Successful Stepparenting

By: David J. and Bonnie B. Juroe

Some professional counselors and sociologists have projected that during this decade, at the present accelerated rate, one in every three children will undergo the trauma of the divorce and remarriage of at least one of their natural parents. We must take notice of this alarming social phenomenon. The instability of the American family can no longer be swept under the rug. Nor can Christian families continue to say, “It can’t happen to us.” It can and is happening with great regularity just as in non-Christian families.

So far as we know, there have been no major studies comparing statistics in Christian versus non-Christian divorce and remarriage. Our contacts in the counseling field report that church-going people don’t always have the ability to handle the serious problems encountered in breakups or in the blending of two families into what is commonly called the stepfamily. The reason is that we are not dealing exclusively with spiritual problems when people are traumatized over the loss of the home life they’re used to. As Christian counselors, we’ve discovered there are psychological truths that Christians need to learn to help them better apply the Bible to their own lives. Human emotions come into play, and they – as well as spiritual principles – must be looked at and understood for what they really are. Attention to behavioral and temperamental problems will have little effect unless the underlying raw feelings are dealt with.

Let us now focus on some of the major myths that are encountered concerning many stepfamily situations.

Myth #1 – You Have to Be Perfect

In looking at ourselves and observing others, we have clearly seen that nearly all stepparents have a great need for reassurance. Well-meaning stepparents truly do want to succeed, because they’ve accepted a major challenge. In fact, some are absolutely consumed with proving themselves. Experientially, we’d almost have to say that unrealistic expectations may be the biggest trap for stepparents. What this does is make them very vulnerable to discouragement when things don’t work out to their liking.

The first step in preventing attitudes of perfectionism is to realize your limitations. Accept your humanness, and always remember that you are dealing with a family that is lacking biological ties. Many people whom we have counseled think that everything will work out because they are familiar with a traditional family system; they are adults; they are loving and eager to give it a try; and they are Christians. But people fool themselves by holding onto high expectations and fantasies such as: “It will be just like having my own kid.” In many, many cases that fantasy blows up in a person’s face and, inevitably, hurt follows.

You will be way ahead of the game if you accept the idea that, initially, you are an outsider. Once this reality is recognized and accepted, the stepparent is better equipped to face the possible hurts down the road. Our experience and work with stepparents reveal that it may take years before a strong bond or kinship is created with the stepchildren if ever.

When we began our own stepfamily, we suffered from very lofty expectations. Even though we had much counseling experience, popular reading material led us to believe that if we just filled our home with lots of love, we could win over all the children in a year or so. Alas, we found that the problems and tensions wentmuch deeper than anticipated.

Adding to our problem was the fact that high expectations were not only held by the world in general but by such groups as the church, relatives, welfare agencies and counselors: The stepparent is to act just like the real parent.

In her book The Half-Parent, Brenda Maddox says that step-parenting is little like natural parenting, even though that is what is expected. The clarity, she says, that one finds in natural families is often absent in stepfamilies.

Unrealistic expectations do abound, and they are too numerous to deal with in a booklet of this kind. But trying to be perfect by fulfilling what you think people expect of you can lead to failure and untold guilt.

Myth #2 – Children Can Adapt Easily in Stepfamilies

The emotions of stepchildren, we’ve found, are often more sensitive than those experienced by children in a natural family. When a stepchild is jolted by some harsh circumstance – whether by the death of a parent or by the divorce of his parents – he is going to feel it very strongly.

A second myth perpetuates the view because children are young or are not yet adults, they can easily adapt to any situation, including living in a stepfamily. We have found this is not true. Stepchildren go through incredible trauma – first through the trauma of divorce and then the trauma of the remarriage of their parents. And the remarriage is almost as big a shock as the divorce. A divorce may shatter the relationship between a child’s parents, but he is part of both of them forever. Older people can have new spouses and ex-spouses, but there is no such thing as an ex-mother or an ex-father to a child. In the mind of a youth, a parent is always a parent – whether alive or dead – and that bond can never be severed no matter how a child’s life might be altered in terms of family arrangement.

Also, adapting to change is extremely difficult for many stepchildren because they may be afraid of losing some of their power or responsibilities. For example, a girl who has been used to doing a lot of the cooking or keeping house for her father is probably going to resent another woman coming in and taking over. A young man who has been used to helping his mother with family responsibilities will possibly resent another man around the house. Such an intrusion makes adaptation to change very difficult because it upsets the balance of the home.

Conflicting and very intense emotions within stepchildren often make it difficult to deal with change. Because of their frustrations they can become constantly resentful, consistently sly and deceitful. They become extremely defensive, suspecting everyone, and they will often reject offers from those who may make the friendliest gestures to reach out to them.

