Themes in children’s literature put the wicked stepmother or stepfather in a bad light. Less often do we read stories or see films about the positive role a stepparent or a foster parent plays in the life of a child, so no matter how loving and caring, stepparents are often rebuffed. Knowing this will keep the stepparent/foster parent from trying too hard or pushing too soon for a relationship. Patience is the key. Resist the temptation to move quickly into a parental role and take time to be a friendly adult who cares about the children. A stepparent can never win if he or she tries to compete with an idealized parent who, in the eyes of the child, is perfect. The sidebar lists some common unrealistic expectations that will add perspective. Most important is learning how to get along with stepchildren/foster children and taking time to develop a relationship with them.
It can be immensely helpful for couples to anticipate the tough emotional and physical adjustments that are inevitable during the first few years. Rather than crumble under the illusion of unrealistic expectations, the couple establishes a united front to face the reality of the situation. Family cohesion is not the first goal for stepfamily success. The ability to stay flexible is the golden rule. This gives family members the necessary time to get used to one another gradually, so that they can define their roles and relationships accordingly. Family cohesion can be achieved only through the mutual respect and regard that occurs when the newly formed family is living together. Bartolomeo Palisi and his colleagues (1991) found that the couple’s being realistic as well as possessing negotiation skills that lead to united decisions regarding stepchildren are predictors of remarriage adjustment.
Parents Taking Leadership How a family navigates structural change is influenced by cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and cross-generational values and attitudes. Regardless of these influences, family leaders must do whatever they can to protect and provide for the children. Inevitable environmental and relationship changes place the parenting roles in a continual state of flux. Maintaining sufficient structure and stability counterbalances the frequent moving between households. Although leadership of the family lies with the biological parent(s) for the most part, stepparents or surrogate parents play an essential part in leadership decisions.
Research indicates that it is extremely important for the biological mother and father as well as the stepparents to be involved in the lives of the children. Parenting values and practices are a key element to be negotiated in newly formed families. The literature shows that quality and quantity time spent with children has a positive effect on their overall health and resilience. Establishing a foundation of trust and a sense of belonging are crucial in the life of a child. Even after disruptions such as death or divorce, a secure attachment established early in life gives children the capacity to build on that initial bonding (Bell 1974; Bell and Ainsworth 1972).
Clear communication is crucial for creating a stepfamily. The biological parent and stepparent need to create a new identity that incorporates the losses associated with the divorce, especially for the children. Further, there needs to be a frank discussion regarding how they will incorporate the other
biological parent as a parent. On top of this, a plan is needed regarding the role of the child’s other family members from the other biological parent. How will Christmas vacations be handled? When will the child visit his or her grandparents from the other biological parent? These discussions need to take place without the child.
The biological parent and the stepparent also need to establish an identity with the child. This way, the child will be able to engage in a meaningful and proactive way with each. The child may begin adopting the new identity as he or she is part of this new, expanded family. This new identity provides a secure platform for clear communication. This is crucial as clear communication supports both relationship satisfaction and positive outcomes, at least for teens (Pace et al. 2015).
Guidelines for Leadership
Be united in your leadership roles. Don’t initiate major changes (rules and routines) too soon. Establish clearly defined rules in a timely manner. Be flexible and adaptable when possible. Use a weekly family council time to negotiate family goals. Stand together on goals and expectations decided in the family council. Create strategies for making decisions, negotiating solutions, and resolving problems.
Cooperation and collaboration place the emphasis on teamwork in reconstituted families. The leaders set the pace for harmonious interactions. Basic agreement requires constant communication, commitment, and mutual accountability. Learning to work through differences takes persistence and perseverance. Because children are often part of two family systems, they must learn to cooperate and fit in as contributing members in both homes. Teenagers may contribute by assuming a role in childcare, younger children through performing household chores. The entire family may choose to prepare meals as a cooperative venture, everyone pitching in to clean up, and so on. Consulting with children and teens about family responsibilities and rewards brings them into the process as contributing members who also
express their preferences and privileges. When family rules are determined in a democratic way, each member has input and takes responsibility in the cooperative venture. Schedules, lists, routines, and structure help organize the family, while adaptations are made in response to the needs of its unique members. Communicating individual and family needs becomes the joint responsibility of every member and the family as a whole.
Stepparents/Stepchildren It will come as no surprise that the quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship greatly affects the couple relationship. Age is a moderating factor; the younger the children are during the remarriage, the greater the likelihood of success.
Children quite normally experience strain between loyalty to their natural parents and to their stepparents. Stepparents who no longer live with the children from their first marriage may also struggle with loyalty issues. Perhaps moved by guilt to be better parents with the new family, they become more intense, which actually hinders establishing a relationship with their stepchildren.
Balancing the demands of parenting and personal desire for adult companionship and romance can be a tension for divorced parents. In their study of divorced custodial mothers’ orientation toward repartnering, Anderson and Greene (2011) found a continuum from more child-focused to adult-focused mothers. They found that “mothers who are more adult focused tend to be older, more educated, more likely to be employed outside the home, and exiting marriages of longer duration” (741). Predictably, adult- focused mothers report spending less time in joint activities with their children and having lower rapport with them.
Many studies indicate that children can and do form close emotional connections with stepparents. To be successful, stepparents must take sufficient time to form relationships with each child (Ganong, Coleman, and Jamison 2011). The transition experience provides a stabilization process in which stepfamily members begin to think of themselves more as a family unit. When studying thirty-two stepdaughters and seventeen stepsons, Ganong, Coleman, and Jamison (2011) found that the degree to which stepchildren engage in relationship-building and relationship-maintaining behaviors with
stepparents corresponds with their positive evaluation of the stepparents’ contributions.
