Marriage is a celebration of the commitment of two people and brings together at least two different families each with their own unique cultures, histories, abilities, and wounds. Each partner has their own expectations of themselves and their partner as well as hopes and dreams of what their life together can become. Each bring to the marriage their own traditions, role expectations, and cultures. Most new families quickly learn that “two becoming one” (Genesis 2:24) is a journey that takes time, requires the ability to communicate well, and manage conflict effectively. If that is not enough, becoming a step-parent at the time of marriage can carry an enormous sense of responsibility.
Long ago, someone described the role of step-mother as one where you give a lot of unconditional love with no expectation of being loved in return. The role as a step-parent differs from the role of the child’s natural parent. Healthy step-parents cannot and should not attempt to “replace” or undermine the child’s natural parent. Unlike many nuclear families, members of a new step-family come together following losses due to death or divorce—sometimes both. This fact introduces two potential challenges to the step-family: difficult unresolved emotions and loyalty conflicts.
Some of the difficult unresolved emotions that are present in step-families include fear, anger, guilt, shame, and grief. Parents and children in step-families have experienced many types of losses including loss of stability, dreams, security, trust, and a host of other important things. Attempts to bury or ignore these difficult emotions usually makes a person feel worse, not better, and it makes moving forward in new relationships more challenging. Wise parents and step-parents will manage their personal thoughts and emotional states and respond to their children and adolescents in a way that is supportive and does not make the child/adolescent responsible for adult well-being. It is worth mentioning that not all members of a new step-family deal with difficult emotions in the same way.
Loyalty conflicts impact the entire step-family system and extend to multiple households. For example, loyalty conflicts often occur in children and adolescents in step-families often because of fear of additional loss of parental love and relationship. This conflict can impact child and adolescent emotions and behavior in many ways. For example, in step-families kids sometimes spend some time with their “other natural parent” in another home. Sometimes families notice behavior changes around the time to transition to the other home. In some cases, kids may become uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn—or argumentative and combative. It is helpful when parents and step-parents recognize the roles of fear and anxiety beneath the shifts in behavior. Having a well-defined, but not rigid, structure in your home can help children and adolescents learn to manage their own emotions and expectations. Allowing a transitioning children and adolescents to adapt to the differences between the two homes can be very important to the wellbeing of the child and the family at large. If the child is talkative and interactive during transitions, find a way to make talking and interaction part of the process of transition. On the other hand, if a child is more introverted and needs a period of quiet, make sure the child has a safe and quiet transition that is less intense and free from questions and the need for interaction with the rest of the family.
Loyalty conflicts also impact parents and step-parents with the capacity to alter self-confidence and self-esteem. When a child or adolescent’s response to a loyalty conflict takes the form of avoidance of contact or closeness or sometimes behavior that in effect pushes the natural parent and/or step-parent away from the child,the adults in the family can also fear loss of connection and relationship. Rather than reacting to the child or adolescent out of fear, natural parents and step-parents can consider whether the child may be afraid to become too connected out of a sense of responsibility or loyalty to their natural parent OR possibly fear of more relationship losses. In any case, natural parents and step-parents alike can take comfort in not personalizing child/adolescent behavior and knowing that it will take time for another person’s child to feel comfortable with and connected in the new family. It will take more time to trust the step-parent, especially if the child has experienced trauma and/or other losses. When adults in the family are safe, consistent, and reliable, trust can be built.
Natural parents and step-parents need to work out conflicts between the couple that involve the children privately, rather than in front of the children. It is usually best when parents and step-parents speak with one voice to the child to make sure the message s/he receives is consistent. Especially at first, it is best if the parent (rather than the step-parent) takes responsibility for disciplining his/her own children. Additionally, while the ideal is that a child’s parents have similar values and parenting styles and share co-parenting responsibilities, all too often a child experiences dramatic differences between his/her two homes and continued, unresolved conflict between natural parents and step-parents. A frustrated adolescent once commented, “I feel like a hockey puck that is slammed back and forth between my parents. I’m just skimming across the top of the ice, cold and connected to no one.” I have never met a parent or step-parent that wanted that experience for his/her child. For that reason, it is important for step-families to work things out with the other household(s) and develop a co-parenting partnership as much as possible. If that is not possible, continue to do your part to protect and enhance the child’s safety, stability, and security and support the child as s/he grows into the person that God created him/her to be.
With the understanding that you can only control what happens inside your own home, do your best NOT to say anything negative about the other natural parent or household in the presence of the child. Instead when you can, say something positive about the child’s other natural parent or other step-parent. Build a strong partnership with your spouse and be open to the children that are in the home, however brief the period of time. Acknowledge to yourself that it will take time to build a sense of who are becoming together as a family. Know also that step-family boundaries need to be more permeable than those of the traditional nuclear family to allow family members to move freely between other family systems to which they have connections. The older the children are at the time the step-family comes together, typically the longer the amount of time it will take to form a sense of cohesion. Remember that no one is perfect and that mistakes are going to occur. Give yourself, spouse, the children, and others in the family grace and learn how to move forward.
We are here to support you in your journey so give us a call and let’s set up a time to meet and connect! If you’re specifically interested in Co-Parenting, we recommend and use the One Heart, Two Homes curriculum developed by Tammy and Jay Daughtry
Toni Durnal Dunning, MA, LMFT #MFC51248