On Being A Step-Parent
My parents divorced when I was five, and I acquired step-parents, step-sisters, and a half-brother -- making me an oddity in the 1950s. Today, the step-family is fast becoming the normal family unit.
People are often in their second or third marriages, with children from previous unions, plus biological children from their current marriage.
I talked with Jean McBride and Mary Robertson, marriage/family therapists, who offer workshops and counseling for divorced and remarrying families.
According to them, today's statistics show that 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce; 80 percent of divorced or widowed people remarry within three to five years -- and those unions can be vulnerable to divorce without therapy intervention.
However, Jean and Mary emphasize the positive behind these depressing figures. Divorce is often best for all parties. No longer is there a stigma attached to the step-family; in fact, there is greater acceptance of all types of family units. The wicked step-mother portrayed in fairy tales is more myth than reality -- the step-family scenario can be quite successful.
Advice For Step-Parents
- Education yourself on what being a step-parent means; it is different from the role of a biological parent. Join a support group or read books on the topic. Recommended is "Step-Family Realities" by Margaret Newman. Contact the Step-Family Association of America, out of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Step-parents themselves, the group offers a newsletter, catalogue of books,
conferences and on-call counseling. Call 402-477-STEP.
- Work on your relationship with your spouse -- for the couple is the architect of the family. Discuss expectations and problems that arise.
- Introduce children to a possible mate gradually during dating. After marriage, realize that it will take time (from 18 months to two years) for children and adults to get acquainted and adjust. After all, it was the
adults who fell in love with each other, not the kids.
- Be flexible and understanding in your expectations, demands and time. Situations can be even more complicated with two sets of step-parents, step-children, and half-brothers and sisters. Biological parents and children need time together, as well as the newly formed family unit. Responding to individual needs is even more important when mates bring adolescent children to a new union. The teenager's goal is for autonomy, at the same time that a new family requires greater togetherness to bond.
- Make your mate's job as step-parent as easy as possible. Remind children that he/she should be treated with respect. Remember that the biological mate has the primary responsibility. A step-parent shouldn't be a co-equal with the biological parent in terms of discipline; this could be a set-up for failure.
But the step-parent can be empowered to deal with situations when necessary. Use a family conference to establish house rules and avoid power struggles. The babysitter model works well in terms of discipline. The biological mate can state to children, "Your step-dad will be in charge while I'm gone". And the step-parent can state, "This is the house rule." or "Your mother wants your homework done before you watch television."
- Realize that as a step-parent, you can play a special role as a mentor and friend. But don't try to replace the biological parent or put the child in the middle of parental quarrels. Even if the biological parent is dead, he or she still holds an emotional place. It's important to say, "I can't be your dad, but I care about you. I am here for you as your step-dad, if you need me; and I want to be your friend."
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Pam Wynne Fellers is a local free-lance writer and mother. This
informaton originally ran in the Parent to Parent column she writes for
The Coloradoan, a daily Fort Collins, CO newspaper.
Parent To Parent: On Being A Step-Parent / EpiTwo@aol.com