Four Strengths of Effective Stepfamilies



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Become Adroit Adapters Four Strengths of Effective Stepfamilies

by Dawn Miller, dmiller@thestepfamilylife.com

Do you ever feel like your life is a fairy tale run amok? Like the plot line was hijacked and the princess was left standing in the mud while the ringbearer hogged the silver screen spotlight? Then you know what life can feel like in a stepfamily.

Life is never a fairy tale. It's true that I love my husband and he loves me and we got married. But trying the knot meant that we had to change - both of us.

Change stinks. Let's face it. We all hate change. That's why there's a mini-market chock full of self-help theorists specializing in personal and organizational change. Whether we are young or old, we all hate to change.

Yet stepfamilies are embroiled in a seething cesspool of change as they sort out family relationships, roles and expectations. Research shows that it takes at least four years for a stepfamily to gel into a functional unit. If you don't learn to adapt early on in the picture - you won't make it to even the intermission. Sixty per cent of all remarriages will end in divorce.

Effective stepfamilies learn how to handle change effectively and are adroit adapters. So how can we be effective and deal with change in a healthy way?

First of all, we can't push change too quickly and we have to be realistic. A study by the Stepfamily Association of America found that adults and children hold divergent ideas about what role a stepparent should take on in a stepfamily. Children felt a stepparent should be more like a "friend" and less like a "parent."

The study results suggest that parents, stepparents and children need to talk together about what role the stepparent will have in a new household. There is considerable confusion about what the role of a stepparent should be in our society - leaving it to the actors in this fairy tale run amok to straighten out the story line unaided by a fairy godmother.

We have to choose our battles wisely and learn how to adapt, or we'll never get out of the mud. In setting up our household, my husband and I were more worried about stacking the deck with pluses so our stepfamily would get off on the right foot, than about having a pristinely organized house. There was some give and take.

Take for example, the great TV battle. I wanted no TVs in the kids' rooms. My background in youth development said that falling asleep to a TV was bad for kids. So of course, I protested when my husband wanted to put TVs in the kids' rooms. My husband looked at me, wearing my halo of self-righteous youth worker, and said honey, we can win the TV battle, but we will lose the war.

And he had a point. Because the kids were acclimated to sleeping with TVs at their mom's house and his old apartment - they couldn't sleep without that fuzzy background noise. We had so many other issues to deal with the kids on in setting up our house - not leaving food in their rooms, learning to respect our space, sitting at a table to eat dinner as a "family" every night they were with us - he feared that adding no TVs to the package would upset the applecart for good.

Realizing that we had to pick our battles was tough. Because after all - I didn't want to change - I wanted it my way. With great reluctance, I agreed to give up my protest on TVs in the kids rooms. We invested our disciplinary energy (or rather my husband's disciplinary energy) into enforcing things that were more vital to family functioning than a TV set blaring at 2am on low volume.

And the kids learned to adapt to the rules in our house that were different from the rules at their mom's house. They learned how to set the table, pray before meals, and that eating dinner together as a family with us could be boring at worst and might even be a little enjoyable. We are becoming adroit adapters although we are still in the learning phase.

Is the fairy tale plot line really straightened out from its cataclysmic coach crash? Nope. Fortunately for us, the movie hasn't ended yet.

A thirty-something wife and stepmom to three teens, Dawn Miller lives in the Washington, DC area. She writes a weekly column on life in blended families at www.thestepfamilylife.com. Website links about stepfamilies, a free newsletter and a bookstore are available on the site.

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