Having a stepfamily is more common than you may think. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, half of the nation’s 60 million children under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. That is a huge number!
Author Michael H. Popkins, PhD offers us some key points to remember when starting a stepfamily.
#1. Don’t minimize the loss.
The impact of major loss on a child, whether by death, divorce, or other family changes, creates a psychological wound that requires healing. Without healing, children often act out their pain through misbehavior, depression, or physical ailments.
– Parents can assist in the healing process in a number of ways, including:
– Providing a loving and nurturing environment
– Talking with the child about his/her painful feelings (such as anger, sadness, hurt, and mistrust) in a supportive, non-judgmental way
– Helping the child develop healthy coping skills (like writing in a journal, talking with peers and adults, playing sports, making new friends, and schoolwork— whatever works for that child)
– Being patient. It often takes a year or more to heal from loss. Don’t take a child’s misbehavior personally. Remain loving and use firm but respectful forms of discipline when necessary. Remember that it is the deep pain the child is experiencing that is causing the inappropriate behavior.
#2. Explore hidden expectations.
All parents and children have expectations of how the family will work. “What is acceptable behavior and what isn’t?” “How clean do we keep the house, and the kids’ rooms in particular?” “Which jokes are appropriate and which ones aren’t?” The list is endless.
These issues are a challenge for any family, but the learning curve is particularly sharp for stepfamilies. “Will she get mad if I say that?” “Will I be expected to make my bed perfectly?” “Gosh! I didn’t expect that!”
The key to understanding expectations is to “get them on the table” so everyone knows what the expectations are and can discuss them openly. This means lots of family meetings with kids over the age of 5 or 6, using phrases like, “In our family we ______(say a prayer before eating, take a bath every day, don’t hit each other”— whatever your values and traditions dictate.).
Remember that children have expectations, too. Discussing with—rather than dictating to children will help them feel part of their new blended family. Be flexible so you can pay attention to the child’s needs as well as your own values.
#3. Establish limits and boundaries.
Any family must set behavioral limits and boundaries—in other words, what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Some limits may be strictly defined, such as where it is and isn’t OK for kids to play. Others, however, may be more abstract, such as not treating anyone in the family disrespectfully. As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the more important it is to have a very firm boundary.
In stepfamilies where no common history exists between family members, parents have an additional challenge: they must set clear limits quickly, before major misunderstandings arise. Again, involve the children in this process. Negotiate these limits, but only within the boundaries of your family values and the specific situation.
In general, four key boundary areas must be addressed:
This includes letting kids know where they can and can’t go, how neat they need to keep their room and other rooms in the house, and how they can decorate their room.
Is it OK to watch TV on school nights? If so, how much? What about other kinds of “screen time” (computers, video games, etc.)? How much time will be spent on homework, sports, and other recreation?
How much is available for allowances, vacations, clothing, and other wants and needs? How can kids earn more money?
When do children need to ask permission and when don’t they? Who is responsible for discipline?
#4. Don’t forget to address sexuality.
It is important that parents address issues of privacy and sexuality early on. Establish rules for knocking on doors before entering rooms, wearing modest clothing in the home, and respecting what makes each person uncomfortable.
These boundaries are particularly important when you have one or more teenagers living in the home. It is also important for adults to recognize and accept that members of a stepfamilies who are not biologically related will sometimes have sexual feelings for each other.
While the feelings themselves are not necessarily a problem, acting on these feelings is a problem. Parents need to set and reinforce their own internal boundaries against acting on such feelings, know how to recognize when a problem exists, and get appropriate professional help if they need additional support.
#5. Establish an effective discipline style.
Because each parent has his/her own discipline style, it can be confusing and even scary for a child to have another authority figure enter his/her life. How strict is my step-parent? How will I be punished? Is my new stepdad a “pushover”?
Reassure children that while discipline may sometimes be necessary in your home, it will be fair, and won’t be violent. This means that you will be neither a dictator nor a doormat, but will strive to be the kind of parent who uses discipline judiciously.
Let children know that you expect them to abide by family rules. If they break a rule, emphasize that there will be a consequence to help them remember it better the next time.
Be sure to let them know they can always talk with you about your discipline decisions and that you won’t yell at them or insult them. Make sure they understand that you don’t think that those types of discipline are respectful, and in your family you always strive to treat each other respectfully.
How do you help your family blend effectively? Share your tips with other parents.
Do you know a family that can use these tips. Share this article with them.
MICHAEL H. POPKIN, PH.D.
Michael is the author of over 25 books and curricula on parenting, including Taming the Spirited Child and Active Parenting of Teens. Dr. Popkin earned a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University and served as Director of Child and Family Services at an Atlanta hospital before entering private practice.
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