We need to remember that children are still children, even though their outward adaptation to complex issues may make them seem like adults. There is a danger of parents accepting this display for true maturity. It may be especially difficult for older stepchildren to relinquish their “adult-like” soles, and because of this, they may have a greater problem accepting the stepfamily arrangement.

In addition, remember that all children will manipulate others for attention or play one parent against another. They will fight with their brothers and sisters and struggle to find their own identities. They will withdraw emotionally when hurt and lash back in anger when they feel rejected. Children in stepfamilies will do the same thing but frequently with more intensity. As we shall see, their defense structures may be so rigid and thick that they have trouble dealing with their emotions. Insecurity is often very great because of what counselors call the “double whammy”: First there is the tremendous shock of loss in the original family, then comes the remarriage.

John and Emily Visher, two pioneers in stepfamily therapy, explain why it is more difficult for stepchildren than for others to adjust to change. Because of their grief and fear of the possibility of another loss, they find it hard to get close in new relationships. This can make them very anxious and guilty whenever they discern tension in the new family.

Once you discard the myth that stepchildren have to be like other children when it comes to acceptance of change, it can alter your whole outlook. When your tolerance level goes up, you can reach out in more caring and helpful ways to your stepchild.

Myth #3 – Stepchildren Quickly Get Over Loss

When a child loses a parent, the feelings of loss can be very devastating. It may be felt for years without much letup. There is an erroneous tendency to believe that because a child has gone through great trauma or suffering, he will be better prepared to handle it in an adult fashion.

However, the feelings of loss over the breakup of the original family unit are often increased when a stepparent enters the scene. He or she is a reminder that things have indeed changed and that they may never revert back to earlier days when there was the security of togetherness.

If you want to know just how children feel about the remarriages of their parents, just ask them. One girl told us, “I never want my mother to remarry, and I’ll do everything I can to get in the way if she even considers it.” This girl’s attitude may sound selfish, but it demonstrates how grave is her feeling of loss.

Fortunately, not all children feel this way. For some, Mom’s or Dad’s remarriage may be the greatest thing that could happen to them. But in most cases, when parents remarry, the children are bound to feel some jealousy and to be envious if the non-custodial parent has bettered his lot in life materially and emotionally. Some children want to share in the new life. Others just do not want any part of it.

Take Jerry, for example. As we counseled him, this eight-year-old boy said that he would never go to the house where his mother and her new husband lived. He absolutely could not accept the fact that his mother had a relationship with a man other than his own father. The only way he would see his mother was alone – away from her home at a restaurant, park, sporting event or the like.

Let’s not forget that loss is a mourning process for all human beings regardless of age. Few children quickly get over the pain of losing a parent. Those of us who are stepparents would do well to allow time for the grief process to heal. Sometimes the loss never heals completely, but we must always respect the child who experiences it.

Myth #4 – A Stepfamily Can Operate Like A Normal Family

The most pervasive myth in a remarriage is that the stepfamily can and should function like a biological or natural family.

Many people, including psychiatrists and psychologists, who should know better, erroneously make the assumption that parenting and step-parenting are one and the same thing. They are not! When you realize this, you may well be on the right road to dealing adequately with the issues ahead. But if you are blinded by this myth, you set yourself up for bitter disappointment, discouragement, disaster or possibly a divorce.

Stepfamilies really are different! A key difference is that a stepparent has assumed the responsibility for helping to raise another individual’s children. Most of us have been conditioned to want our own children not someone else’s.

A second key reason why stepfamilies are different and susceptible to failure is the very nature of groups. Sociology recognizes two basic kinds of groups. First, there is the primary group, comprised of family and close, intimate friends. Second, there is the secondary group, or those with whom contact is more formal and less personal. Relations are far less intimate in this group.

At the outset, one of the major problems in blending a stepfamily is that you are trying to establish relationships in a primary environment (home) with people who are in the secondary group. The resulting tension leads to great stress because there’s a lack of intimacy, privacy and feeling of support from a secondary person.

Furthermore, sociologists tell us that the highest form of stress is incurred when an individual feels that he has no control over his life. (This is most clearly shown when elderly people enter rest homes and are stripped of almost all responsibility.) A stepparent may feel so powerless that it causes ongoing stress. This feeling of not being in control can be the greatest form of stress for human beings and has caused the demise of many stepfamilies.

Finally, it is extremely difficult to prepare for the step-parenting experience. We are all shown how to be fathers and mothers by our parents, but who ever told us how to be stepparents? Probably in 10 or 15 years this will change as more people become stepparents. But for now, most people are left to sink or swim on their own.

You can, however, make your home more livable for your stepfamily if you keep in mind one thing: The blended family is incredibly more complex because of the stressed emotional relationships. We heard one person aptly describe it this way: “There are too many people in a second marriage. If life in a biological family is like playing a game of chess, life in a stepfamily is like playing five games of chess simultaneously.”

