Jan Andersen

Article Summary:

How to set up groundrules to resolve stepfamily issues.

Stepfamily Issues: Laying the Groundrules to Resolve Them

Conflict, hostility, resentment, anger, rejection, flexibility, sacrifice, patience, love, communication, negotiation, understanding and compromise.

If you are a stepparent, you may identify with some or all of the above keywords. Maybe you have custody of your stepchildren or maybe they live with their biological parent and stay with you and your partner at weekends or during vacations. Whatever the situation, it requires sacrifice, time and emotional energy. Nobody ever professed that being part of a blended family would be easy and it soon becomes apparent that the happy-ever-after scenario that is portrayed in soppy films, rarely exists in reality. Sometimes it does, but more often than not, it doesn't.

When you become a stepparent, you find yourself not just playing Piggy in the Middle between your partner and his/her children, but often between your partner and his/her ex, your partner and your ex, your partner and your children, your children and your partner's children. The combinations are endless, in the same way that the reasons for biological parents no longer being together are manifold. Irreconcilable differences, infidelity and even death are just some of them.

Unfortunately, the word "step" tends to be regarded as a foul word, with stepmothers in fairytales always being described as "wicked". It's no wonder, therefore, that some small children might falsely assume that all stepparents are bad, which can naturally cause them some distress when they discover that mummy or daddy has a new partner. This assumption can throw up barriers before the children have even met, or had time to get to know, their potential stepmother or stepfather. This is where it is important for the parent who has custody to clearly explain the difference between fantasy and reality.

I was on my own with my three older children, now aged 19, 15 and 14, for a number of years after my ex-husband and I divorced. When my current partner, Mike, moved in with us five years ago, he was keen to make a good impression and, for a while it worked. My children sang his praises to my ex-husband and his wife and although we had a few problems with Mike's ex-wife, life in general was very harmonious.

I was happy because I was in a stable relationship with a wonderfully caring partner and, consequently, my children were happier too, not least because they were now part of what society regarded as a "normal" family with two parents. However, Mike and I had to meet on common ground regarding discipline and whilst I had always been reasonably strict with my children, suddenly this new man, who wasn't their biological dad, began to enforce law and order in their domain.

To further aggravate the situation, Mike's two sons from his previous marriage, now aged 7 and 6, began staying with us at weekends. They were still coming to terms with their parents' recent divorce, still clinging on to the dream that maybe their mum and dad would get back together again and, although their behaviour was appalling, Mike was initially conscious about not wanting to spend the entire weekend chastising them.

An additional problem reared its ugly head when I began to discipline Mike's children. I was bombarded with verbal abuse and whilst Mike's younger son, Daniel, was generally far more accepting of my authority, his elder son, Christopher, would constantly backchat and treat me with utter contempt. At other times, if I chastised him, he would simply call me some endearing name, or would quote unpleasant remarks that had apparently been made by his mother about me. He would also run back to his mother with a catalogue of lies, which caused further aggravation. This highlights how troubles with stepchildren are not always confined to the children themselves, but can be fuelled by a vindictive ex-partner.

Today, however, after five years of emotional highs and lows, Mike and I have accepted that we will never be able to play "happy families", so we don't force the issue. A few months ago, as a direct result of the ongoing aggravation caused by Christopher, it was decided by Mike's ex-wife that the boys could no longer stay with us at the weekends. Instead, Mike now goes across to the town where they live and spends most of the weekend with them, but reserves Sunday afternoons for our two-year-old daughter and me. It is not the perfect solution because it means that we don't spend as much quality time with him as we would like and yet the atmosphere in the house at the weekends has improved dramatically. The major word here is "compromise".

On the bright side, our daughter Lauren, who was born in November 1999, is adored and pampered by all of the children and, so far, there have been no outward indications of jealousy from any of them, although I do not feel comfortable leaving her alone in a room with Christopher.

Mike and I still have problems and heated debates with respect to the behaviour of his boys, but we always discuss the issue and air any grievances that we may have. Communication is imperative in these situations, although sometimes I've learned it is better to grit my teeth and keep quiet, but this only tends to breed resentment.

Acceptance is hard when you feel that your partner's children are given priority treatment over your own, but if you are honest, you will never feel the same way about your partner's children as you do about your own flesh and blood. It's human nature and whilst it may not seem ethical, it's a fact of life.

There is no magical solution, but adherence to the following ground rules can certainly bring you one stride closer to living in harmony with your stepchildren.

Groundrules For Stepfamilies:

  • Don't live in the past. One of the penalties of divorce and separation is not seeing the absent family as often as you would maybe like. However, you have a new life and they have a new life. When you have a new relationship and family to think of, you should never allow your first family to take priority.
  • You and your partner must establish firm ground rules in your home, irrespective of how your stepchildren have been allowed to behave in their own homes. When the children are on your territory, you have authority and responsibility for their behaviour. Explain to the children that everybody has different rules and that everyone has to abide by the rules of the house they are visiting, in exactly the same way as they have to abide by certain rules at school.
  • It is imperative that you and your partner agree on a level of discipline and stick to it. Serious conflict can be arise when parents have radically opposing views on discipline and what is or isn't acceptable behaviour in children.
  • Try not to demonstrate obvious favouritism towards your own children in front of your stepchildren. Consistency and fairness are the order of the day.
  • In the beginning, accept the fact that the stepchildren may expect their parents to reconcile and that your relationship with your partner is only a temporary interlude. Sit down with the children, when the time is right and explain to them that sometimes two people who are married may find that they are unable to live together anymore, but that it doesn't mean they love their children any less. This is particularly important for the parent who has moved out, since the children will inevitably experience a sense of rejection and desertion.
  • Don't allow your stepchildren to play one parent off against the other. Whatever your feelings towards the biological parent, you should not condone any derogatory comments about that parent. After all, they are probably saying similar things about you or your partner to the other parent. The only time when it is imperative to listen and act is if you believe that the other parent is being abusive in any way.
  • Accept the fact that however perfect a stepmother or stepfather you are, you will never be the biological parent of your stepchildren. It is natural for a stepchild to feel a level of resentment towards you when you are imposing rules or restrictions upon them. However, life revolves around rules, wherever the place or whatever the situation, so it has to be explained that it is not only biological parents who are qualified to enforce law and order.
  • Show love. Sometimes children need love the most at a time when it's hardest to give it to them. Whilst bad behaviour should never be rewarded with a cuddle or treat, when children are behaving well it is important to praise them.
  • Don't be afraid to defend your own children if you genuinely believe that your partner is treating them unfairly. Likewise, don't interfere and try and condone their behaviour if you know that they are in the wrong. Undermining a stepparent's authority can lead to children having no respect for that parent. Similarly, if you fail to step in when they have been wrongly accused of something, they may lose respect and faith in you.
  • Finally, but very importantly, set aside special time each week for your partner and yourself. You both need time to be yourselves and to show each other just why you chose to be together.
  • Jan Andersen is the owner of Mothers Over 40, a site which offers encouragement and inspiration to older parents around the world. She is also a copywriter with over twenty years' marketing, PR and copywriting experience, and a freelance writer specialising in articles and features on diverse lifestyle topics and social issues. Jan has participated in various lifestyle discussions on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC TV, BBC Radio Swindon, Channel 4, Sky One, Central News, BBC TV and HTV West. For more information, visit: www. janandersen. homestead.com.

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