Today, the U.S. Census estimates about 50% of families are some form of stepfamily.
The stepfamily has become the modern family.
Here are some basics tips and rules for anyone currently struggling to make it work, compliments of Jeannette Lofas, PhD, LCSW of the Stepfamily Foundation, whose ground-breaking research has been used to develop methods for assisting blended families work.
- Build “Couple Strength.” Almost everything you do builds or takes away from couple strength. Know that you come from different points of view about many ways of doing things. Honor your differences and create new norms and forms together.
- Displays of affection in front of the children, initially can lead to acting out and fear of loss of their biological parent. In the beginning, keep your loving behavior private.
- The couple comes first (after you are married). A strong, supportive couple relationship sets the cornerstone and helps children build self-esteem.
- The couple recognizes that the family is a blended/stepfamily and knows how stepfamilies function and does not expect this family to act like biological family. It cannot and will not.
- It is OK to have discussions. Arguments are out. Agree to agree. Agree to disagree. And, work it out. Call time outs for the couple when things get “too hot.” Remember you are partners. He is the male head of the household. She is the female head of the household. You are partners in creating a stepfamily. Creating a stepfamily that works looks like the couple deciding on how they are going to manage all aspects of their household. Partners decide on rules, regulations, discipline styles, job descriptions, use of time, energy and money, etc.
- Establish concrete house rules and structure. Rules need to be written in the positive form. The couple must decide on the rules and define job descriptions themselves and of each member with positive and negative consequences.
- The biological parent disciplines his/her children and the stepparent says, “As you know your Dad/Mom and I have decided, in this house we…” The stepparent disciplines based on rules agreed and presented to kids as a couple. And the couple must make sure the children treat the stepparent with respect.
- The couple must maintain their positions as male and female heads of the family. They cannot allow the children to dominate. The male and female heads of the household teach the children the models, forms and norms as to how we live and act with each other within the stepfamily.
- The couple in the stepfamily takes responsibility for creating a predictable structure of events, manners and responsibilities for in house and visiting stepchildren. The couple agrees with each other and backs the other up so the children have consistency, which is a necessary foundation for creating intimacy and closeness.
- Make sure meals with the children are not child-centered chaos. Plan to converse, know what is going on in each other’s lives and thoughts. The adults set the tone of dining. We come together not to eat, but to dine. Teach kids good manners. Good manners allow for intimacy. Poor manners create isolation, lower self-esteem and cause confusion.
- Plan visitation as good co-parents (exes), parents and stepparent. Avoid allowing visitation to become a chaotic episode where the child is caught in the cross fire between ex-spouses.
- The bad-mouthing of the prior spouse. When we bad-mouth and put down the other parent of our children we are bad-mouthing and disparaging half of that child’s identity. Less than half of divorced parents today realize that bad mouthing their ex lowers the self-esteem of their child.
- Ask for counseling from professionals trained plo treat stepfamilies. The dynamics of stepfamilies are crucially different from the biologically connected family. The stepfamilies are now the majority of families, but not all professionals are taught about their specific behaviors in graduate school.
- Research and Make it work.