take it personally if they expressed a preference for their mother over her or if they expressed typical teenage disgust at Ryan’s affection toward her.
By defining adult roles within the blended family to meet more realistic expectations, Tomiko’s difficulties with the children eased. Although it took a great deal of time and patience for the children to eventually fully accept Tomiko’s presence in Ryan’s life, Jerry’s contributions to helping Ryan and Tomiko understand the effects of divorce on children and the importance of maintaining appropriate parental boundaries helped significantly during this difficult period of their marriage.
WHEN IS A STEP-PARENT A PARENT?
The role of step-parent largely depends on the age of the child and the continued presence of the other biological parent. In the case of Tomiko and Ryan, the children lived almost full-time with their biological mother and only visited their father on the weekends.
Because they were fully aligned with their natural mother, Ryan’s children had a difficult time accepting Tomiko’s attempts to become “mother” to them. This was not her role with them. Instead, her role was at best to be an adult friend whom they could turn to if they felt they could not or did not want to talk to one of their parents. However, this type of relationship only develops with time and trust. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney)
However, when a child is very young and if the other parent is no longer involved in the child’s life, then a step-parent may be encouraged to take on the parental role by their spouse. This will only work if the child is young enough to accept the step-parent in the role of parent and does not feel conflicted about the new step-parent.
HOW SHOULD DISCIPLINE BE HANDLED?
As with the role of step-parent, the question of discipline should initially only be handled by the biological parent (2). They are the established parent and hopefully have the trust and respect of the child. As a result, when discipline is needed, then it will be of value and not result in further issues and problems between the child and parent. If a step-parent attempts to discipline a child who does not accept their authority, it is possible the child will rebel and feel resentment against both the step-parent and the biological parent. Many problems in blended families are the result of overstepping parental roles and forcing a child to accept an adult they are not yet ready to accept.
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH THE EX-WIFE/HUSBAND?
It was once said, “if you disrespect the parent, you disrespect the child,” when it comes to talking about and dealing with ex-wives and husbands. This is very true and children will definitely pick up on disrespectful comments and disparaging remarks about their other parent. In the case of a blended family where there is shared custody, parents are far better off finding ways to work together in respectful ways regarding custody arrangements, parenting, and other issues which involve their children. It is not necessary to adore your ex, but it is necessary to at least be civil when dealing with them, even if they do not return the respect. What your respect will achieve is respect for your child and their relationship with their natural parent. This type of behaviour will also help children to better respect their own future relationships.
WHAT IF I DON’T WANT MY STEP CHILD AROUND?
Tomiko and Ryan were lucky because Tomiko was excited about the prospect of having step-children and adjusted well to the weekend addition of the children to her home. But this is not always the case and adults in blended families need to allow for the possibility that they might feel ambivalent towards their step children. Common concerns include:
- jealousy over your partners’ attention and love for his/her own children;
- not feeling like you really love your step child;
- concerns about privacy, especially when your step children are teenagers or
even young adults
Adults in this situation need to acknowledge their feelings and allow time for their own period of adjustment. An experienced marriage counsellor or psychologist can help couples sort through the issues surrounding step-children in a calm and conciliatory manner. (This article is electronically protected – Copyright © Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney)
If you and your spouse are dealing with step or blended family issues and would like to meet with a qualified marriage counsellor or receive further advice, contact Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney.
Martin-Uzzi, Michele & Duval-Tsioles, Denise (2013). The Experience of Remarried Couples in Blended Families. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage January 2013, 54(1), 43-57.
Golish, Tamara (2003). Stepfamily Communication Strengths: Understanding the Ties That Bind. Human Communication Research 2003, 29(1), 41-80.