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Sometimes stepmothers get unfair stereotypes in relationships

Published on -9/17/2012, 8:09 AM

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This is the 10th in a series of articles about step-families.

Q: What are some suggestions for step-family members in specific roles?

A: The step-family role that is the most prominent in terms of attention and significance is that of the stepmother. When the biological children and some of the stepchildren live in the same household, the most common configuration of adult members is stepmother and biological father or biological mother and stepfather. There are some recommendations for stepmothers that are suggestions in addition to those made for step-parents in general. These role-related tips are from the Step-family Association of America.

Stepmothers come with more mythology and negative expectations than other members. Some of that negativity has been created in literature and some from the pivotal positions stepmothers exercise in their step-families. The first and most important piece of advice is to avoid trying to replace the mothers of biological children, regardless of the quality of those relationships. Stepmothers also should be wary of assuming the roles of martyrs, such as bending over backwards to meet everyone's needs, being self-sacrificing and driving oneself to the point of collapse.

Stepmothers always should be clear about their roles as disciplinarians before trying to step in and assist with their biological children. They should avoid the traps of self-blame for all the problems of their stepchildren. They do not automatically have to love their stepchildren. But stepmothers do need to respect and like their stepchildren. Stepmothers have to find a balance between being non-parents and assuming the primary parenting roles with their stepchildren.

Like all parenting roles, stepmothers need to have their own lives, along with making themselves available to their stepchildren. This time distribution is difficult to establish because it has to be flexible. Some days or even weeks, the focus is totally on the children. If there is an imbalance, usually stepmothers decrease their own activities.

Stepmothers need unending supplies of patience. They are ready targets for everyone's unhappiness and frequently are blamed for problems. For those reasons, they need to go slowly, trying to establish closeness to stepchildren and to initiate physical affection.

Stepmothers also need to be considerate of the feelings of stepchildren and respectful of their points of view. This sensitivity often is difficult to maintain because stepchildren frequently communicate resentment, hostility and rejection. Stepmothers should remain positive and supportive as well as encouraging and interested in the stepchildren.

Tips for stepfathers begin on the same note as tips for stepmothers. They should develop relationships with stepchildren before attempting any discipline. They can help biological mothers develop and establish rules, but should take secondary roles in discipline. Parents need to support each other in step-families, the same as biological families. If stepfathers feel undermined by their remarried partners, they need to broach this subject with their spouses.

Stepfathers and biological mothers should discuss rules, privileges, dress codes, modesty and privacy. Standards of dress and behavior are especially important issues to discuss when step-families have adolescents moving in together.

Spending time with each stepchild is a recommendation for stepfathers as well as stepmothers. Stepfathers also are advised to spend individual time with their biological children. All parents in step-families also are advised to have family times. In the complexity of step-family situations, finding all those times is an overwhelming task.

Finally, stepfathers need to be cautious about physical boundaries with stepdaughters. Especially with preteen or teenage stepdaughters, stepfathers should set clear boundaries. This precaution is important when there is not much difference in ages between stepfathers and stepdaughters.

The marital roles in step-families have much the same needs as all marital relationships. The relationships need time, attention, open communication, shared feelings and conflict resolution skills. However, implementing these recommendations is far more complicated in step-families than in biological families. The chaos and conflict so common in step-families interfere with effective problem-solving by masking underlying issues. Staying on task is an exhausting process that often erodes the foundations of step-family marital relationships. Support groups or family therapy might well be necessary.

What about the children in step-families? What can they do? Step-families Australia provides some guidelines. Children should ask parents to tell them what is happening. They need to choose times when parents are calm because they are more apt to listen. Children might be more comfortable sharing feelings with biological parents.

If step-parents or biological parents are defensive and do not listen, children can seek out extended family members with whom they have good relationships. If that option is not available, children should approach school counselors, teachers or adults they know who have experienced step-family problems.

Unfortunately, sometimes parents use children as sounding boards for their own problems. Such role reversals are damaging to children, and children should be encouraged by adults in whom the children confide to ask their parents not to share their problems.

Like their step-parents and biological parents, children who reside in step-families need to be good to themselves. They can listen to music, talk to friends on Facebook, text friends, skateboard and engage in all kinds of sports activities. Friendships and shared times with friends are exceedingly important for those stepchildren who live in step-families that might be less-than-adequate to meet their needs.

* Next week's article will discuss holidays and summer parenting times.

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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