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Wilburn: Stepfamily happiness takes time and hard work

POSTED: March 1, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Parenting can be a challenge in any family, but living in a stepfamily can add more issues to the parenting role.

Partners forming stepfamilies expect joy, peace and happiness that may have been lost in earlier relationships. But children may view the stepfamily differently.

Much of what children understand depends on their age. For some children it is a happy event to have a new family with more people around. For others, the many changes and uncertainties are challenging.

Generally, children ages 9 to 15 may have the hardest time adapting to a new family situation.

Research indicates that it can take four years or more for a stepfamily to seem like a family. It can even take 18 to 24 months for children to be friendly to a new stepparent.

Learning to handle new relationships in a positive way enables the stepfamily to move toward the happiness that the partners are seeking. Stepfamilies must work at being understanding and flexible and develop a style of their own.

What can the adults in a stepfamily do to work toward the happiness that they are seeking?

  • Take your time, and expect love and care to come slowly through shared experiences with stepchildren.
  • Discipline may work better if the biological parent takes the lead with the stepparent's support until the stepparent-stepchild relationship is stronger.
  • Give your family and yourself permission to try things differently. Since there are no rules or perfect ways to be a stepfamily, find out what "fits" for your family.
  • Expect negotiation and conflict to be part of everyday life in a stepfamily.
  • Give children accurate information about what is happening in the new family that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.
  • Discuss rules and roles, and make them clear so the children understand what is expected.
  • Try to understand children's feelings, especially when they are not what you expected.
  • Expect family members to grieve over the loss of their old family, or the loss of living like a first-time married family. Talk about these feelings.
  • Do not share negative statements and feelings about the absent parent with the child.
  • Assure the children that love is not limited. They can like or love all the members of the family, including a stepparent, and still love and care about the absent parent.
  • Spend time alone with each child and in various combinations of family members. But do not force togetherness, especially with teenagers.
  • Learn as much as possible about child development and effective parenting and stepparenting practices.
  • Work cooperatively with the absent parent - far in advance - to make the needed arrangements for holidays and other special occasions.
  • Build your own stepfamily traditions. Include family members in discussions about changing old traditions.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Family Ties column runs in Sunday Life on the first Sunday of each month. Contact: 770-535-8290.


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