Myth #5 – Stepmothers Are Wicked Creatures

There is perhaps some small kernel of truth to the fictional idea about “wicked stepmothers.” Sometimes a stepmother is hostile toward her husband’s children. Sometimes the children fear her as a competitor and become jealous of her relationship with their father. The stepmother does intrude and she does threaten children’s fantasies of their natural parents reuniting. She is all these things and more just because she is there. It may have nothing to do with her character, personality or values. This often is true for stepfathers as well, but usually in a much milder form.

Nearly all literature written on the subject of stepmothers agrees that she becomes the pivotal issue or battleground in the stepfamily. This is primarily true because the home seems always to revolve around the mother figure no matter who she may be. A foster mother would fit the same category. If things go wrong, the finger is usually pointed at the female figure.

Maybe the stepmother lends support to the myth because, in a sense, she “digs her own grave.” She probably puts the pressure upon herself by wanting to perform well. By putting her own needs (to be the rescuer) above those of the children, she may blind herself to the real needs of the stepchildren. She makes her mistake by focusing on the things she has to accomplish instead of on the feelings of the children.

A stepmother can be a better cook, housekeeper and friend than the real mother. She may even believe she has much more to offer the children than the natural mother. But the key issue is not her ability but what the children want!

Another thing making the stepmother’s role so difficult is the legacy bequeathed to her in the form of past mistakes. One such stepmother felt she was “standing on the ruins of someone else’s life and paying for her mistakes.”

Wicked is hardly the term for most stepmothers. We’ve found nearly all of them to be very caring persons who really do “have heart.” Most have great courage if they didn’t, they would not have accepted the challenge in the first place. Most are honest and sensitive, and nearly all want the best for the children. To consider them “evil” brings a blight to a large segment of our community.

Many Pressures Leave Stepfamilies Vulnerable

The problems experienced by all members of a stepfamily provide one of the greatest challenges in family life today. The emotional pressures in the stepfamily cause an undercurrent of strong feelings that is unique. It is folly to ignore these pressures for the sake of peace and harmony. We’ve mentioned five major myths or beliefs that need to be dealt with for better stepfamily living. There are still other false ideas that may make such a family more vulnerable. Take for example a father who remarries and keeps his children with him. The stepchildren may: (1) believe that his new wife broke up their parents’ marriage whether she did or not; (2) think that the new woman is keeping their father from going back to their mother; (3) hold to the idea that the stepmother is either ignorant or just plain dumb because she doesn’t do things the way their mom used to.

These pressures can create tremendous disharmony. Virginia Satir, in her book People-making, describes the atmosphere in a troubled family. It is easily recognizable, she says. You can just feel the tension – it is usually cold. The atmosphere may be extremely polite, especially when non-family members are around. But you can sense that everyone is bored, or the air is sometimes full of secrecy. There is little evidence of friendship or joy in one another. Bodies are still and tight, or slouchy. Faces look sullen, sad or blank. People just try to tolerate each other.

This same description applies to stepfamilies and may be even more pronounced.

As stepfamilies face the stresses and problems that are unique to them, children nearly always are the key to success or failure. In our counseling, many stepparents tell us that the only time they fight is over the children. Kids can do great damage to the adjustment of the newly remarried couple. The children can be experts on how to play one parent against the other. They can accuse parents of favoritism or of being too strict. They can be insulting and competitive.

But in coming to an understanding of why children behave the way they do, it is important to realize that they are very likely to be angry and miserable until things settle down and they become more aware of the intentions of both parents. They need to test and test in order to see how far they can go as well as to discover for themselves the level of acceptance and love they may expect from the new parent. While they test, they will quite naturally create many problems.

There are several key reasons why over 50 percent of second marriages don’t make it. The high fatality rate is due to myths and problems that perhaps may be boiled down to three:

* Tremendous anger and resentment among all family members.

* Grave hurts experienced by stepparents and the children.

* Granite-like loyalties tenaciously held on to by children for both natural parents.

Committing yourself to raising another person’s child is a great service and ministry. God saw how important this was. He instructed Moses in the ancient community of Israel to initiate a social pattern for the care of children who had lost a father by death or divorce (“kinsman redeemer”).

Despite all the myths and pressures that harass the stepfamily, God has not left us without hope. The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, said: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” I Corinthians 10:13).

