Step Families

Beverly Bliss, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist, Madison, WI


Statistics

The Statistics Are Staggering:

One out of two marriages ends in divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages fail, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 66% of marriages and living together situations end in break up, when children are actively involved, according to Stepfamily Foundation statistics. It is predicted that 50% of children in the US will go through a divorce before they are 18. Approximately half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. By the year 2000, according to the Census Bureau, more Americans will be living in step families than in nuclear families.

In his 1994 study, "The Changing Character of Stepfamilies," Professor of Sociology Larry L. Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin challenges the common perception that the stepfamily is defined by marriage. His research states that:

  • About half of the 60 million children under the age of thirteen in this country are currently living with one biological parent and that parent's current partner.
  • Nearly half of all women, not just mothers, are likely to live in a stepfamily relationship, when we include living-together families in our definition of the stepfamily.

Therefore, we have already become a nation of step-relating individuals.

However, most graduate schools of psychiatry, psychology, and social work provide no specific training in dealing with these particular dynamics of stepfamilies. Often, the methods and information appropriate to the nuclear family can be destructive . . . if applied to the highly specific dynamics of the stepfamily system.

According to Elizabeth Carter, ACSW, Family Institute of Westchester, "Our culture provides no guidelines . .. It is our experience that this is one of the most difficult transitions for families to negotiate." Carter continues, "Our cultural forms, rituals and assumptions still relate chiefly to the intact, first marriage family, and the most ordinary event, such as filling out a form or celebrating a holiday, can become a source of acute embarrassment or discomfort for members of remarried families."

Rules for Stepfamilies from the Stepfamily Association

Ten Steps for Steps, by Jeannette Lofas


Step 1. Recognize that the stepfamily will not and can not function as does a natural family. It has its own special state of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, these behaviors can become predictable and positive. Do not try to overlay the expectations and dynamics of the intact or natural family onto the stepfamily.
Step 2. Recognize the hard fact that the children are not yours and they never will be. We are stepparents, not replacement parents. Mother and father (no matter how AWFUL the natural parents) are sacred words and feelings. We are stepparents, a step removed, yet in this position can still play a significant role in the development of the child.
Step 3. Super stepparenting doesn't work. Go slow. Don't come on too strong.
Step 4. Discipline styles must be sorted out by the couple. The couple, ideally with the help of a Stepfamily Foundation trained professional, needs to immediately and specifically work out what the children's duties and responsibilities are. What is acceptable behavior and what are the consequences when children misbehave? Generally, in the beginning, we suggest that the biological parent does the disciplining as much as is feasible. The couple together specifically works out jobs, expected behaviors and family etiquette.
Step 5. Establish clear job descriptions between the parent, stepparent and respective children. What specifically is the job of each one of us in this household? We need to be as detailed as we are in business.
Step 6. Know that unrealistic expectations beget rejections and resentments. There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild and invariably cruel stepmother of fairy tales. Note the absence of myth around the stepfather. It is vital for the survival of the stepfather to be able to see and delineate expectations for each member of the family, especially the primary issues of upset in step: e.g., money, discipline, the prior spouse, visitation, authority, emotional support, territory and custody.
Step 7. There are no ex-parents . . . only ex-spouses. Begin to get information on how to best handle the prior spouse.
Step 8. Be prepared for conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship. In the intact family, the couple comes together to have a child. The child is part of both parents, generally pulling the parents' energy together for the well-being of the child. In step, blood and sexual ties can polarize a family in opposite energies and directions.
Step 9. The conflict of loyalties must be recognized right from the beginning. The conflict is particular to step and is a round robin of confused emotions. Often, just as the child in step begins to have warm feelings toward the stepparent, the child will pull away and negatively act out. He/she feels something like this: "If I love you, that means I do not love my real parent." The feelings are normal and must be dealt with. The pulls of "Who am I loyal to first?" go all the way around in the stepfamily.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it. The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don't know whether to laugh or to cry. Try humor.

