Blended Families, Part II

Blended Families, Part II
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents
drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad
behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting
bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting
or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children’s
behavior by changing the way the parents approach the children.
This is part II of a four-part series. Please read Part I before
reading this article.
The following four general principles can help make this
difficult transition a bit smoother:
1) Establish the stepparent as more of a friend or counselor
rather than a disciplinarian. (See more on this on page 27.)
2) Limit your expectations. Know that you will probably give a
lot of time, energy, love and affection that will not be returned
immediately. Think of it as making small investments that may one
day yield a lot of interest, but do not expect anything in return
for now. As parents get ready to expand the family, remember…
3) Be realistic. Things will not be perfect overnight.
4) Be patient. Good relationships take time and kids need time
to trust and learn to count on you.
Stepsiblings also need time to get to know each other.
This is no different from the development of any other relationship.
After this has occurred, the relationship between the stepsiblings
during visits will become an issue, for better or worse. Healthy
bonding will help each stepsibling adjust to the changes of
visitation and fit in with the new family configuration. Rivalry,
jealously, etc. will compound the difficulties of creating two
households. This is especially evident in what I call the
“Expanded” blended family.
The Expanded blended family occurs when one parent may not
actually marry a new person; rather, he or she dates one who,
probably but not always has his or her own children, pets, or other
attachments who are even more distant from the primary two biological
parents. Now, the child has to adjust to not only the separation
of the two bio-parents, but to the new relationships of the
bio-parents AND to the siblings of the new relationship, AND to any
other person in the new adult’s life (aunts, uncles, grandmothers,
etc.). This complexity is one factor, but the still uncertain role
of this new adult and/or “others” is another, driving the child to
feel more protective of his or her time with the bio-parent and not
wanting to share him or her with the new adult. If the bio-parent
actually marries the new adult, the issue resolves some because the
child gets the message that the new relationship is permanent.
The message at that point is “get used to it.” Luckily, most humans
are capable of bonding, so even if the new adult relationship does not
result in marriage right away, continued exposure also wears down the
child’s resistance, and so some acceptance of the new adult usually
occurs with time.
One clinical note: People who have an insecure attachment
history may have problems establishing close, loving bonds with new
people, regardless. Fortunately, it is never too late to change
this tendency. An insecurely attached child (or adult) can learn to
trust others, and bond with people who treat him or her with consistent
affection, attention, and respect. Again, likely this will take
considerable time, more so with attachment-impaired players. To
expedite this process, call a therapist.
One unexpected phenomenon related to divorce is that it often
brings full brothers and sisters emotionally closer to one another,
even if they were not close earlier. Realize that your children,
with their shared past experiences, are not always thorns in each
other’s sides. They are often natural sources of comfort and support
for one another. This is true of adult children if their parents
separate and/or divorce later in their lives. Do what you can to
foster such relationships and resist the temptation to view them as
threatening or divisive. Stepsiblings occasionally demonstrate this
bonding as a bulwark against the stress of dealing with new adults,
but as a rule, do not expect this to happen. At first, they are more
likely to compete with each other, vying for space, things and
personal influence over the adults.
Lastly, here are two observations I put together just from my
experiences as a child psychologist:
1) Both boys and girls in stepfamilies tend to prefer verbal
affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical
closeness, like hugs and kisses. Girls tend to be uncomfortable
with physical displays of affection from their stepfather.
2) Boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.
For more information on Kids and Divorce, see the resource box, below.
-Dr. Griggs

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