Why are most fairy tales populated with the evil step mother? Is this reality or myth? Here are 7 areas that are especially challenging in step family dynamics.
1. Problems with the “Ex” For the children who go back and forth between two different households, there are inevitably two different sets of rules and expectation. Sometime they not only don’t agree, they might be in out and out conflict. The so-called ‘bio parent’ often not only doesn’t agree with the rules at the other house, but sometimes s/he undermines the discipline at the other household. Very often the requirements of child support and/or alimony puts a financial strain on the other household. Since money represents security for women, the new wife often resents the ex-wife and the fact that financial resources she wants for her family are going out the other household. These financial disagreements are a major source of conflict in step families.
2. Step families are not the same as bio families In the first place, all step families are born of loss. Whether the original family unit was married, there is still disappointment and dissolution by a divorce, or if there was never a marriage, there is always a sense of loss. Children want Mom and Dad back together, even if they were never married, and the feelings that accompany a re/marriage drive a stake into the heart of that dream. Is it any wonder that children are often cited as the reasons for the demise of a re-marriage? Each family represented in this new marriage enjoyed their own rituals and traditions--think opening gifts on Christmas day vs. Christmas Eve—or do we spend holidays at home or do we travel for family vacation or family gatherings? It takes a lot longer for step families to build relationships and start functioning well and typically requires a concerted effort and can spread out over somewhere between 3 and 5 years. If the children are teens, it might take even longer. For step families, one of the best indicators of a successful marriage tends to have more to do with the respective relationships between the step parent and his/her stepchildren than upon the marriage per se..
3. Discipline issues. Because the biological parent experiences more authority and credibility than the step parent will ever enjoy, there are unique discipline issues that arise within the step family. One of the most disturbing and destructive dynamic that exists is that the biological parent steps back from their responsibilities and defaults their job to the step parents. Often the bio parent feels guilty about the divorce and feels sorry for the children so there is not enough discipline that takes back. Typically the step parent sees that and is frustrated with it so they over compensate and over discipline. The result: frustration for the step parent, resentment from the children, and anger from the bio parent. Initially the step parent cannot take on the role of disciplinarian. What seems to be most effective is for the parents to decide between them what the rules and consequences will be for all the children within the household. This discussion takes place outside of the hearing of the children. When the decisions have been made, each parent shares with his/her own children with the comment “we have decided that…..and the consequences will be….”. Also it is the job of bio parents to impart to their children that s/he is conferring the mantle of authority in disciplining to the step parent in the absence of the bio parent.
4. Couple issues All of these problems result in a lot of stress upon the marriage and also on the couple. Very often there is implied or stated competition with the children. The needs of the children in this environment usually are numerous. At the time when a couple is trying to establish their marriage, their children often need them the most. There is fear on the children’s part as well as the adults’ part. Nobody wants another divorce or breakup and the fear of that often drives the couple to be angry and the children resentful. What the children need as much, if not more, than anything else, is a sense of stability. The best way to ensure this stability is to develop and protect the marital relationship.
If you find yourself in the situation of struggling with this or any other issue, look for a counselor that has training and/or experience working with step family situations
Watch for points 5,6, and 7 about step families