Parenting young children — 15 May 2011
Help your children adjust to their stepparent

Today’s high rates of divorce and remarriage have led to the creation of many step- families. Both the parents and the children face difficult practical and emotional adjustments to their new family constellation.

In “Family& Relationships,” Lawrence Ganong reports, “In the U.S. half of all marriages are remarriages for one or both partners, and nearly one-third of the children in the U.S. will spend some time living in a stepparent household before they reach adulthood.”

Though parents are aware of the anticipated challenges they and the children may face in blending their families, no specific guidance is routinely provided to families during these transitions.

The children are commonly in favor of preserving the original family unit. Their allegiance to their original parents hinders them from accepting the stepparents, even if they personally like them.

Even the happiness in the home of the new blended family does not dissuade the children from their position because it “may further dash [their] hopes for reconciliation of their biological parents,” writes researcher Mavis Hetherington.

Stepparents, commonly attempt to befriend and endear themselves to their stepchildren for a new connection, family harmony and to please their spouse. Yet, when the children consistently thwart them, they may eventually retreat from this task. This leaves the original parent overwhelmed with the full responsibility of handling the kids. As understandable as this reaction may be, it is ill advised. Both adults in the household are the parents of the children, regardless of the youngsters’ genetic composition.

Stepparents may have some subconscious reasons for deferring parenting of the stepchildren to their original parent. Temple University psychology professor Jay Efran suggests that, “It makes perfect sense from the point of view of natural selection that stepfathers would have very little investment in raising their stepchildren, who, after all, perpetuate someone else’s genes.”

This may make sense from a natural selection perspective, but not from attachment principals confirming that human compassion and tenderness toward those whom we raise and care for produces a loving connection.

The children’s resistance to the authority and parenting of the stepparent often puts great strain on the new couple’s relationship. Some exhausted parents erroneously divide the parenting roles to diffuse the conflict with the stepchildren.

Creating a functional new family requires that the adults form a united parenting bond. The biological parent’s efforts to ‘protect’ the children by passively or actively siding with them splinters the family, distances the stepparent and only reinforces the children’s resistance to the stepparent.

To help children adjust to the their stepparent:

• Affirm the children’s difficulties of accepting the stepparent as a normal bi- product of their loyalty to their original family.
• Be united about what is permitted, encouraged and expected of the children.
• Support each other’s role as a parent.
• Be the best parent you can be to all the children, regardless of their biological origin. Love, caring, understanding and compassion create family connections for all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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