As you are in your stepfamily situation you may be tempted to give up, but if you have an awareness of some of the myths, you can combat them and go on. This awareness is absolutely essential. Remember the following:

* You do not have to be perfect

* Don’t expect your stepchildren to adapt easily

* Your stepchildren may not easily get over feelings of loss

* You do not have to function like a biological family

* Stepmothers are not “wicked” creatures because of their role

How to Raise a Successful Stepfamily

It is our contention that every stepfamily can be successful to some degree. How successful you are will depend upon several key things. Let’s examine 10 principles of successful step-parenting:

1. Success will depend on how hard you try to understand the forces working in your stepchild and yourself. How willing are you to make the effort to combat those forces? Also bear in mind that, although unfortunate, it’s true that in no stepfamily are things exactly like the natural biological family.

We have come to see in our own lives and in some families we counsel that an original family can be such a mess that a stepfamily can actually be an improvement if all will work at it!

Let’s face it, some stepparents are far better equipped to raise a child than his own parent of the same sex. Parents who are immature, noncaring, selfish, irresponsible and insecure seldom produce a child who will become a warm, loving and well-adjusted adult. In many cases we’ve seen that a stepparent who “has it together” is able to do far more for the child.

2. Realize that, all in all, there are few neat, quick answers. Remember that the main task is to prepare children for life. Since this involves a process, instant success is pure fantasy. You are dealing with years of conditioning that make it more difficult. If you look for immediate success, you might be setting yourself up for failure.

3. Positive reinforcement is never a maybe in a stepfamily. It is an absolute must. Such reinforcement and support will eventually lead your children toward independence. Rigidly overprotecting and binding them with multiple rules, however, won’t adequately prepare them to face the realities of life.

Rejection is the culprit when it comes to the most intense emotion in the family. Children who feel rejection on a daily basis will react with bad behavior, acting out and sullenness. This works both ways, too, because children must realize that parents also have their own set of hurts and struggles.

4. You can have a more successful stepfamily if you help your children effectively use coping techniques to counter nonproductive defense mechanisms. Start by learning to recognize these coping tools, and teach your children-by example as well as words more appropriate ways of dealing with the stress and anxiety they are experiencing.

5. You must allow free expression by your children of not only
surface negative or positive feelings but deeper emotions as well. Ask for help when needed. Adults in stepfamilies also use defenses, and they may need to identify them by seeking support groups or an individual counselor.

6. Remove the payoffs for inappropriate behavior in your children by practicing discipline. And, by all means, provide rewards for more appropriate behavior. If the child has difficulty accepting rewards positive responses and compliments for his good behavior – it is a smart idea to make him aware of this.

7. As stepparents, you must not assume a rescuer’s role. Then you won’t expect more than what you might receive if the family doesn’t totally meet your expectations. This is particularly true for women who have a natural mothering or rescuing quality about them. When a child is hurt, such a woman will deeply feel kindness, sympathy and protectiveness. But the very deep emotions she feels could be her downfall. It’s one thing to provide security for a child but quite another to think of one’s self as that child’s savior.

8. Remember that time can work on your side if you are a stepparent. No deep relationship on earth is without its ups and downs, bumps, misunderstandings and hardships. A year or two of living together in the stepfamily can build mutuality and at least enough respect for one another to offer reasonable fulfillment.

9. To be successful, stepfamilies have to be a cooperative effort. This means that more than the stepparent and children have to be involved. The natural, custodial parent is a vital link, too. His or her main task is to back up the spouse who is the stepparent. This person has to let the children know repeatedly that the stepparent has authority. If this does not happen because the natural parent feels guilty or has the emotional need to protect his children, the family is doomed to catastrophic discord in nearly every case. One parent or child is not totally responsible for the success or failure of the family. An individual parent or child who will not blend or even be reached can, however, negatively affect the whole family.

10. God promises rewards to those who rely upon His promises. Sadness and hurt may come your way, but to some measure they may be turned to happiness and personal growth. Remember that in whatever manner you have conducted yourself in the stepfamily in the past, this represented the best you could do at the time. Be humble and admit to mistakes and failure. Then pick yourself up and go on. King Solomon said, “He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who forsakes reproof goes astray” (Proverbs 10:17).

Bear in mind that you don’t have to go it alone, to depend solely upon human resources. The Lord stands ready to assist if you call upon Him: “In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence, and his children will have refuge” (Proverbs 14:26).

This means that even in the difficult world of the stepfamily there is refuge, and it can provide you with a service of fulfillment far beyond comprehension. Although it may be tough going, it does not mean that rearing such a family is impossible on every front. It can provide you with the means to rebuild your own life from ashes by giving yourself away to those who may desperately need your love and caring concern. Rewards? Yes, and many. But if you want quick ones, you’re setting yourself up to be hurt.

We strongly believe that there are rewards for those who do make the effort to care for another’s children. When we became stepparents, we joined a growing host of people who seem to have been given little credit. Each new year over a half million more people fall into this category. Vastly neglected and unrecognized by our society, they need to be seen, in most cases, as real heroes and heroines for they have taken on a most difficult task.

(The above material was published by Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO.)

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