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The phenomenon of the stepparent is closely linked with one of the most difficult communication problems in modern society.
The pressures and stresses of marriage, and all the problems and temptations, cause more than half of marriages to end in divorce. The disillusionment, disappointments, and human tendency to blame others result in long-term anger and pain.
No one escapes unharmed. If children are involved they are also full of conflict, confused, angry, and eager to blame. Unlike adults, they often blame themselves.
Contrary to popular consensus, I think they ARE partly to blame - though not on account of anything that they did consciously. It is a reality that the more people involved in a relationship or family, the more complex are the levels of communication and the greater the chances of problems developing.
The mere existence of the children means less money, less time, less energy, and less attention the couple are able to give each other. Itís no oneís fault; it is reality. The responsibility of a job and running a home is infinitely more complicated by each additional child.
I believe many children see or sense this and it is one reason that they blame themselves for the breakup. However, most of them try to fix the problem (which they donít understand so canít fix) and have unrealistic hopes (even if both parents are remarried) that their parents will somehow reunite into their original family.
So, this is the insane emotional environment most stepparents find themselves. But, it is not hopeless; in fact, itís very complexity and intense conflicts offer many opportunities for growth. I know - Iíve lived through them and, notwithstanding ups and downs, my family and I have come out immeasurably stronger.
Here are my suggestions.
First, donít talk badly about the childrenís biological parents.
This is certain to backfire. If the other parents bad-mouth you and the children repeat it to you, donít respond negatively. It is a trap! You and your spouse can vent all you want about the others, but do it in private, away from the childrenís ears.
Tell them you understand that when people are in pain that they say hurtful things, but you do not wish to make them worse by arguing or discussing them. You donít have to act like you are a morally superior person, just that you do not want to be confronting or continue a bad situation. If you do vent in front of them, apologize, and control yourself.
Second, although you want your new family to become a cohesive, cooperative group as rapidly as possible, you need to assure the children that you have no intention of replacing the other parent.
This may not be entirely true, for you may want to, but this is not the time to show your intention. No matter how poor their relationship actually is with the biological parent, you do not want the children to be forced to choose you over the other. Despite their real anger, their guilt will win out and you will be the victim.
You need to treat the relationship as if it was the best. Let them come to you and tell you itís different or difficult -- if it is. Instead, tell them you want a relationship like they have with a good teacher.
Each good teacher they have is their friend as well as their boss in the classroom, a boss away from home. When they are in the other parentís home he or she is the boss, but when they are in your home, you are the boss.
You can, like a good teacher does, allow them to participate in making the rules that apply to their lives and behavior. Make certain that you also agree on some choices of consequences for each infraction of the rules.
Then, when they break a rule, they are given a choice of their consequence. Once they choose, they have bought into the system and most of your battles are won - that is, if you make sure that they fulfill what they agreed upon!
One expert, Dr Laura, strongly advises stepparents not to interfere in the discipline of their partnerís children. She has never been a stepparent and I disagree.
These children are lost, confused, and usually without any structure. Your job is to give them some structure, a safe haven, where they can be free from the conflicts swirling around them.
Of course, they may resist, but if (a big if) you have developed a healthy, happy, and just environment in which their input is requested, respected, valued, then they will understand that it is your job to make all the final decisions and they will gradually resist less. They will appreciate your concern and be secure in your strength.
You and your spouse need to agree on the general structure and game plan before you present it to the children for their input. You do not want them to play one against the other. If you leave the discipline only to the biological parent, you appear as weak and helpless, which is not what they need. A united front of parents will provide a safe, structured home.
Third, love takes time.
Do not expect or force the children to love or even show love for you. What you can expect, no, demand, is that they treat you with the same respect you show them.
They need time for you to prove that you are worthy of being loved. Respect should be given, unless your behavior is hostile and respect is then undeserved. Show them respect by listening to them, providing for their daily needs, and giving them the emotional strength and support they may not realize they need.
You are not expected to love them either until they have proven their willingness to work with you. They are expected to have a period or times when their love for their parents causes them guilt and conflict. Give them time and space and a listening ear. Love will come, and will be reciprocated when it has been earned -- by all of you.
Fourth, get into their world.
Your mutually developed rules and your time spent listening to them demonstrate your willingness to be open to their world and viewpoints. Each child has interests and talents that you need to know and support.
If it is a small child, then playing on the floor or drawing with him shows you are willing to be in his world. If it is an older child, then table games, outdoor sports, or whatever interests her should be of interest to you. This does not mean that you cannot teach them, at any age, the things you love and are interested in -- reciprocity again; they should learn to share things that are important to you.
If they are teenagers then they are going to be more resistant to any changes. Their bodies are changing and confusing them. Anything you can do to let them know you are willing and able to assist them in their transitions to adulthood will eventually be appreciated.
Let them earn your trust by proof of their responsibility. Especially with adolescents, they need to have more opportunities for input into the structure of their lives. This is not easy because they usually think they can do more than they are emotionally equipped to handle. Err on their side so they know you at least want to trust them.
For some stepparents these things are very difficult to do because it's not their nature. Some may find getting on the floor undignified or uncomfortable.
Donít force it, but find some areas of mutual comfort. If our partner tries to force you into a situation you find distasteful or humiliating, you may end up disliking the child or getting even with the child or your partner. Neither is healthy.
Fifth, donít try to change everything about them overnight.
Focus upon an issue that you either believe is critical for the child or family or one that bothers you the most. Whatever you make into a nonnegotiable item, which is your right, you should realize it is something that they can use to purposely irritate you.
Whether it is using vulgar language, being on time, keeping a neat room, or doing chores, each can become a battlefield. Choose it carefully and be prepared to do battle. Also, what you may consider important, they may consider petty, and vice versa.
Laugh especially at yourself, since a sense of humor disarms many warriors and keeps an issue in proper balance.
Sixth, spend quality time with your husband or wife, the same with the entire family, but be certain to spend time with each child separately.
Each has to know that he or she is more than just one part of the family, but is a unique and important person. This is very hard if the family is large, but it is worth the effort.
Seventh, you need to know that you do not have to be godlike,that is, the perfect person.
That would be an impossible task and a role model no person could emulate. Rather, you should feel comfortable in your human frailties as well as your strengths.
It is normal for you to get angry and show it; to be disappointed, even sad and depressed and show it; or to be happy and silly and to show it. Your humanness helps the children to understand that they may express their emotions too, but that you and they must find healthy, rather than neurotic or dangerous ways, to do so.
All these concepts work in any united family, but are more difficult with stepchildren because of the emotional baggage each child and adult brings.
In my case, my stepchildren, grown many years now, remain loving and close. They still know I am always there for them, but, like when they were children, I still expect and get the respect and love I give.
Mutual concern and reciprocity work!
Copyright @ 2000, Dr Rose.
Dr Rose, founder of the Reading Research Institute, developed the SIGHT, SOUND, TOUCH Reading System and many other innovative educational materials for children of all ages. He is also the author of practical manuals on personal relationships, such as Getting to Know You and Creating Your Giant Self
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