Brought to you by Good Health magazine
Step-families are a fast-growing family unit in New Zealand. How can the adults in the family make them strong? Sarah Marinos finds out
Issues concerning children and second marriages and the merging of families are the top-ranking reasons why second marriages end, according to relationship expert Toby Green. Arguments over money and what’s yours and what’s mine are also a key breaking point.
“Man and woman relationships alone are hard enough. Anything you add to that his kids, her kids, his ex, her ex, and in-laws only adds to the pressure,” says Green. “Step-families require more effort and intelligence because there are more people involved, and often that includes little ones who didn’t ask to be put into the situation.”
But Lyn Fletcher, director of operations at Relationships Australia, says second marriages and step-families can work as long as the couple have patience and are prepared to put in some hard groundwork. “When a step-family works it’s wonderful.
It models how we can adapt to different life situations and opens our hearts. There is no magic involved – it just takes time, effort and hard work,” she says.
- Start out in neutral territory Move to a new home, if possible. “Then you don’t have the physical reminders of the previous relationship,” says Carr-Gregg. “And you can start new family traditions and rituals that are important protective factors in the long-term.”
- Give visiting children their own space If your partner’s kids come and visit for the weekend, give them their own room or space for their personal possessions. This states they are part of your home and family, too.
- Give step-children time to adjust “You have to create an environment where children feel valued and listened to. They’re looking for chinks in the armour and a reason to get upset. Don’t give it to them. Give them time to adjust,” says Carr-Gregg.
- Understand there will be loyalty issues Tell children they’re allowed to have a relationship with both of their parents and that their relationship with their step-parent is separate from that. It isn’t a competition.
- Respect individual differences Every person has different chromosomes and a different history. Don’t assume what people are thinking. Get to know people over time and understand their personality and temperament.
- Let your step-child lead the way Take things slowly in developing a relationship. Remember that children didn’t ask to be part of a step-family.
- Make yourself available for step-children Doing one-on-one activities with step-children slowly builds a rapport and a relationship, even if it’s dropping them to the movies or to basketball practice. Don’t have any expectations, but just be helpful and show commitment.
- Don’t expect thanks Children believe you have come into their family and taken the place of their mum or dad. “But hang in there and one day they’ll come up to you at breakfast and kiss you on the cheek,” says Carr-Gregg.
- Expect respect, both ways Even if you find your step-children hard to get on with perhaps you don’t even like them much as the adult you have to stay calm, try and avoid confrontation, and show respect. A hard call but an important one, says Carr-Gregg. “You’ve made a commitment to the child’s parent and it’s in the interests of your relationship to be civil to his or her children. Put up with them knowing that one day they will move out,” he says. But respect works both ways. “The biological parent has to talk to their kids and say, ‘I’m not saying you have to like this person, but I demand you treat them with respect as my partner’,” says Green. “It’s imperative that everyone treats everybody with respect in the family.”
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