Building healthy stepfamilies

The image conjured by the word stepfamily is not always a positive one. Think of Snow White’s stepmother or Cinderella’s ugly sisters, or at the other end of the spectrum, the unrealistically happy and positive Brady Bunch! With any stepfamily, the children will have to come to terms with lots of new and, very often, confusing situations that can leave them feeling isolated, confused and anxious.

Going through any change is difficult, and with a new family it takes time to get to know one another.  Through my work as a parent coach, I work with parents to help them create positive stepfamilies. Here are my seven guidelines for an easy transition through the stages of becoming a healthy stepfamily:

  • Home – if possible, start out life as this new family in a home that is new to everyone. This will reduce territory squabbles and hurt feelings, and can help get rid of ghosts from the past.
  • Traditions – develop new traditions and rituals as these will speed up the sense of belonging and connection. This deceptively simple tip is a key part of successful stepfamily life. It doesn’t matter what your rituals are – a pizza on a Wednesday night or a bike ride on a Sunday afternoon – just be consistent.
  • Celebrate – every member of the new family needs to be included. For example, if you keep family photos on your desk then be sure to include photos of your stepchildren too.
  • Nurture – when couples have a good relationship they are able to work together on meeting the needs of their children. Nurture your bond as a new couple – a good marriage also reduces your feelings of being caught in the middle between the children and your new partner.
  • Be flexible – be prepared to adjust visitation and custody timetables, particularly as your children enter adolescence.  As the children get older you may need to let go of some time with your children, which can be a painful experience.  Remember that your teenager’s needs are the overarching concern – teens want to spend a significant amount of time with their friends and it is important that they do.
  • A different perspective – try to see life, situations and problems from a different perspective as this can be an effective tool in creating a loving stepfamily.
  • Communicate – it is not always easy to communicate.  If you find it difficult to listen to one another then getting someone from outside your immediate family to help you separate the wood from the trees can be a great help.

Happy families don’t happen overnight – they take time, patience and persistence, just like anything worthwhile in life. It is about moving slowly and steadily forward while you all adjust to your new life.  By changing the bad image of stepfamilies in your mind – becoming a stepfamily need not be painful, stressful and fraught with animosity.

Sue Atkins is a parenting expert who runs Positive Parents = Confident Kids and the author of Raising Happy Children For Dummies.

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