Ten Steps for Fathers Who Divorce


Step 1. Accept that guilt is a prime mover in your actions. Most men feel guilty because they lost their family and their power as father to that family. You may also feel guilty if you believe the mother of your children is not doing an adequate job of parenting.
Step 2. Make the most of your visitation. The rules of visitation need to be set precisely and specifically. Children need predictability.
Step 3. The children at your house live by the rules of your house. Your children need to become part of your household, not just guests in your home. Appropriate behavior and acceptable manners must be decided upon by the couple. Chores must be assigned; making beds, helping with meals, keeping the bathroom clean, etc. Structure equals love. Chaos and unpredictability creates low self-esteem in a child.
Step 4. Most men, even the strongest and most powerful, wimp out and turn into ninety-pound weaklings when their children visit. They endeavor to be "buddies" to their child. We so often hear fathers saying, "I see them so little; I don't want to waste time being their disciplinarian." Remember, discipline means guidance.
Step 5. Create high self-esteem in your children. This is done by creating predictable expectations for your children when they come to your house. Predictable rules and regulations will make your children feel safe and secure.
Step 6. Money is always a problem, no matter how much there is. It is often best when children visit to give them a specific allowance for the time they will be with you. In return for the money the child receives, he/she is expected to be a good citizen of the household, do chores, and then use the money as he or she sees fit. If a child needs extra money, we advocate "extra pay for extra jobs."
Step 7. Build and maintain couple strength. Work together with your partner. Discussion is okay, but arguments are not. Be respectful of her reality as well as your own regarding the assignment of chores. Work this out between you, or seek the help of a Stepfamily Foundation counselor. The couple are the two pillars that hold the family together: She is the female head of the household; he is the male head of the household.
Step 8. The couple decides the rules of discipline. The couple decides the Rules of the House: chores and manners. The biological parent disciplines the child whenever possible. When necessary the stepparent says, "In this house we . . ." in order to avoid the "You're not my mother; you can't tell me what to do" syndrome.
Step 9. Creating a structure is vital for the children. This requires extending the Rules of the House to all events. This structure makes it easy for kids to know what to do at your house. It doesn't matter that the rules are different than Mom's. Creating a structure means creating high self-esteem. Children like themselves better when they know that they have done a good job and are part of a team.
Step 10. Remember that you are the father and the male head of the household. Men teach children the ways of the still dominant, male hierarchical business structure.

10 Steps for Mothers in Step Relationships Whose Men Have Never Been Biological Parents Before


Step 1. The stepfamily cannot and will not function as does the intact family. It has its own special set of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, these behaviors can become predictable and positive. The tendency of many is to overly the expectations and dynamics of the intact or natural family onto the stepfamily. Others simply deny there is a problem.
Step 2. Be prepared for the conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship. In the intact family, the couple comes together to have a child. The child is part of both parents, generally pulling the parents' energy together for the well-being of the child. In step, blood and sexual ties can polarize the family in opposite directions.
Step 3. The conflict of loyalties must be recognized right from the beginning. This conflict is particular to step and is a cycle of confused emotions. Often just as the child is beginning to have warm feelings for the stepparent, the child will suddenly pull away and negatively act out. He/she feels something like this: "If I love you, that means I do not love my real parent." The feelings are normal and must be dealt with. The pulls of "Who am I loyal to first?" go all the way around in the stepfamily.
Step 4. Discipline styles must be sorted out by the couple. Be aware that he may not dote over your children. Or, he may move right in and become the "new Daddy" the needed disciplinarian. The couple, best with the help of a Stepfamily Foundation trained professional, needs to work out immediately and specifically what the children's duties and responsibilities are. What is acceptable behavior and what are the consequences when the children misbehave? Generally, in the beginning, we suggest that the biological parent does the disciplining as much as is feasible. The couple together specifically works out jobs, expected behaviors and family etiquette.
Step 5. Over-disciplining. Watch it! As a biological mother, you can perceive his often-needed discipline as too much too soon. This can bring on the tiger mother or mamma bear protecting her young from the outsider syndrome.
Step 6. Teach him that super stepparenting doesn't work. Teach him to go slow . . . and not to come on too strong.
Step 7. Know that unrealistic expectations beget rejections and resentments. There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild and invariably cruel stepmother of fairy tales. Note the absence of myth around the stepfather. It is vital for the survival of the stepfather to be able to see and delineate expectations for each member of the family, especially the primary issues of upset in step: e.g., money, discipline, the prior spouse, visitation, authority, emotional support, territory and custody.
Step 8. Competition often occurs between a new love and her children. He may feel as though he is directly competing with them. He may be . . .HE DOESN'T HAVE TO. Sort that out. Time, energy and money allocations -- as a couple. Recognize that you have had many more years playing mother to them than lover to him.
Step 9. Usually you feel that you have not had enough time with your children and feel the need to catch up when you are together. Guilt may be a motivating factor. But discuss and agree about time spent with your man and time spent with your children.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it. The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don't know whether to laugh or cry. Try humor - for both of you.

