Before becoming a stepfamily, many people have misconceptions about how life will be, how everyone will react to each other and how to overcome obstacles. Even if you’ve lived in a stepfamily for years, you may be holding onto unrealistic expectations.
These assumptions can create undue problems or exacerbate existing ones. Below, experts dispel common myths about stepfamilies, reveal what you can really expect and show how you can successfully navigate the challenges.
1. Myth: Building a healthy stepfamily takes months.
Fact: Creating a stepfamily takes years, said Lisa Blum, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in working with children, families and couples in Pasadena and West Hollywood. “You might have to give it just six months for stepfamilies to get over the shock of the rebuilding process,” she said.
Researchers tell us it takes from two to seven years for stepfamily relationships to stabilize, said Patricia Papernow, Ed.D, a psychologist in private practice in Hudson, Mass., and author of the book Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families.
2. Myth: Joining a stepfamily is easier to handle with the death of a parent.
Fact: It can be just as difficult to join a stepfamily after a parent dies. “The child may have a mystified view of the first-time family, especially the deceased parent, said Christina Roach, a national certified counselor and president and founder of Success for Steps, a resource dedicated to stepfamilies. She noted that it’s “not the goal to shoot that down” but to recognize “that the transition is going to be hard.” If kids want to have a picture of the deceased parent in their room, encourage them to do so, Roach said.
Because you yearn for the stepfamily to work, you may avoid talking about these feelings and focus on the positive, Blum said. You may think, “I really need this to work, so let’s just act like it’s working,” she said. But this is detrimental to your child.
Let kids express their grief openly, she said. The more everyone actively grieves, “the more room is made to embrace the new.” Also, if the grief process is rushed, kids get defensive and will hold onto it more tightly, Blum added.
3. Myth: Everyone will love each other.
Fact: Couples assume that because they’re madly in love, everyone will be able to come together. “When this doesn’t happen right away, individuals have a tendency to blame themselves and each other,” Roach said. She suggests couples should expect hurdles. It’s the nature of joining two separate families, with different rules, rituals and personalities and no history together.
It’s unrealistic to think that stepparents will love your kids. First, parents and kids are both hardwired for attachment; stepparents are not, Papernow said. “The new stepcouple is a wonderful new gift for the adults,” Papernow said, but because the adult relationship often pulls attention away from kids, it’s frequently felt as a loss for kids. “This can make kids be quite unwelcoming to even the warmest stepparent.”
Instead of putting tremendous pressure on yourself and your new family, emphasize that everyone should respect each other, Roach said. Liking or loving each other takes time to develop.
4. Myth: It’s best to create one set of rules for the household.
Fact: There’s debate in the field about whether it’s best to establish the same rules for everyone right away or keep the rules as they were in each household. Papernow compared uniform rules to dealing with the Japanese and Italians, because the differences between families can be that pronounced, she said. If an Italian person greeted a Japanese person with a slap on the back, he’d be appalled, while the Italian would be offended to receive a cold bow. “Making a new set of rules would be disrespectful to these major differences,” Papernow said.
Experts do agree, however, that rule setting takes time, and that you can pick one or two rules that really matter. Papernow recalled how one client created a whole list of rules when her new husband and stepson moved into her apartment. Although these were “simple” things to her, to her stepson each was brand new and unfamiliar. “The long list of new rules also foisted yet another set of changes on a little boy who had been through all the transitions involved in divorce and single-parenting,” Papernow said. The list was cut to two: put the toilet seat down and put the top back on the peanut butter jar.
Roach recommends couples use this technique when discussing rules:
- Honor the fact that you’re going to have differences. Avoid dismissing differences as wrong.
- Prioritize your list to feature your non-negotiable must-haves.
- Compromise. Talk about what’s important to you, and how both of you can make this work.
Roach said that depending on age, you can get the kids involved as well.
5. Myth: Both parents must discipline the kids.
Fact: On the contrary, research is clear that it’s best for parents to discipline their own kids — at least in the beginning.
6. Myth: You should make your relationship the priority.
Fact: While couple happiness is a primary factor in healthy first-time families, this is not true in stepfamilies, Papernow said. “Attending to the parent-child and stepparent-relationships is equally important in stepfamily success.”
One-to-one time all around works best, Papernow said. That means “adult couple time, parent-child time, and time alone for the stepparent and child to get to know each other.”
7. Myth: You need to spend quality time as a family.
Fact: Although it’s reasonable to think that the best way to foster a healthy stepfamily is to spend time together, “the challenges are actually most intense in a stepfamily when everyone is together,” Papernow said.
As noted above, one-on-one time is the key. Parents should spend time with their kids uninterrupted, and stepparents should spend time with their stepkids without the parent present. “This helps relationships form,” said Roach, and it maintains and cultivates the connection between parents and kids. Also, this helps the new step relationships — the stepcouple and the stepparent-stepchild relationships — develop shared ground, Papernow said.
Roach also recommended what she calls “little tokens of appreciation” — gestures, not gifts — “that show gratitude such as saying hello or offering a smile. These can go a long way in showing respect.”
8. Myth: Seek counseling if things get bad.
Fact: Many stepfamilies wait to see a therapist until obstacles have become boulders and deep resentments. Instead, seek counseling early. This isn’t a sign of weakness or failure but a “sign of your investment, caring and wish to make it an OK experience for everybody,” Blum said. It’s “better to address feelings, problems and roadblocks before they get really entrenched,” she said. Over time, “you can go for tuneups as needed,” she added.
Remember that successful stepfamilies take time, effort and tons of hard work to form and nurture.
Photo by ThrasherDave, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.