June 5, 2012

Read a summary of Bernie’s segment with Yvette Vignando on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife show on ABC 702 Monday 4 June 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Admin @ 10:17 am

Step-Families – How to deal with the New Normal?

Listen to the Broadcast.

Today with 1 in every 5 families being a step family, it would seem that the idea of the ‘normal nuclear family’ is a thing of the past.

Bur what is normal?  According to the French philosopher Foucault, too often in history the concept of ‘normal’ has been constructed by the dominant group of the times – be it religious or scientific, to pathologise those who do not fit prescribed standards. Notions of normality sanction and privilege certain family arrangements while stigmatising and marginalising others.  However the very concept of family has been undergoing redefinition in response to profound political, social and economic changes. Amid the turmoil individuals and their loved ones have been forging new and varied relationship patterns within and across households as they strive to form caring and committed bonds. So the very definition of the ‘family’ must be expanded to encompass a broad spectrum and fluid reshaping of relational and household patterns. Today a normal family can be headed by a single parent, a working mother, two gay parents or indeed as we are going to discuss tonight step-parents.

The nuclear family structure reached its peak in America in the 1950s.  Before this the idea that it takes a village to raise a child was a widely held belief.  But the nuclear family comprised an intact two-parent family unit headed by the male bread-winner and supported by his full-time homemaker wife who devoted herself to household management, childrearing and elder care. This structure was fuelled by a strong economy post WWII which allowed families to survive on one-income.  But it also meant that the family became increasingly insular, living in the suburbs and becoming ever more self reliant.  By cutting itself off from the extended family and greater community, this family was in effect cutting itself off from many sources of resilience, making it impossible to reconfigure in times of need.  Unrealistically high expectations for spouses to fill all needs for romantic love, support and companionship contributed to the fragility of the marriage. And with the increase in the breakdown of ‘traditional’ marriages comes the rise in the occurrence of alternate relationships and families and their own unique challenges.

Sometimes with complex issues it is helpful to ask some basic questions like what is the role of the family and are blended families any different?

To answer this I would say that relationships, driven by our desire to love and be loved are one of the main drivers of wellbeing. And the family is the main institution that we have created to nurture this desire. In a world of competition, the family is a refuge in which each of its members can develop in a supporting, loving environment. But it can rarely be said that it is a perfect haven and in this respect is somewhat similar to a blended family. But unfortunately with the latter the challenges tend to be somewhat more complex.

Blended families are a consequence of a couple falling in love and don’t have the benefits of time for the couple to bond ahead of the presence of children.  In addition the nature of the parents’ separation or divorce may cause some behavioural issues in the children.  Teenagers in particular are not as easy to bond with as babies – they can be going through their own developmental stage of separation and therefore not as interested in forming a relationship with another ‘oldie’.

All families come with challenges but blended families have their own more complex ones. Dealing with conflict is without a doubt a huge part of step families.  By its very nature, a blended or step family comes with the previous family of at least one of the partners.  And with a previous family comes an ex – partner and their parents, i.e. the kids’ grandparents.  It is an absolute minefield to navigate.  However research has shown that of all the predictors, parental conflict is the single biggest indicator of a child’s emotional well-being.  So if the parents could really keep that piece of knowledge in the forefront of their minds and act accordingly, a lot of the other problems could potentially fall away.

And with the new changes to the Family Law Act, it is all the more important that parents keep their differences away from the children. Generally the children of the marriage do not ask for the divorce nor do they ask for the remarriage or stepsiblings.  In most cases they are innocent bystanders and these things just happen to them. It is hard enough for the kids to have to get used to a new family without being forced to take sides in their parents’ conflict as well.  Feelings of guilt in children can be played out as anger and that does not make for a happy new family.  So parents should deal with their own issues if not for themselves, for the sake of their children.  If necessary they should seek out a good counsellor to help them move on.

Multiple relationships are also another complexity common to blended families. However good communication is the key here and believing in everyone’s good intent.  Sometimes it helps just to realise that all the relationships are different, e.g. there is the new partner relationship, the biological parent – child relationship, the step parent – step children relationships, the new partner – ex partner relationship, the step-sibling relationship, the biological sibling relationship, the grandparent relationship, the step parent – grandparent relationship.  And very often not all of them will be good and not all of them will be bad.  So if there seems to be problems within the step family, separate out the relationships and look at each of them individually.