10 Steps for Men in Stepfamilies


Step 1. The stepfather can't function as does the biological father. He is not the father and cannot function that way even if he lives with the children. The biological father always maintains that role even if he does not live with his children full time. Together with his wife, the children's mother, he can be a guide, a mentor, and even a psychological father to the stepchildren, over time. Go slow.
Step 2. The norms and forms of discipline must be discussed and agreed to by the couple. Generally, the biological parent does the disciplining and the stepparent reminds, "In this house we . . ."
Step 3. "Overdisciplining Your Stepchildren." Watch It! The biological mother can perceive it as too much, too often. This can bring on the mama-bear-protecting-her-young-from-the-outsider syndrome.
Step 4. "Underdisciplining Your Own Children" Watch It! The biological father without custody misses his kids and fears the loss of affection and his personal input to his children. This is a legitimate fear. The less time he has with them, the less he wants to discipline. Children need parents, even visiting parents, to set up predictable structures and limits. Set up the rules quickly so you spend less time disciplining.
Step 5. Structuring the household is a shared task between husband and wife. How is the time, energy and money used? What contributions, duties, and responsiblities are made by each member of the household? These must be sorted out and decided by the couple. Generally, the biological parent does the disciplining.
Step 6. Predictability and organization create intimacy. In a home with structure parents and children spend less time negotiating and arguing. Parent/child power struggles over repetitive issues waste time and undermine the child's self-esteem. Talking about real issues and creating intimacy should be the goal during these limited times together.
Step 7. If things don't work, the tendency is to withdraw. Don't. Stepfathering is complicated, and the notion of not being the "master" of your own household is tough. Indeed, the mother may be lax on discipline. Indeed, you want to change things. Stepfathering has to do with parenting. You and the mother must, together, work out the forms and norms.
Step 8. Unrealistic expectations beget rejections and resentments. There are few models for stepfathers. Learn the dynamics of step and divorce. Know what to expect and what not to expect.
Step 9. Be aware of a conflict between sexual and biological pulls in stepfamily relationships. In the original family the couple comes together to have a child, and together their energies focus on that child. The child is an extension of themselves. In step the child is connected to only one person in the couple. The blood ties and sexual ties can be polarized and can pull the couple in opposite directions.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it.

Ten Steps to Building Couple Strength


Step 1. Schedule time to go out alone, to dine alone. Don't talk about step issues. Talk about the movie you have just seen, Russia and the United States, the latest gossip, poetry, anything but step issues. Talk about the things you used to talk about when you first fell in love.
Step 2. Strong leadership provides stability for the new relationships forming in the stepfamily. Discipline is dealt with authority and unity from the couple. Anger and dissension between the couple over discipline and other issues are better discussed privately. Learn to agree and learn to disagree. Table negative issues. Resolve them with a counselor.
Step 3. Use the Time, Energy and Money grid described in Jeannette Lofas' book Stepparenting to structure the household. All members will know their role and duties in the family. There will be rewards for completing chores and consequences for not competing duties. All are spelled out and known to family members.
Step 4. Clearly sort out discipline and guidance methods and styles as a couple. Couples decide on discipline and bio-parent generally directs behavior. In the absence of the bio-parent, the stepparent reminds the child of household rules. He/she might begin "in this house we . . ." An effective parent or stepparent disciplines the action and the behaviors and does not put down the child, thereby keeping the child's self-esteem intact.
Step 5. Don't take kid's negative behavior as a personal insult. Speak to the children about feelings, fears and concerns. When you notice 'acting out behavior' the need to act out diminishes in direct proportion to the child's feelings of being acknowledged.
Step 6. "Make wrongs" don't work in good relationships. "I" messages work. "You" messages make wrong. Being righteous and right allows one to feel good only for moments.
Step 7. Know the dynamics of step. Know when to attribute (blame) the step situation and know when it is something that you as a couple must sort out.
Step 8. Love is respecting and dealing with each other's neuroses. Love entails going above the negative data, without blame, and going for the desired outcome as an individual, a couple and as a stepfamily.
Step 9. Learn how to work the A-B reality described in Stepparenting.
Step 10. The couple presents themselves as male and female heads of the household. Remember, there is no sense of family or stepfamily without the couple strength.

