It’s a frightening statistic. One out of every two marriages now end in divorce. Nobody looks forward to a split family. I don’t know of a single person who got married with the intentions to get divorced. However, it can happen, and at times, divorce is necessary for the sake of the spouses and children involved.
However, things can get complicated easily. Mom and Dad separate, children are shared and “co-parented,” and before too long, Mom or Dad often begin to introduce a new person to the family. Whether you are a stepparent entering into a family, or you are the parent introducing a new, important person into your children’s lives, it is important to ensure that the family dynamics that have been in place are not hindered or thrown too far off balance.
The stepparent dynamic does not have to be a rocky road. Blended families can be beautiful, loving, and harmonious. Or they can be disasters. Establishing positive stepparent dynamics in a family is key to securing a bright future for all involved.
What are stepparent dynamics?
One of the biggest mistakes blended families makes is the attempt to make their family like “normal” families. That is, they often refuse to acknowledge the fact that, once Mom and Dad split, things will be different. And that’s okay. Once everyone involved understands that there will be obstacles to overcome, there will be new roles to fill, and that changes will take place, only then can a blended family move toward a harmonious living arrangement.
Being motherly does not make a Mom
Unless the circumstances are extremely unfortunate (such as a parent who has decided to not be involved in a child’s life after a split), chances are the children involved in a stepfamily will be gaining a new relative. I say “relative” and not “parent,” because it is imperative that both stepparents and parents understand that nobody is getting replaced.
This does not mean that a stepmother cannot take on some motherly duties. A stepmother can be just as loving and nurturing as the children’s biological mother, while taking on some motherly roles. However, this should be seen as an added role to the already existent family. A very close aunt or cousin can accomplish the same thing without replacing “Mom.” A stepparent should be viewed, especially in the beginning stages, as a close, mentoring relative, and not a replacement.
Once the children understand that this “new person” in their family is not trying to replace anyone, especially someone as close and cherished as a parent, they can begin to accept the stepparent into their lives.
That “D” word
Discipline tactics is one of the most complex and hard-fought issues within stepfamilies. It is difficult for the biological parents to allow step parents to discipline their children, and it is just as difficult for the child to accept said discipline.
The key here for stepparents is a slow graduation into a disciplining role. At first, biological parents should carry the heavier burden of disciplining their children. As time goes on, and stepparents settle deeper into their role as authoritative and respected figures in the family, they can begin to take on stronger disciplining roles.
It is also absolutely imperative that all parents (both biological and step) sit down and have a progressive discussion about the rules, limitations, and standards that are to be expected when it comes to disciplining the children. Once everyone is on the same page and can provide a united front, the children can then learn to accept any new rules that may come up.
Brace for Conflict
The best way to prepare for this long journey is to accept the fact that there will be conflict. Whether that conflict arises from an ex-spouse, a resentful or confused child, extended family member, or all of the above, know that conflicts will arise and that they will need to be dealt with.
This does not mean that a stepfamily cannot blend peacefully. It simply means that there are no perfect stepfamilies, just as there are no perfect biological families. If a biological family must deal with consistent issues in child rearing, how much more so a blended family?
There are numerous resources for stepfamilies, in which parents and children can speak to and counsel with mediators and experts. Seeking expert help does not imply failure or weakness in family dynamics. Rather, it shows both your children and new spouse that you are willing to put forth the effort to ensure that your family continues to grow and prosper, in spite of any obstacles that may arise.
The National Stepfamily Resource Center is just one place to find a plethora of educational resources as well as special programs and services geared toward helping stepfamilies.