Smoothing Out the Family Blending Process
The view of stepfamilies has changed in recent years from that of a “broken” family to that of a “blended” family. Both therapists who counsel stepfamilies and the members of the stepfamilies themselves use the newer terminology as a guide to a fresh view of themselves as an entity different from the one they had known before, one that is full of endless possibilities. The success of any reconstituted family is greatly enhanced when family members are able to identify the new family system as a dynamic, evolving work-in-progress, one that moves in fits and starts, and one in which problems are understood to be opportunities for growth and learning.
The blended family must confront a great many issues. These include:
- Loyalty Conflicts--Parents in remarried families often want to minimize the influence of the absent parent and hope that the children bond to and accept discipline from the stepparent. Children resist being what they may consider “disloyal” to the absent parent and often sabotage the stepparent's efforts to control them. Parents with this situation often present themselves for therapy focusing on disciplinary problems with one or more children. Therapy is aimed at keeping parents from the “original” families connected appropriately on issues involving their “original” children. Original parents are counseled that they are the ones to deliver messages about discipline to their children, while the stepparents are to be supportive of them in that role.
- Jealousy--Jealousy issues abound in the blended family! Children in blended families, for example, often lose the unique positions they occupied in their original family. The ba by of the family may become the middle child, or the only girl may become one of several girls. On top of all this, children must adjust to a parent whose time is occupied by a new spouse and new children. Parents in blended families often need help in identifying the issues underneath the squabbling.
- Boundary Issues--Parents often need help in setting and implementing clear boundaries with and among blended family members. A common problem is that of a teenage girl and a new stepfather. The teen's distancing behavior (little conversation with parents, increased time with peer groups, testing new behaviors), though developmentally appropriate, may fly in the face of newly blended parents' attempts at closeness and cohesion. Parents need to understand that slamming doors and storming off in a huff are ways to keep distance that help both teen and stepfather reduce sexual tensions that may be under the surface, unrecognized by either.
Sadness and loss, a history interrupted, changes in residence or schools, fear of the unknown, feeling unheard or misunderstood, anger, and denial are some of the issues and feelings explored in therapy with blended families and individuals within blended families. Family members need to learn and experience the reality that expressing their feelings more often enhances rather than jeopardizes these new relationships. They eventually realize that the energy they put into hiding, discounting or inappropriately acting-out their feelings could be better channeled into discussion and relationship-building.Date published: 4/25/00