Due to the increasing number of stepfamilies in these modern times, the adjustments to changing family dynamics affect a large segment of the population. Our culture generally fails to provide any kind of blueprint of how to navigate and resolve problems that typically arise in blended family environments. There are some common myths associated with stepfamilies and these misperceptions, combined with unrealistic expectations, help to create confusion and frustration for both parents and children. This article will address some of these myths, discuss some common challenges associated with stepfamilies and will offer some suggestions that might make the transition smoother.
Two common myths associated with blended families fall on a continuum, with one being a very negative view and the other a positive, but unrealistic view. The well known “wicked stepmother” concept has historically portrayed the stepmother (or less often the stepfather) as harsh, demanding and cruel. The mere mention of the word “step”, whether it applies to a man or woman, often elicits negativity and judgment. On the other hand, past and present media has defined the typical blended family in very unrealistic terms which has helped to create distorted views and unrealistic expectations. Modern day sitcoms continue to grossly exaggerate the life of the stepfamily by creating harmonious home environments based on concepts of “instant love” and “a good dose of humor solves all problems”. While it’s impossible for stepfamilies to live up to these standards, many people enter into blended family situations with specific expectations or assumptions that are unrealistic and unattainable.
Identifying and exploring these unrealistic expectations is one of the challenges couples face when blending two separate families. It is beneficial for couples to prepare in advance by identifying specific challenges and to examine motives and expectations as they are preparing to “live in step”. Open communication between partners is essential prior to blending the two families together. In addition to discussing unrealistic expectations, parents will also want to keep in mind that members of blended families have distinctly different personalities, attitudes and personal histories. Blending these individual differences quite naturally creates an environment that will require open-mindedness and patience. It involves compromise and being willing to give and take. Sometimes past hurts and disappointments have not been resolved, both for the parents and the children. This baggage from the past can interfere greatly with the future peace and happiness of the individuals within a stepfamily. It is important for the couple to prepare in advance for pitfalls and to make sure they have dealt with their own individual issues before remarrying.
Children’s adjustment to a remarriage is based on several important ingredients. One of the most important factors that will help in a child’s smooth transition is actually a direct correlation to the couple’s efforts. It is important that parents communicate openly with each other about their feelings, fears, and expectations and attempt to work through their individual issues to ensure that past baggage will not impede the adjustment process. Couples will be giving themselves and their children a tremendous gift if they can create a foundation of emotional stability and centeredness. Since children typically take cues from the important adults in their lives, parents who provide patience, understanding and consistency will fare better than parents who don’t. Time and patience are additional ingredients that will help children adjust to the stepfamily environment. Children deserve to grieve losses, to continue close relationships that are important to them (even if the dynamics have changed through death or divorce), and to have consistency in their lives. Parents must be aware that children will go through the adjustment process at their own pace. If parents can be patient and can convey a sense of understanding, the transition will proceed more smoothly. Parents must also present themselves as a team; this gives the children a sense of stability, cohesiveness and consistency. Communication between couples and learning how to compromise and negotiate is crucial in order for parents to present themselves as a “united front”. Step-parenting is not easy; there is a tendency sometimes to think “mine” instead of “ours” and to expect too much from each other and from the children. Open communication and planning ahead to prepare for possible pitfalls will go along way towards helping build strong, satisfying family relationships.