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The Challenges of Stepfamilies & Single Parenting

Posted on 05 January 2017

Stepfamilies have a bad image.  Single parents are either frowned upon or felt sorry for.  Think of Snow White’s jealous stepmother, the unrealistically positive Brady Bunch or Princess Jasmine’s desperate single father.

Of course real life is more complicated than any of those fairy tales and single parents and step-families have to come to terms with lots of new and often confusing situations – being alone, new family members, different rules, different schools etc.
Changes in family set-ups can leave children feeling isolated, confused, anxious, or resentful and there can also be pressure to be a 'perfect family.’

Ron L. Deal, in his book The Smart Stepfamily:  Seven Steps to a Healthy Family, uses a very interesting analogy when talking about stepfamilies.  He suggests that rather than ‘blending a family’; ‘cooking up a stepfamily’ is a better description.

Blending suggests that everyone merges together easily, whereas in reality, families integrate slowly - just like in a casserole!

To continue the cooking analogy a step further, as a parent you must understand that time and low heat make a healthier  family combination.

Let your stepchild dictate the pace of the relationship.  Accept that being ‘Daddy’ to your own child, ‘James’ to your stepson, and ‘Mr Harris’ to your new teenage stepdaughter is okay.  Be flexible and adaptable in your relationships.

Dealing with the disruption
Going through any change is difficult, so expect to experience a series of stepfamily stages:

1. Fantasy stage:  Family members are on their best behaviour.  During this period everyone imagines they’ll love one another and create one big jolly family living happily ever after.

2. Confusion stage:  Tension grows, happiness begins to slip away, and differences emerge.  The romance seems to disappear.

3. Conflict stage:  Anger can start to erupt as family members realise that their needs are not being met.  Arguments can begin, and true feelings start to appear.  Hopefully, if you’re prepared, negotiations and honest communication can also begin.

4. Comfort stage:  Family members start to relax and begin to look forward to their future together.  Communication is deeper and bonds build.

Here are some guidelines for making an easy transition through the various stages of becoming a healthy stepfamily.

  • Start out in a home that’s new for all, if possible.  Doing so makes for less territory squabbles and hurt feelings and can help to get rid of your ghosts from the past.
  • Develop new traditions as developing new rituals and special celebrations speeds up the sense of belonging and connectedness.  This deceptively simple tip represents a key part of successful stepfamily life.  It doesn’t matter what your rituals are - pizza on a Wednesday night or bike rides on Sunday afternoon can be effective rituals.
  • Celebrate every member of your new family.  For example, if you keep family pictures on your desk, be sure to include photos of your step kids too.
  • Nurture your new couple bond.  When couples have a good relationship, they’re able to work together on meeting the needs of their children.  A good marriage also reduces your feelings of being caught in the middle between the children and your new partner.
  • Be prepared to adjust visitation and custody timetables.  Particularly as your children enter adolescence, you may need to let go of some time with your children, which can be a painful experience. Remember that your teenager’s needs are the overarching concern here.  Teens want to spend a significant amount of time with their friends and it’s important they have it.

Single Parenting
It is easy to underestimate the complex tensions that accompany divorce-even a fairly amicable one.  Your child may be angry and upset because one of his parents has left, but as you’re the only parent around for him to vent his feelings on he is likely to take it out on you.  Your child may become sullen and awkward or loud and angry.

However, try not to take it personally.  Try to understand your child's feelings of dislocation and try and take a positive view.

  • How do you allow your child to express themselves, however negative the emotion?
  • What ways do you allow your child to let go of hurt feelings and resentment?
  • How do you handle the anger and accusations?  Do you argue back?  Leave it until she's calm down, and in a more receptive mood?  Talk it through rationally?
  • What are the benefits, if you took a step back and distanced yourself from the emotion?  Would you feel more in control?
  • What are the long-term disadvantages to “slagging off” your ex partner.  How might this damage your relationship with your child?
  • Will it help if you didn't see it as a competition

The most common question of all is ‘Does it ever get easier?’  Of course this isn’t just about the children, it is about you as well.  It is about knowing how to give yourself a break, get some adult company and keep your own life moving forward as you get used to being a single parent.
The real answer to this question is not a simple one but if you wait for things to get better and do nothing it’s not going to happen.  If you sit in your home waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for a Mrs. or Mr. Knight in shining armour to appear, it can happen, but chances are it won't happen.  In short if you're sitting in a room doing nothing then nothing will change, improve or get better.  (You must plan for your future) search your heart, soul and mind for a master plan, and the courage to see it through.

Time is a great healer and pain does subside, but you must try to use your time wisely.  You have to adjust your train of thought and see a disadvantage as a new opportunity and turn it to your advantage (Today is the first day of the rest of your life).

You have to find the strength not to forget but to move on, stand up and fight to offer your children the best that love can provide.

Happy families don't happen overnight.  They take time, patience and persistence just like anything worthwhile in life. It’s about moving slowly and steadily forward while you all adjust to your new circumstances and it needn’t be painful, fraught with animosity and stressful.

Article by Zoe Sinclair from Employee Matters.  The views are the author’s own.