Ten Steps When Your Man Has Children Your Age


Step 1. Recognize that he has had many more years playing father to them than lover to you. You may have to make allowances, give him time. Remember, there are limits. You are the adult and are to be treated as such. He is their father, and to be treated with respect. Counseling will enable you to define them realistically.
Step 2. Competition often occurs between a new love and his children. You may feel like you are directly competing with them. You may be . . . YOU DON'T HAVE TO.
Step 3. If you are close in age he may treat you like one of the children. This diminishes your authority, and his too. Gently, point out how he does that. Get an agreement between both of you.
Step 4. He feels the need to "catch up" when they are together. Usually he feels that he has not had enough time with his children. Guilt may be the motivating factor. Discuss and agree on expectations about time spent with you and time spent with his children.
Step 5. The sexual bonds between you and your man may come into conflict between him and his children. The conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship can polarize the family.
Step 6. You may feel that his girls "come on" to him. What he calls cute, and loving may seem too sexual to you. Competition between daughter and his woman can be strong. Whose man is he anyway? You can often gain ground by giving them time together and gently clarifying with him what is sexual and what is affectionate behavior.
Step 7. Establish clear job descriptions and expected behaviors between the parent and the stepparent. What is specifically the job of each one of us in the household? We need to be specific.
Step 8. The couple needs to agree on discipline styles. The natural parent generally disciplines, the stepparent says, "in this house we . . ."
Step 9. The issue of money, the "buy me, do me" wants of the children, plus the allocation of money in general may come as a "negative surprise." Talk about it in a "non blaming" way.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it.

Ten Steps for Grandparents-in-step, by Carolyn Berger


Step 1. Recognize the Dynamics of Step: The stepfamily has its own special state of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, the behaviors can become predictable and positive. DO NOT try to overlay the expectations and dynamics of the intact and natural family onto the stepfamily. To learn more about step, literature is available.
Step 2. Give yourself time to grieve over the loss of the biological family: A stepfamily comes about upon a death or divorce in a nuclear family. Grandparents need to mourn the loss of that relationship before they can become a part of the stepfamily. Anger, resentment and fears are normal.
Step 3. Value yourself as a grandparent: Grandparents and stepparents are wonderful resource people. You have a lot to offer, such as unconditional love, family history and your life experience. Share!
Step 4. Reserve judgments: Negative judgments with a child can serve to increase the child's sense of confusion, conflict of loyalties and impact his self-esteem.
Step 5. There are no ex-grandparents, only ex-spouses. If you feel that you are not being treated fairly as a grandparent, find a way to establish your rights through a family conference, a grand parenting organization or legal means, if necessary.
Step 6. Step-grand parenting: Go slow and see where your grand parenting skills are needed. Be prepared for the conflicts of biological and step feelings in you if there is more than one set of children in a household.
Step 7. Holidays, traditions and rituals: Maintain family rituals in your home as you wish them to remain. Adapt to new traditions in the stepfamily as they develop.
Step 8. Wills, family heirlooms: Money generally follows biological family. Don't be hasty to reassign family heirlooms or assets. Consult your attorney for legal matters.
Step 9. Listen: be an impartial sounding board to your grandchildren or step grandchildren. At times they might need someone just to listen.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it: The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don't know whether to laugh or cry. Try humor.

Books and Resources on Stepfamilies

John Gottman.

Dr. Gottman writes both popular press books and professional research based books as well. I find his work to be the most helpful in knowing what processes are critical in coaching parenting and couple relationships. Understanding the findings of his research is powerful in recognizing both destructive and adaptive processes and intervening with families. His most current book with Dr. Jacobson about domestic violence is a "must read" for professionals who work with families.

Gottman, J.M. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. 1995.

Gottman, J.M. The Heart of Parenting. 1997.

Gottman, J.M. and N. Jacobson. When Men Batter Women. Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Research Based Books:

Gottman, J.M. What Predicts Divorce. Hillsdale, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1994.

Gottman, J.M. Meta-emotion: How Families Communicate Emotionally. Hillsdale, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1997.

Janet Johnston.

Those who work with divorce would benefit by reading anything that Janet writes. She has worked with divorcing families in the Bay area and conducted research with families and children. She has pulished a variety of papers and two books. The first book provides one of the best paradigms for understanding the problems of divorce. The most current book summarizes work and clinical experience working with families,

Johnston, Janet R. and Linda Campbell. Impasses of Divorce, The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict, Free Press, 1988.

Johnston, Janet and Vivienne Roseby. In the Name of the Child. A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce. Free Press, 1997.

Popular Press Books on Step Families:

Visher, Emily and John Brunne. How to Win as a Step-family. Mazel, New York, 1982, 1991.

Kaufman, Taube S., et. al. The Combined Family : A Guide to Creating Successful Step-Relationships. Hardcover.

Glassman, Bruce. Everything You Need to Know About Stepfamilies. Need to Know Library. Library Binding.

Kelley, Patricia, Ph.D. Developing Healthy Stepfamilies : Twenty Families Tell Their Stories Haworth Marriage & the Family. Paperback.

Leman, Kevin. Living in a Step Family Without Getting Stepped On : Helping Your Children Survive the Birth Order Blender.

Bloomfield, Harold H., M.D. Making Peace in Your Stepfamily : Surviving and Thriving as Parents and Stepparents.

