“A step-family is a fundamentally different structure and it makes a different foundation for relationships than a first-time family,” says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed.D, a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Centre’s expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t. But here’s a quick question. Do you believe that a stepfamily is a chance at love and growing into new families or on the contrary, do you believe that step-families are only filled with confusion, bitterness and difficulties in adaptation? The concept of a step-family is as complex as the psychological one. But the most affected in this process are the children, who largely suffer through divorces and re-marriage situations. Children are predominantly at risk if there is a conflict between the biological parents, if the divorce condition is very long-winded resulting in loss of important relationships that can hinder a child’s psychological development.
If spouses do have an equalised relationship with the children, it may also bring about a range of difficulties in the parenting process. Moreover, the type of parenting style plays an active role in determining the relationship between a child and the parent.
Neeta Arora, founder of Nasik based Vedas Academy, parenting counsellor and facilitator says, “For all parents, parenting should be fun and joyful. It should always be a two way communication but as parents we think that we are more experienced more knowledgeable than children. But the truth is that we become parents after the child’s birth only. According to me, each parent should adopt the Communicating Parenting style. In this style the parents are able to understand the child; in the same way the child is able to understand parents. We hear so many times that there is generation gap between the parents and children, so there is difference of opinion. It is not generation gap it is communication gap. So be communicating parents!”
Tension in a step-family by and large divides people along biological lines unless the couple can work together to develop a blended position of decision making and leadership.
Neeta suggests some useful tips for step-parents.
One change at a time
Too many changes in a period of time can unsettle children. They might become anxious to these changes which can hinder them from coming out of their comfort zone. Hence, communication between the step-parent and the child may perhaps get blocked even before it can start.
Limit your expectations
It is not easy for a child to return the same amount of love, affection and care that the parent is capable to sharing. Moreover, if it is a step-parent then the child will require time and effort to do so but with a biological parent the effort is innate. Therefore, it is essential for any step-parent to limit their expectations and not get disappointed.
Insist on respect
A step-parent may not be able insist likeability. But treating one another with respect is something that can be put forth to the child. If you treat the child with respect, the child is likely to treat the step-parent with honour too irrespective of the relation.
Build real experiences
Like any other parent, a step-parent must remember the basis to a strong relationship is the journey through it. Getting used to the daily routines of the child and being a part of it, helps build real experiences. Neeta adds, “To increase the bond with children, listen to what they are saying instead of advising every time they share anything with you. Apart from this, quality time is very important. Give at least half an hour of your time which includes no mobile, television or computer. It should be just the parent and the child.”
Let the step child set the pace
Every child has a divergent nature and they will show the parent how slow or fast to go as they get to know them. Some children may be more open and willing to engage whereas, introverted children may entail the parent to slow down and give them more time to trust and warm up to them.
Routines and rituals increase bonding
Creating family routines and rituals can help step-parents bond with their new step-children and connect the family. Suggesting how to increase bond with the child, Neeta remarks, “If as Parent you say no for certain things then please explain the reason for it. If you find the child in a bad mood find out what went wrong with him/her.
Emphatic listening by parents increases the bond with the child. Most importantly, at least one meal with the family increases the bonding amongst family members. Another way to increase bonding with the family, is going for a monthly picnic. If the child is mature enough let him/her decide about how they want to spend the day and be contented when you are with the child. In this way Parents can have great bonding with the children.”
Create clear boundaries
Establish the fact that a step-parent is more of a friend than a disciplinarian which will eventually help build bonds of trust. A child might not understand clear-cut boundaries but they understand affection and relate to it.
According to research, when it comes to adjusting and adapting with new relationships, younger children generally have an easier time than older children. But sometimes, big changes can take a toll on the child’s development leading to disruptive behaviours and challenging emotions which emerge in the later years of life. Neeta adds, “Nurturing any child is challenging now days, nevertheless nurturing minor children is easier than the grownups. This is because a minor child is like wet clay; you can give it the shape what you want but wherein, with grownups this possibility becomes less. A minor child does not understand much difference between a step-parent and a biological parent. So it is easy to nurture them. Grownups understand that this is my step-parent, and there are chances of the child taking undue advantage of the parent. Noticeably, many times a parent may feel guilty for being a step-parent and may perhaps unwillingly give permission for certain things which may not be good for the child, but do it to feel or look good in the child’s eyes.”
Anger, jealousy and not being able to accept the step-parent are some of the basic emotions that any step-child feels. These emotions are provoked with other environmental factors as well. “If the child gets a step-parent at an early age and if the parent treats the child as their own, without any discrimination; it is more likely to not hamper the child’s development. More than the child, the people around or the society keeps reminding the parent and the child about being “step” and that reminder plays with the mind which affects the overall growth of the child. Because at the end of the day, a parent cherishes his/her child, irrespective whether he/she is related by blood or not.”
Attempts to make a blended family, or an ideal nuclear family, can trigger feelings of perplexity, irritation and disappointment in a child. Rather than trying to be a perfect parent, a step-parent must try to be a guardian who is able to embrace the differences and move forward with adaptability.