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Children adjusting to step-families can be challenging time

Published on -7/23/2012, 8:33 AM

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This is the third in a series of articles about step-families.

Q. How do step-families differ from one another?

A. The age differences among step-siblings might be closer or further apart than those among biological siblings. There might be step-siblings the same ages. Even more problematic, new step-parents might be only a few years older than the oldest step-children. Step-parents also could be much older than the biological parents, but that is not as common.

Partners who marry new partners who never have had children might find their new spouses have little understanding of step-children. Step-parents who have biological children of their own might experience insecurities if their step-children compare them unfavorably with their biological parents.

When both parents remarry spouses with children, the ordinal positions of the children could differ in both households with which the children must deal. These households are the residential homes and the nonresidential homes in which children belong on a part-time basis. Their roles and expectations could be radically different in both households.

If multiple remarriages take place with different sets of step-siblings, step-family dynamics become increasingly more complex. When step-parents decide to have children together, then there are half-siblings in these step-families. Needless to say, the more times parents remarry, the more difficult for children to adjust. One of the lesser known realities in children of divorce are their ongoing hopes of parental reconciliation that can persist for years. These hopes of divorced children can remain even if their parents have remarried.

Even though biological families have outside pressures such as in-laws, work problems and finances, step-families suffer from additional outside pressures. Resentment from biological parents can cause step-parents much anguish. Even the extended families of biological parents can create major problems.

Children who disrespect step-parents can cause significant stress in more ways than one. The conflicts between step-children and step-parents can keep step-families from bonding. These stressors also can drive wedges between remarried partners and put biological partners in the middle. Do the biological parents support their biological children or their remarried spouses? Do they try to reconcile conflicts and support both parties? The answers to these questions might be self-evident, but the resolutions themselves are far more difficult.

Coping with the demands from highly conflicted ex-spouses and their respective families is challenging. These issues become acute during holidays, vacations, birthdays, special occasions, weekend planning and any other events that would necessitate changes in routine parenting schedules and flexibility. The more contentious the ex-spouses, the less likely they will cooperate, even for the benefit of the children.

There are several issues that revolve around family traditions, especially those attached to holidays, birthdays and vacations. Trying to change family traditions is a delicate balance between preserving former family traditions and introducing new traditions. This balance is complicated by biological ex-spouses who engage in power struggles to see who gets what they want. Remarried partners who deal with inflexible and demanding ex-spouses might be unable to reconcile conflicts unless they are able to put aside the power struggles. For example, holidays and birthdays can be celebrated on alternate dates to the actual events.

The role expectations for step-mothers and step-fathers are not the same. More is expected of step-mothers due to the socialization expectations for mothers to be the primary caretakers of children coupled with society's expectation for mothers to fulfill the primary roles in step-families. Remarried husbands also could expect their new spouses to assume primary responsibilities for both biological and step-children who live in the home.

Boys and girls in step-families tend to be more comfortable with verbal affection rather than physical affection. Girls tend to be uncomfortable with physical affection from step-fathers. Boys are more apt to accept step-fathers than girls.

Different ages affect the adjustments of children to step-families. Children younger than 10 years could adjust more rapidly because they flourish on cohesive families, are generally accepting of step-parents and have more needs to be met. They might, however, compete for the attention of their biological parents.

Adolescents from 10 to 14 might have the most problems adjusting to step-families and will need more time to accept step-parents as disciplinarians. Older adolescents could be moving toward independence and could be less impacted by step-families. Adolescents might not be openly affectionate or sensitive but still need to feel loved, secure and significant.

All the information in this article has been compiled from multiple sources that publish information to help step-families.

* Next week's discussion will center on the reasons step-families fail to adjust.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.

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