Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Stepfathers: Get Off To The Right Start

June 17, 2002

You are going into uncharted territory. There are a few landmines around. No, this isn't about war. This is about stepfamily conflict and a delayed strategy for winning. Psychologist James Bray of the Baylor College of Medicine has some helpful guidelines for surviving this hazardous course with minimal wounds and scars. The battlefront terminology is mine.

- Courtship - keep it out of sight. Until you are sure of your commitment, keep the courtship out of sight of the children. Your presence will trigger resentment and anger as they feel their fantasy of mom and dad getting back together threatened.

If the relationship is progressing, your girlfriend should keep the children updated on any remarriage plans. Your presence in their lives now will help them accept the reality of what is happening. She can help by reassuring them that you will not be replacing their dad.

- Give up your nuclear family myth of making this "one happy family." The only thing nuclear will be the explosions going off, around you. For one thing, there is an ex-spouse out there who is the children's father and who will be a part of your family system. And so will his parents. Your children have multiple relationships and loyalties that make a stepfamily unique.

- Don't attack beyond your supply lines. Concentrate on building your relationship with your new wife. Don't jump into step-parenting without first building the bonds you'll need to withstand the pitfalls ahead. Make sure she has one-to-one time with her children so they get some of the attention they are used to. Otherwise, firefights and insurrections will be popping up all over.

Don't be surprised if your wife acts as the enemy. Her loyalties are to the children. She'll be protecting them, even from you. It will take time for her to trust your ideas about parenting. It will take a couple of years before you and your wife become an effective team.

- Be careful about affection. Expression of physical affection in front of the children is hard on children who do not want to see their mother as a sexual being. Displays of affection and passion should be discrete.

Boundaries about dress codes and bathrooms should be established. Stepdaughters are especially wary of physical hugs and touch but welcome verbal acceptance and warmth - especially after the relationship has been established.

- Build relationships slowly. Lay low and keep your head down. All of the anger, hostility, grief and acting out you'll feel swirling around is completely normal. Even if you are a skilled parent with lots of good ideas, active parenting will only make things worse.

Expecting the best is not always the best. Build your relationships with the children gradually. Be interested, friendly, respectful but don't push. Your wife needs to be the primary disciplinarian with her own children. You can be her eyes, ears and support behind the battlefront. It will take at least a couple of years before your presence on the front lines will be accepted.

- Learn tactics for success. Take a parenting class together and understand the issues around authoritarian, permissive, disengaged and authoritative parenting. Work and negotiate strategic goals for now and common tactics for later once you move up to the front lines. Attending support group for stepfamilies will help acquaint you with the unique aspects of stepfamily conflict. Go for counseling help if you need to.

- Family rules will protect you. In the safety of headquarters, each of you independently writes a list of important family rules. Compare and rank the lists. Choose three to five family rules upon which you both agree. Together brief the children on the rules and consequences. Post the rules prominently. When a rule is broken, be matter of fact and explain you are enforcing what the general (mother) wants.

One family rule should be courtesy. Not respect, just courtesy. Especially courtesy. Courtesy will carry the day until genuine relationships have-been formed. Be fair if your children are involved or come to visit. The same rules should apply to them. Explain ahead of time that you'll be spending some one-to-one time with your own children instead of having just family activities.

If and when there is an "ours" baby, children will have their radar out for "preferred" treatment.

- Don’t put fuel on a fire. High conflict between ex-spouses is harmful to the children. Don't add to the problem by taking strong stands yourself. Your efforts with your wife should be calming and supportive instead of inciting and inflammatory.

- Pride in the outfit. Your unit needs its own patches, flags and identity. Wait a couple of years until your position as an insider is secure. Then establish your own family rituals and traditions that make your family distinctive. Trying to do this too soon will create resistance and loyalty conflicts by your wife and children who need the old rituals for safety and comfort.