Toni Durnal Dunning MA, LMFT
Marriage is a celebration of the commitment of two people and brings together at least two different families. Each partner to the marriage has his or her own expectations of him/herself and their partner as well as hopes and dreams of what their life together can become. Bride and groom each bring to the marriage their own traditions, role expectations, and cultures. Most new families quickly learn that “two becoming one” (Genesis 2:24) is a journey that takes time, requires the ability to communicate well, and manage conflict effectively. If that is not enough, becoming a step-parent at the time of marriage can carry an enormous sense of responsibility.
Long ago, someone described the role of step-mother as one where you give a lot of unconditional love with no expectation of being loved in return. The role as a step-parent differs from the role of the child’s natural parent. Step-parents cannot and should not attempt to “replace” or undermine the child’s natural parent. Unlike many nuclear families, members of a new step-family come together following losses due to death or divorce—sometimes both. This fact introduces two potential challenges to the step-family: difficult unresolved emotions and loyalty conflicts.
Some of the difficult unresolved emotions that are present in step-families include fear, anger, guilt, shame, and grief. Parents and children in step-families have experienced many types of losses including loss of stability, dreams, security, and a host of other important things. Attempts to bury or ignore these difficult emotions usually makes a person feel worse, not better, and it makes moving forward in new relationships more challenging. It is worth mentioning that not all members of a new step-family deal with difficult emotions in the same way.
Loyalty conflicts can occur in children in step-families because a child fears rejection and loss of parental love and relationship. This conflict can impact a child’s emotions and behavior in many ways. For example, children in step-families sometimes spend some time with their “other natural parent” in another home. Often, there are behavior changes in the child around the time to transition to the other home. The child may become uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn—or argumentative and combative. Wise parents and step-parents will notice this shift in the child and understand that fear and anxiety lie beneath. Having a well-defined (but not rigid) structure in your home can help the child learn to manage his/her own emotions and expectations. Allowing a transitioning child to adapt to the differences between the two homes can be very important to the wellbeing of the child and the family at large. If the child is talkative and interactive during transitions, find a way to make talking and interaction part of the process of transition. On the other hand, if a child is more introverted and needs a period of quiet, make sure the child has a safe and quiet transition that is less intense and free from questions and the need for interaction with the rest of the family.
A frustrated adolescent once commented, “I feel like a hockey puck that is slammed back and forth between my parents. I’m just skimming across the top of the ice, cold and connected to no one.”
Loyalty conflicts often have a dire impact the step-parent, having the capacity to alter self-confidence and self-esteem. A child or adolescent’s response to a loyalty conflict can take the form of avoidance of contact or closeness or sometimes behavior that in effect pushes the step-parent away from the child. Step-parents need not personalize the child’s behavior and should consider whether the child may be afraid to become too attached to the step-parent out of a sense of responsibility or loyalty to their natural parent. In any case, know that it will take time for another person’s child to feel comfortable with and trust the step-parent, especially if the child has experienced trauma and/or other losses.
Natural parents and step-parents need to work out conflicts between the couple that involve the children privately, rather than in front of the children. It is usually best when parents and step-parents speak with one voice to the child to make sure the message s/he receives is consistent. Especially at first, it is best if the parent (rather than the step-parent) takes responsibility for disciplining his/her own children. Additionally, while the ideal is that a child’s parents have similar values and parenting styles and share “co-parenting” responsibilities, all too often a child experiences dramatic differences between his/her two homes and continued, unresolved conflict between natural parents and step-parents. A frustrated adolescent once commented, “I feel like a hockey puck that is slammed back and forth between my parents. I’m just skimming across the top of the ice, cold and connected to no one.” I have never met a parent or step-parent that wanted that experience for his/her child. For that reason, it is important for step-families to work things out with the other household(s) and develop a co-parenting partnership as much as possible. If that is not possible, continue to do your part to protect and enhance the child’s safety, stability, and security and support the child as s/he grows into the person that God created him/her to be.
With the understanding that you can only control what happens inside your own home, do your best NOT to say anything negative about the other natural parent or household in the presence of the child. Instead when you can, say something positive about the child’s other natural parent or other step-parent. Build a strong partnership with your spouse and be open to the children that are in the home, however brief the period of time. Acknowledge to yourself that it will take time to build a sense of who are becoming together as a family. Know also that step-family boundaries need to be more permeable than those of the traditional nuclear family to allow family members to move freely between other family systems to which they have connections. The older the children are at the time the step-family comes together, typically the longer the amount of time it will take to form a sense of cohesion. Remember that no one is perfect and that mistakes are going to occur. Give yourself, spouse, the children, and others in the family grace and learn how to move forward.