With the new adult relationship – nurture it.  Unfortunately you do not have the time alone to get to know each other.  At least one of you is coming with a ready-made family. But this does not mean you shouldn’t do all the things you need to do to keep it alive – spend couple time together, appreciate each other, communicate openly and  empathically, make sure you continue to have sex.  Acknowledge that step-family relationships can be difficult and support each other. Research shows that the presence of step children can be a destabilising influence and a major contributor to the somewhat greater rate of divorce among couples with step children relative to those without.

With step parents – step children, it takes time.  Just because the adults fall in love, doesn’t mean everyone else will.  And they don’t have to. Fortunately Cinderella type step-mothers are in the minority but that is not to say there won’t be bumps or even boulders along the way. So while step-parents are advised not to take on a disciplining role early in the relationship, there does have to be respect and consistency.  It is therefore extremely important that the parent, whether father or mother, steps in where necessary.  Before a step parent earns the right to discipline, they must first develop a connection with the step children and then their trust.  Step-parents are the adults in this situation so it is wise to act like adults.  Even if they feel their step-child is behaving like a little monster, it is best not to burn any bridges.  The door should always be left open for him to come back.  His behaviour could very well be nothing to do with the step parent and all to do with the circumstances of his parents’ relationship.  In that respect, treat him like you would your own child and bring in the concept of unconditional love.

With grandparents – step parents.  The point here is that they are all adults and should be concerned about what is best for the kids.  It will not do the kids any good if the new step parent or former in-law is being denigrated by the grandparent.  Once again the children may feel like they have to choose and ultimately the grandparent will lose out.

Biological parents – children have to make sure they spend some one-on-one time together. Children need to be able to share their thoughts and grievances without fear of recrimination.

As mentioned before, there needs to be consistency in how all members of the new family are treated. Anger and guilt can tie two people together as tightly as love. One partner may not have wanted the divorce and may still be reeling from the pain and rejection it caused.  They may have remarried but will still not let themselves feel and then forget about the hurt from the past. Instead they may still be fighting with and trying to get back at their ex.  This may lead to all sorts of behaviours especially in relation to their own kids.  They want to make sure their kids love them more than their ex-spouse and so spoil them more than they do their step-kids.  This can lead to lots of resentment and unhappy times in the new family.  Equally guilt can play a similar part.  Guilt at leaving a former partner can mean trying to ‘buy’ forgiveness – never saying ‘no’ to the ex and the biological children can lead to feelings of jealousy in the new family.  It is really important to talk to the new partner about expectations around discipline, chores and acceptable behaviour and time spent alone with the kids and partner before the step family is formed.  It should never be assumed that the new step parents have exactly the same values and ways of handling parenting.

Another difficulty is that children are often members of two households and can come in and out of a family depending on parenting arrangements.  This can take its toll both emotionally and financially.  In first marriage families, the parents have sole responsibility for all legal and financial matters with regard to the kids.  In step families where the children move between households, these responsibilities are to some extent shared and can lead to competition and conflict between the households. It could be that in one of the households, each of the children has their own bedroom whilst in the other, the bedrooms have to be shared.  In all houses it is important that the children have their own drawer or box to store their precious items.

So even after you the new family may have successfully blended a whole new set of issues arise on the death of one of the partners. There is is no right or wrong way to deal with this – it is a very individual thing and very much depends on the relationship.  However the one thing that should be done is to consult a lawyer who specialises in estate planning.  Just as in traditional families it is important that a person’s wishes are carried out after their death, so it is in blended families.  Without a will, the new spouse will be entitled to part of your estate which of course can then be left to the step children in the spouses will.  If this is not the deceased’s intent, then they should seek advice. It’s such a pity to see all the hard work which went into building the relationships when everyone was alive being just thrown away by not dealing with what should happen after death.

But if it all seems to be falling apart, there are still things which can be done. Just like in the traditional family, seek outside help.  But it is imperative not to wait until the family has imploded.   In most step families very little is done initially to prepare anyone for step family life and this lack of preparation can be especially damaging for those who have trouble handling complexity or ambiguity.  However outside help does not necessarily mean family counselling – in some cases a good family mediator will allow issues to be raised and aired and new norms and boundaries to be set without wallowing too much in the problems of the past. In the majority of cases, emotions take over the family discussions and very quickly everyone forgets what they wanted to talk about and it becomes much more important to prove that they are right and the other person is wrong. A good mediator will contain the emotion and make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.  And in this neutral setting a greater awareness of everyone’s needs and wants can be attained