According to Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly (2002), making a good transition into parenting involves the stepparents’ ability to consider themselves initially as secondary parents. It is especially important for the stepparent to be a warm and supportive friend and refrain from taking on a strong disciplinary role in the beginning. The point is to let the biological parent continue in the disciplinary role and to simply back this role rather than be the one who determines it. The couple is the architect of the newly formed family, and when the spousal relationship is well formed, their joint leadership sets the right tone for the rest of the family. Agreement between stepparents about the rules and roles is a solid building block for discipline strategies and interaction with the children.
The positive stepparent-stepchild relationship keeps members connected and united rather than distant and fragmented. Establishing appropriate boundaries and working out a cooperative relationship with former spouses also goes a long way in keeping the marital dyad strong. In contrast, highly charged, conflicted, or negative relationships with former spouses negatively affect the new couple’s relationship (Shafer et al. 2013).
Stepfathers/Stepchildren In most cases, the mother brings children into the reconstituted family. Thus, the most problematic relationship is usually between the stepfather and the stepchildren. Stepfathers tend to be either very much involved with or disengaged from their stepchildren. Stepfathers who build relationships with stepchildren tend to have more cohesive relationships with the biological parent as well as higher levels of relationship satisfaction (Ganong et al., “Stepfathers’ Affinity Seeking,” 2019).
Initially, both boys and girls tend to be somewhat resistant to a stepfather coming into the home. Over time, he is likely to win them over, especially if he does not take a strict disciplinarian role but works hard to build relationships with his stepchildren. Hetherington and her colleagues (1982) found that boys are generally more open to a stepfather, whereas girls tend to resist his intrusion into their special mother-daughter relationship. Teenage daughters of divorcées seem to have difficulty interacting in appropriate ways with stepfathers, even though they desire and seek male attention.
According to research, girls make a better adjustment after divorce if they are cared for by their mothers, and boys make a better adjustment if they are cared for by their fathers. It seems that girls in the custody of their fathers and boys in the custody of their mothers profit from remarriage. The arrival of stepparents enhances their social development.
William Marsiglio (2004) did a conceptual analysis using in-depth interviews, exploring stepfathers’ experiences in claiming stepchildren as their own. Trying too quickly to construct an unrealistic “we-ness” or isolating oneself in the outsider position hinders the process. Because of the complexity of each situation, the stepfather needs to be wise in establishing a quality, stable connection with stepchildren. In this study, the majority of the men expressed a reasonably strong connection with their stepchildren and took responsibility in practical ways in the home regarding money, discipline, protection, guidance, childcare, and affection. “It was shared daily contact and practical involvement in their stepchildren’s lives that altered their views in almost imperceptible ways” (37). The feeling of “we- ness” developed through joint activities in everyday situations. It seems stepfathers grew closer to their stepchildren as time went on and as they began to think of themselves in the fatherly role. Making an unconditional commitment to the stepchildren and gradually spending time with them helped the stepfathers see the stepchildren as their own.
Some important interrelated benchmarks that emerged in stepfathers claiming stepchildren as their own concerned timing, degree of deliberativeness, degree of identity conviction as a stepfather, having a range of roles in their lives, being mindful of their needs, and seeking recognition in public as a stepfather (Marsiglio 2004). The biological mother’s influence is also important to the stepfathers’ success. When she encourages connection and expects him to take responsibility for her children, it opens an opportunity for him to develop feelings for them. In a real sense, she is making it easy for the stepfather to have a relationship with her children when she asks him to pick up the kids after school, help with homework, and take part in the discipline.
Being a stepparent is an extremely demanding job. You must be relentless in your compassion for the children and refuse to view them as “out to get you.” Trying to create one big, happy family is an erroneous goal, so stepparents should live with the realistic goal of doing everything possible to
live in harmony in the newly formed family. The perseverance, courage, patience, and sacrifice usually offer great rewards.
Marital Tension over Stepchildren The not-so-surprising news is that one falls in love with the person he or she marries but not necessarily with his or her children. Thus, engaging each other’s children may be the most difficult aspect of remarriage. Even when you know you have a lot to offer as a parent, your confidence is easily destroyed by the indifference or rejection of your spouse’s children. Often the stepparent is seen as the unwanted intruder. Stepchildren may automatically spurn and even ridicule your attempts at nurture. When children have been emotionally hurt and disillusioned with life, they hold on to unrealistic fantasies that parents will reunite and make everything better. They can be fiercely determined to defeat the stepparent. This is new territory for both parents and children. No one is ever prepared for such disruption, which has the power to devastate the new marriage.
Such explosion over who has priority—the spouse or the children— creates startling tension between the remarried spouses. Similar marital struggles in a first marriage do not take on such emotional dimensions because the children are the couple’s own. As good as the marriage may be, guilt, anger, and trouble over children can take a serious toll on any marital relationship.
In a stepfamily situation with adolescents, a further complication is that adolescents are entering the life stage when it is common to question, engage in conflict with parents, and challenge authority figures. Under these circumstances, adolescent stepchildren believe the new parent has no right to discipline them. Every attempt must be made to neutralize the dichotomous good parent/bad stepparent thinking so that stepparents can be effective in their leadership.
Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman (2004) found that stepfamilies are more complex than previously thought, and they can function successfully in different ways. However, when stepfamilies are able to construct an identity of their own, and the members can establish relationships with one another, they are well on their way. The study shows that the nature and quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship depends on several factors, such as the stepparent’s investment in the relationship, the stepchild’s
willingness for the relationship, the relationship with the nonresidential parent, and time available.