Pickhardt, Carl E. Parenting Keys: Keys to Successful Stepfathering. Barron's Parenting Keys.

Eckler, James D. Step-by Step-parenting: a Guide to Successful Living with a Blended Family.

Roosevelt, Ruth. Living in Step.

Williams, Stephen J. The Stepparent Challenge : A Primer for Making It Work.

Alberta, Linda and Elizabeth Einstein. Strengthening Your Stepfamily.

Sanders, Pete, and Steve Meyers with photographer Mike Lacey. What Do You Know About Stepfamilies. The book defines and explores stepfamilies, using a story in comic-strip form that provides examples of situations discussed in the text. Important issues are raised but are rarely explored effectively.

Weitzman, Elizabeth. Let's Talk About Living in a Blended Family. Provides advice on how to accept and deal with the challenges of living in a stepfamily, or blended family.

Bloch-Jones, Merry and Jo Ann Schiller. Stepmothers : Keeping It Together With Your Husband and His Kids.

Mulford, Philippa Greene. Keys to Successful Stepmothering. Barron's Parenting Keys.

Stokes, Jim. The Survival Guide to Step-Parenting. Blue Bird Publishing. August 1997.

Celia, S. T. How to Be a Good Stepmom. A realistic handbook for stepmother savvy. Over 40 hints, tips and pieces of advice.

Burns, Cherie. Stepmotherhood : How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked. HarperCollins. October 1986.

Keenan, Barbara Mullen. When You Marry a Man With Children: How to Put Your Marriage First and Stay in Love. Pocket Books. May 1992.

Kaufman, Taube S., Glenn D. Slovenko, Helen Coale. The Combined Family : A Guide to Creating Successful Step-Relationships. Plenum Publishing Corp. September 1993.

Nelsen, Jane, Cheryl Erwin, and H. Stephen Glenn. Positive Discipline for Blended Families : Nurturing Harmony, Respect, and Unity in Your New Stepfamily. Positive Discipline Library. Prima Publishing. August 1997.

Smith, Donna. Stepmothering. St. Martin's Press. October 1990.

Lofas, Jeannette and Dawn B. Sova. Stepparenting.

Berman, Claire. Making It As a Stepparent: New Roles/New Rules. HarperCollins. February 1986.

Newman, Margaret. Stepfamily Realities: How to Overcome Difficulties and Have a Happy Family. New Harbinger Publications. April 1994.

Cerquone, Joseph. You're a Stepparent . . . Now What? A Guide to Parenting in Families With Nonbiological Children. New Horizon Press. September 1994.

Williams, Stephen J. The Stepparent Challenge : A Primer for Making It Work. Master Media. June 1993.

Palmer, Nancy S., William D. Palmer, and kay Marshall Strom. The Family Puzzle : Putting the Pieces Together : A Guide to Parenting the Blended Family. Pinon Press. May 1996. Helping parents of blended families to avoid the common pitfalls in the blending process and recognize the unique benefits of their new situation, this book teaches the ins and outs of step-parenting, how to deal with ex-spouses, assorted relatives, friends, and ways to make the transition as smooth as possible for the the children involved.

Books for Kids

Ford, Melanie, Annie Ford, Steven Ford, and Jan Blackstone-Ford. My Parents Are Divorced, Too : A Book for Kids by Kids. Reading Level: Ages 9-12. Magination. April 1997.

Sanford, Doris E. and Graci Evans. My Real Family: A Child's Book About Living in a Stepfamily. Hurts of Childhood Series. Reading Level: Ages 4-8. Questar Publishing. June 1993.

Beer, William R. Strangers in the House: The World of Stepsiblings and Half-Siblings Transaction Publishing. April 1989.

Fassler, David, Michele Lash, and Sally Ives. Changing Families: A Guide for Kids and Grown-Ups. Waterfront Books. February 1988.

Gardner, Richard. The Boys and Girls Book About Stepfamilies. Creative Therapeutics. August 1985 (reprint edition).

Coleman, William L. What You Should Know About Getting Along With a New Parent by William L. Coleman. Augsburg Fortress Publishing. August 1992.

Lewis, Helen Coale. All About Families: The Second Time Around: A Book for Boys and Girls and Their Parents and Their Stepparents. Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic. April 1980.

Stepfamily Foundation

Stepfamily Foundation, Inc.
333 West End Ave.
New York, NY 10023
(212) 877-3244
fax (212) 362-7030
24 hour information line (212) 799-STEP
Web Site: http://www.stepfamily.org
E-mail: Stefamily@aol.com

Copyright © 1998 Beverly Bliss.

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