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Around Our Town...Family

Stepfamilies: Part 2

07/01/2006 - This month, I want to whet your appetite for the upcoming stepfamily conference coming to Casper in August (details provided at the end of this article). I want to address two of the topics that will be covered in the conference: unrealistic expectations and misguided vs. effective stepparents.

Ron Deal, in his workbook "Building a Successful Stepfamily" cites Strengthening Your Stepfamily by Elizabeth Einstein and Linda Albert in delineating some of the unrealistic expectations that some stepfamilies have. One of these unrealistic expectations is that "We will all love each other". The underlying hope is that the family will be harmonious and have strong emotional ties to each other. This expectation leads to a feeling of guilt and perhaps failure if this doesn't happen quickly or doesn't happen at all. A more realistic expectation is "Love may or may not happen later; what's important is that we accept and respect each other." Another example of an unrealistic expectation is "Our children will be as happy about the remarriage as we are". Because a parent may feel better, more stable, and more secure with a new partner in his/her life, the assumption is that this security and stability will also be experienced by the children. The result of this expectation may be disappointment and resentment on the parents' part toward the children because they are seen as blocking happiness for the family or toward each other (feeling like maybe the other partner is to blame). The children may also experience resentment toward the parents because their feelings are being discounted and they are being blamed for something they had no control over. The more realistic expectation is "Children will feel confused both happy and angry about the remarriage. They had no choice either in the ending of their first family or the forming of this new one." The result of this more realistic expectation is that there will be more empathy and responsiveness on the adult's part in dealing with the children.

These are only two of the unrealistic expectations that will be dealt with in the stepfamilies conference. Next, I would like to share a glimpse of what are the habits and practices of misguided vs. effective stepparents (again, the information is taken from the Strengthening Your Stepfamily materials):

1. Misguided stepparents try to replace the absent parent. Often, this done because of insecurity on the stepparent's part or a feeling of wanting to be a parent and this might be the only chance they get. This can really create some loyalty conflicts for children and teens.

Effective Stepparents recognize the importance of the biological parent. This would include helping the children nurture a relationship with the biological parent (unless there is a potential for physical or emotional harm), allowing the child to freely display pictures and mementos of the absent parent without creating conflict. The stepparent tries his or her best to be and added parent figure and friend rather than a "substitute parent".

2. The misguided stepparent insists on family unity. In this situation, the stepparent views happiness and harmony as the ultimate goal at all costs. Usually, in this situation, happiness and harmony are the ultimate goals at all costs. Sometimes a "forced unity" is initiated in order to show the rest of the world how well it's working!

The effective stepparent can let go. This type of stepparent can allow a child to be owned, loved and cared for by two families at the same time. This stepparent can plan family activities without demanding or forcing participation.

3. The misguided stepparent insists feelings for biological children and stepparent are the same. This individual tries to deny rather than accept that feelings for biological children are different than for stepchildren. This may be related to feeling guilty for loving biological children more. Sometimes this misguided stepparent may decide to buy gifts and spend extra time and expressing phony feelings in order to convince himself and the child that he loves them equally.

The effective stepparent allows time for relationships to develop. This type of stepparent focuses on the process of developing as a family unit. He or she will minimize worrying or trying to force progress. They will respect and accept others and the degree of relationship that is established as it is, not as they wished it was.

It is both challenging and rewarding as I continue to develop my relationship with my own stepchildren as well as trying to provide support and encouragement to those who are in this situation when they come into my counseling office. I have been so fortunate to see many stepparents who persevere in their efforts to become as connected as the children will allow them to be in spite of the sometimes hurtful and disruptive experiences.

This has been just a small sample of the issues that arise in stepfamilies. I want to remind you again that we would love to have you join us at the Building a Healthy Stepfamily conference at Highland Park Community Church on August 18-19, 2006. This conference is hosted by Highland Park Community Church and Faith Initiatives of Wyoming. A brochure with a registration form is available at the church. Please call 265-4073 or 265-3977 for more information. Hope to see you there!

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