List the difficulties faced by stepparents.

Describe how you would help a blended family come to terms with the challenges before it. The difficulties faced by stepparents can be numerous, whether it is problems regarding the ex-spouse, the new family or the marriage itself, stepfamilies create their own special challenges that are unique. The new challenges presented by parents, stepparents, halfsiblings, step-siblings and ex-spouses can create new emotions for all who are involved in the family. Is the beginning of a marriage supposed to be a honeymoon or the beginning of a serious of innumerable obstacles?

Stepfamilies have many names, they can be blended, binuclear, combined, integrated, complicated or merged. What is a stepfamily? ‘A stepfamily is one where there is a child or children from a previous relationship, either living with the couple permanently or visiting them on a regular basis’ (Conolly, 1983 p.15) Stepfamilies are becoming increasingly common and statistics cite anywhere up to 30% of all people are now living within a stepfamily. (Jones, 2003) Despite these statistics Minuchin comments that many of us “still think of the nuclear family as the norm- which automatically makes us think that all other shapes as ‘incorrect’.” (Becvar & Becvar, 1996, p.198)

Understanding stepfamily dynamics can be difficult and our culture has given us both the ‘Brady Bunch’ ideal of stepfamilies, where the stepfamily resembles an intact nuclear family to the ‘evil stepmother’ model in childhood stories such as Snow White and Cinderella. Both adults and children have their own expectations of what a stepfamily will be, and combining and adjusting to the differences in the new family life can cause

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some misunderstandings within the family. (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2004 p. 372) Neither example is a realistic portrayal of what modern stepfamilies are.

In reality, a “stepfamily is a family born of loss. There must have been a loss …in order to create a stepfamily” (Conolly, 1983, p.22). This loss must be processed by both the adults and children in the new family so that the new stepfamily can begin its own traditions, rituals and language. If this loss hasn’t been dealt with it can cause problems later on when family members are still mourning the loss of the old relationship when dealing with the problems of the new one.

One of the difficulties that occur in stepfamilies can be role confusion by all members of the family. Balswick and Balswick believe that this is due in part because of the ambiguity of the status of the new family, and that children of stepfamilies can become confused as to what their status actually is in the new family. This can include loyalty issues about their other parent (1999, p.317) when the child can feel conflicted about the new relationship. An important point which may compound this problem is that stepparents must not try and compete with the natural parent. It is an automatic reflex to either be the ‘father’ or the ‘mother’ in the family unit. However, this can cause distress to both the children who feel disloyal liking the new stepparent as well as the adult who will never be able to compete with who, in the child’s mind is the best mother or father in the world.

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Other problems that can occur are discipline issues. There may be a set of unspoken rules that may be not be known throughout the whole family. This can cause confusion and misunderstanding throughout the family system. There may exist two sets of rules that have to be interpreted and integrated by all members of the stepfamily. There is also the issue about who should discipline the children as well, should a stepparent discipline their stepchild or is that better left to the natural parent? All of these issues have to be sorted out if the stepfamily is to function properly. A good way to do this is to sit down with the family and sort out what the ground rules actually are, it opens possibilities for change and can cut down on misunderstandings. (Conolly, 1983 p.142)

Parents need to keep an open dialogue open with their children about their feelings and emotions and not to put unrealistic expectations on them, such as asking for the new stepparent to be called mum or dad or that they have to automatically love the new members to the family whether its step-siblings, a new child and most importantly the new other half of the parental coalition in the household. (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2004, p.372)

Being in a stepfamily requires good communication skills. Developing good communication between each of the family members is important step in helping family members negotiate their place within a new structural framework. In essence, a new language has to be learnt. As one stepmother wrote, “we were using the same sounding words, but because of our histories had been so different that the words had evolved into different meanings” (Conolly, 1983, p.25). The family now has to learn a ‘new language’

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as it were; otherwise jealousy and rivalry due to misunderstandings may become problematic. If alliances and triangles are allowed to form it may put the marriage in difficulty as the marriage relationship in a stepfamily is actually the weakest subrelationship (Balswick & Balswick, 1999, p. 321) As a result in particular the parents of a stepfamily need to be able to communicate both with each other and with their ex-spouse in an adult fashion so that problems with children in the family can be sorted out.

What helps stepparents deal with the challenges that a stepfamily brings is good communication, flexibility, having realistic expectations and mourning the previous relationship. In particular it is important to keep the marriage a priority and spend time nourishing it whenever possible. A stepparent should not expect to be loved immediately or hated indefinitely. In stepfamilies, the ‘honeymoon’ doesn’t start at the beginning of the relationship but rather somewhere further along the line when everyone in the family has sorted out how they fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the two families that become one.

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Balswick, J & Balswick J, 1999, The Family 2nd ed. United States of America, Baker Books Becvar, D & Becvar, R, 1996, ‘Family Therapy: A systemic integration 3rd ed.’ United States of America, Allyn and Bacon Conolly, J, 1983, Step-families: Towards a clearer understanding, Australia, Corgi Books Goldenberg, I & Goldenberg, H, 2004, Family Therapy: An overview 6th ed. United States of America, Brooks/Cole Jones, A, 2003, ‘Reconstructing the stepfamily: old myths, new stories.’ Social Work, April 2003 v48 i2 p228(9)

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