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To encourage healthy step-family interactions, I share experiences from my practice. As always in professional writing, identifying details have been altered. The following stories blend the challenges of step-families into narrative-based lessons. I begin with the story from one pair’s meeting, to a moment of a radical change in their lives. Lucille, a nurse, and Larry an accountant, both in their early 30s, came to see me. Originally Lucille was single, while Larry was divorced with a 5-year-old son, Louis. Larry was the full-time parent for Louis, whose mother had recently come out as a lesbian and subsequently left the two of them.
Larry was studying for his CPA exam when he met Lucille, spending as much time with Louis as possible, even postponing phone calls and dishes until the boy was asleep. When Larry met Lucille, he continued to make his son’s parenting a priority, and didn’t bring Lucille over to the house until their relationship was well-established. Lucille was very loving to Louis, and both adults worked to repair the damage caused by the first wife’s difficult choices.
Soon things had drastically changed: Larry went to work, with long hours put in to climb up the career ladder. Lucille was unhappy with her work, and retired once Larry had a good income. This left Lucille as full-time parent to Louis.
At first she delighted in the role, preparing healthy school lunches and cooking fancy dinners, volunteering as a room mother in Louis’s private school, and even starting a local mom’s group. The two moved to a luxury condo in a fancy area of the city, and Lucille felt frustration with Louis as she tried to keep the place neat and upscale, and he dragged in dirt and dropped crumbs, seemingly wherever he went.
This move added time to Larry’s commute, and as Larry became more successful, leaving work later and later, Lucille began to resent the carpooling, the complaining notes from teachers, the constant crimp in her schedule because she had to be home at 4:00 to meet Louis. She became progressively more irritable with Louis, and let Larry know about her frustrations with the child through emails to work and the minute he came home at night. She blamed him for making Louis self-centered by putting off the chores until he went to bed. Louis’s mother, much less well-off than Larry and Lucille, stopped all child-support, leading to further feelings of resentment and aggravation.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Lucille became pregnant.
The pregnancy certainly didn’t improve matters between Lucille and her step-son. She become more. frustrated with him, insisting his father both put him in after-school programs and find someone to take over her extensive carpooling duties, as well.
The crisis occurred the night before Louis’s spring break, Louis was tossing a ball–as he’d been told so very many times not to do–and, lunging for it, tripped over Lilly’s infant seat, sending both children sprawling and bawling.
When Larry arrived home, Lucille told her husband in no uncertain terms what would happen now. Larry would take his son to work with every day of the vacation, as she had not intention of having Louis around, disturbing and disrupting, every day all day for a week.
Now, let’s try to take a step back and think about how best to avoid this scenario from the get–go. Some of these thoughts are based on How to Win as a Step-Family by Emily and John Visher. So, some lessons for the step-parent:
Don’t come on too strong, overwhelming step-children and setting up expectations you can’t meet. Hold back and let your step-children approach you.
Do acknowledge that the relationship between you and your step-children is just forming. If you say you love them right off the bat, they often won’t believe you and may discredit other things you say.
Remember that step-children will be different from children raised by you. If you try to make them over in your children’s image, it will get in the way of developing a good relationship with them. Household rules simply can’t make a person take a new shape. Often step-children do eventually absorb some of the new patterns you want them to adapt–but at their own speed.
Find out what things your step-children like and try to make them available, e.g. a basketball net or a favorite drink.
Do things with step-children alone without their parent–something you both like and are good at.
It’s just a fact that you will feel differently about your step-children than you do about your own children. And your step-children will feel differently about you than they do about their own parents. Time can produce a very special relationship if you accept that feelings are different in the beginning and simply cannot be forced.
Similarly, accept that your reactions to your own child and your spouse’s reactions to your “darling 6-year-old” will be different. Support your spouse as s/he begins to relate to your children.
Avoid areas staked out by the child’s own parent. If your step-son says, “Dad says he’ll teach me to sail,” don’t run out to the nearest shipyard.
Sometimes it can take until adulthood for the step-children to realize the caring and special qualities of the step-parent. Be patient.
Don’t mock or criticize the other biological parent. That parent is, not just chromosomally speaking, half the child, so you are really attacking the child. Keep information about that parent’s love life and financial situation away from the child until the parent informs him.
Don’t try to win your step-child through bribery–gifts, special outings, etc.–if your home is more financially comfortable than the other parent’s home. This can backfire, as children can identify with the underdog.
Avoid the “‘romantic antidote marriage fantasy’: my significant other’s first wife/husband was so bad, our new marriage will heal it all.”
And finally, discipline. Now there’s a tough one. But for the first 18-24 months of marriage, view your interaction with your step-children as more like that of a camp counselor with his/her camper. Be there for their safety–but not necessarily for enforcement. It’s only after the marriage is solid and you have come to know your step-children as people–as they have come to view you–that you should take an active role in their discipline.
If you can follow some of these tips, you’re well on your way to making the “mine” and “yours” inherent in remarriages with children into part of a complete and well “ours.”
write by patel