CHILDREN IN STEPFAMILIES

Background -- Many children experience the divorce and remarriage of 
their parents. Single parent and remarriage families comprise nearly 
forty-five percent of all families with children. It is estimated 
that almost half the children under age eighteen will spend some time 
in a single parent home and that one in five children will live in a 
stepfamily. 

Although parents may view the second marriage as a positive step, 
their children may not. Living within a stepfamily creates new 
expectations and demands; therefore, unanticipated problems usually 
arise. A stepfamily is defined as a family in which at least one 
adult has a child or children prior to the new marriage. The children 
may live with the couple or visit periodically. Some children find 
home to be with both mom and dad, as in the cases of joint custody. 
Stepchildren have to establish new bonds while maintaining old ones. 
Many feel they have lost members of their original family because one 
parent lives away, brothers or sisters are separated, and/or 
grandparents no longer visit. 

Because the "real" family is viewed as the first marriage family, 
communities have not fully accepted the stepfamily. Some religions 
only sanction first marriages and most do not fully accept 
alternatives. Legally, absent parents and stepparents have no 
protected parental rights. Socially, stepchildren and stepparents 
often feel out of place in family events and school functions. The 
stepfamily has been called a family with no history and no roots. 

Development -- Families that make it a success generally do not expect 
a storybook family life. The home contracts and expands as children 
move in and out to meet schedules and household needs. Space is used 
for many purposes. A bedroom for the weekend becomes a den during the 
weekdays and playroom for the summer. In the stepfamily children may 
relate to the same adult in different ways. Mary might be viewed as 
mother for one child and as a friend by another. 

Stepfamilies also find that the patterns of living are not as simple 
as before. It takes four to five years to become stable. From the 
beginning, there are many individuals trying to adjust to one another. 
Instead of marriage starting a new phase of life for the couple, it 
may interrupt an ongoing phase of development for the adults, as well 
as the children. The remarriage of parents may come when teenage 
daughter is struggling with her own problems or when the new wife is 
mothering young children but also having to manage teenagers who are 
only a few years younger in age. These complications compound marital 
problems and strain personal relationships within the family. 

Many families feel that vacations and traditional family gatherings 
help build family unity. But when children cross household lines, 
family traditions are broken. For the stepfamily, the holiday dinner, 
the vacation at the beach, and the weekend break easily become points 
for argument. Building a new unit further signals the loss of 
previous family experiences. 

Perhaps feeling guilty about past mistakes, such as wanting a divorce 
or putting children through difficult times, many steps perceive their 
image to be tainted. They suspect that others view them negatively. 
It is not uncommon for the custodial mother to insist that the 
children use the stepfather's surname to save embarrassment. This 
tells the children that they have something to hide. 

Remarriage requires the members to blend personal habits, 
disappointments, and expectancies. They may find others in the family 
unsupportive or even resentful because of religious beliefs, loyalty 
to the ex-spouse, or other personal reasons. For the stepfamily, 
lifestyles, values, and attitudes must be meshed quickly in order for 
the new family to form. Blending is complex due to the number of 
people involved, their needs, and their family histories. Guidelines 
for Parents -- A critical time for discussing stepfamily issues is 
prior to the event itself. Several early problems in the second 
marriage relates to unresolved issues in the first marriage family. 
Being aware of typical trouble signs helps us recognize the stress 
when it appears. 

* Grieve and let go: Close the chapter on the first marriage. Allow 
the spouse to continue to be a parent but don't be in the middle of 
the relationship. 

* Court the new family: Marriage is a lifestyle arrangement and in a 
stepfamily several people are involved. Children need to be included 
in activities related to getting to know each other. 

* Clarify expectations: Discussing interests, likes, and expectancies 
help each member feel more secure with the unit and how to fit in. 

* Find space to live: Each member needs personal space which is 
respected. Privacy, sharing, and who rules must be worked out from the 
beginning. 

Guidelines for Stepparents:

* Express feelings and thoughts honestly: Feelings of fear, anger, 
and sadness are not uncommon during times of family change and 
uncertainty. Although it may be difficult for children to recognize 
and acknowledge feelings about the family, support people can 
communicate the willingness to listen and reassure. 

* Ask parents about expectations: Anxieties and frustration can be 
significantly reduced by preparing for events. As expectancies change 
they need to be communicated to children. Having experienced several 
significant life changes, children in remarried units may have a 
special need for reassurance. 

* Realize that marriage and divorce are adult decisions: Many 
children blame themselves for their parent's divorce. Helping 
children understand the adult nature of such decisions can diminish 
inappropriate fantasies. 

* Love takes time: Children need to be permitted the time to develop 
the respect and love for new family members. Given opportunities to 
spend time together and know one another, emotional relationships will 
usually flourish. 

Source: National Association of School Psychlogists - NASP Handouts.