COLLEGE STATION — With the number of stepfamilies increasing in the United States, the availabilty of good parenting information becomes even more important for successful relationships, a Texas Agricultural Extension Service family life specialist suggested.
The Stepfamily Foundation reports that stepfamilies will outnumber traditional nuclear families in America two to one by the year 2000, said Dr. Sarah Anderson, program leader for family development and resource management with the Extension Service.
This nonprofit organization, located in New York City, counsels stepfamilies and single parents who are considering remarriage.
“Couples who create stepfamilies have an unusually rocky road to travel,” Anderson said. “They face the challenge of simply being husband and wife — plus the unique difficulties posed by bringing together children of different worlds.”
A good way to help these families is to try preventing problems before they occur, she said. If families take each relationship step by step and remember a few rules, the odds are in their favor. These suggestions by the Stepfamily Foundation could help:
Don’t count on love at first sight. One of the biggest mistakes new stepparents can make is to expect stepchildren to love them immediately and without reservation. One of the biggest mistakes a biological parent can make is to push too hard for an immediate bond between children and a stepparent. Ease slowly into the relationship with stepchildren. The warmth and closeness will develop over time.
Accept the fact that your stepchildren aren’t yours. It is important to acknowledge that the stepfamily will not and cannot function the way a biological family does. A stepfamily will have its own dynamic and behaviors when it comes to the children, the ex- spouse and discipline. Once these behaviors are learned, they become predictable and positive. This will be a reminder that you are a stepparent — not a replacement parent.
Set ground rules. Set up house rules both you and your spouse agree upon and enforce them jointly. To a visiting stepchild, for instance, your spouse might say, “In this family, we don’t use four- letter words, we hang up our towels when we are finished with them, and we clear our plates from the table.” When rules are broken, it is best to let the biological parent discipline the child, and support your spouse’s position. Strive for consistency.
Do not badmouth a child’s natural parent. Children have a right to grow up respecting their mother or father, even if that parent is not living with that person full time. Even when the parent disappoints the child and the child complains to the stepparent, do not put down the parent. Instead, support the child’s feeling by offering a shoulder to cry on — not harsh judgements.
Get along with the ex — if possible. Look for ways to form a civil relationship with your spouse’s ex. It is to everyone’s advantage — parents and children alike — when all adults work hard to negotiate fair agreements, communicate information regarding children’s needs, and treat each other as they would like to be treated.
Put the brakes on sibling rivalry. Help reduce the minor scrapes between your children and your spouse’s kids by being a fair, consistent disciplinarian. Be aware that you and your spouse will each have your own style of discipline, but try to find some middle ground and then support one another. Carefully structure your household so all the children clearly understand the rules. Kids then know what to expect.
Be honest about money. Nothing drives two people apart like financial disagreements, especially when kids are involved. It is crucial for people with children to be honest about income and expenses, including child support.
Talk things out as a group. Discuss household rules and disciplinary issues and air your differences in family meetings. Be sure to use the time to praise positive things children have done, and allow children to talk about issues of their own choosing.
Seek professional help. If you do not feel that you and your mate can work out your problems together, do not hesitate to seek counseling.
Take time for each other. Stepchildren require a lot of attention, but so does your relationship. Stepchildren fare best when there is a strong marital relationship.
“Before any couple remarries, financial obligations and responsibilities to children should be discussed,” Anderson said. “Write out a financial disclosure statement that includes current income and expenses, alimony, child-support payments and other related costs, plus a copy of prior divorce agreements, and share this with your fiance.
“This way, everything is out in the open and there are no surprises after the marriage.”