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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #6: When You Fail, Don't Give Up

As a stepparent, it's inevitable we will fail. We may respond in anger or impatience, we may mistreat those around us, we may act out selfishly or greedily, or we may simply stepparent "our way" instead of "God's way." However, if we choose to keep trying when we fail, we haven't truly failed.

H. Stanley Judd offers a great reminder on failure: "Don't waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from your failures and go on to the next challenge. It's okay to fail. If you're not failing, you're not growing."

The book of Genesis is an ongoing account of human failure. It begins with Adam and Eve's disobedience and failure to trust God and His plan. Their son, Cain, fails to offer an appropriate sacrifice to God, which leads to murder of his brother, Abel. Noah demonstrates failure with his three sons by lying in a drunken stupor one night and exposing himself to one son, Ham, and then later reacting in a way that leads to disharmony among the sons. Abraham fails to lead his family properly on more than one occasion, using deception and dishonesty to get his way.

These illustrations are within the first twelve chapters of the Bible! We could go on and on, finding ways God's people failed. But the encouraging part is that with every record of failure, God responded with mercy and grace. He knows we are going to fail, and wants to help us. However, we must be willing to admit our failures and look to Him for guidance.

It takes courage to keep trying when we fail. It takes humility to admit when we're wrong. But sometimes the greatest growth in relationships comes from recognizing our weaknesses, admitting our failures, and striving to make changes in the future.

"Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up." Chinese Proverb


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #5: Be Your Own Person

As we continue our series on what we can do to gain confidence in our stepparenting role, I was reminded of the need to be your own person. In other words, don't compare yourself to the biological parent in the other home. If your stepchildren compare you to that parent or talk about your differences, it's okay to stick up for yourself.

I remember a situation in the early years of our marriage when my stepdaughter told me I was weird because I didn't know how to french braid my hair or my girls' hair. I've never spent alot of time styling hair because it's not that important to me. (I still don't know how to french braid someone's hair). But her mother was very good at it and took pride in creating different hairstyles for herself and her daughter.

I allowed that comment to hurt my feelings and make me feel bad about myself. Instead, I could have simply replied, "Your mom does a great job with your hair. I don't enjoy spending alot of time working on hairstyles but maybe you can show my girls how to french braid their own hair when they get older." I acknowledged the strength of her mom's styling techniques without compromising my position on the subject or feeling inferior about it.

Being your own person also means you consider yourself an additional parent, not a replacement parent. If our stepchildren feel we are trying to replace their parent, they will resist a relationship with us. But if we serve as another parent offering love and care for them in our unique way, we will make strides toward a positive relationship.

God created each one of us with our own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. It's okay to be different and acknowledge our differences as we continue to grow in His grace.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #4: Lower Your Expectations

When my husband, Randy, and I married, we knew our children had a lot of change to absorb. My two girls moved into another home, sharing their space and Mom's attention with two new step-siblings. Randy's children began sharing their current home with their new step-sisters, as well as getting less of Dad's time and attention. It was not a smooth transition but Randy and I convinced ourselves we could "love them through it" and everything would be fine.

We were wrong. We needed more than love to make it through the early years of our marriage. We needed patience and perseverance to keep trying when relationships were slow to develop.

We needed to lower our expectations of how quickly our family would find harmony with one another.

Research of stepfamilies reports an average of four to seven years is necessary for relationships to blend. However, it could be quicker or slower, depending on many variables. Randy says our family should be categorized as "remedial blenders." We were slow to learn how to get along and enjoy peaceful relationships with one another.

Maybe it was because there were so many of us, and it seemed kids were constantly coming and going. Maybe it was because both our ex-spouse's worked to undermine everything we did as stepparents and find ways to create disharmony in our relationships. Maybe it was because we were considered a "complicated step-family," meaning Randy and I both brought children to our marriage from previous relationships. Or perhaps we were just an exception to the rule.

I don't know why, but I know it took longer than Randy and I wanted to experience unity in our home.

During the relationship-building years, I found contentment with small bits of progress. I recognized the reality of one step forward and two steps backward. On difficult days, I learned to expect little of my stepchildren, hoping to simply communicate without arguing. And I leaned on my husband when someone hurt my feelings.

It wasn't easy, but I learned when I could accept the fact that our relationships were slow to blend (and it wasn't necessarily my fault), I could find the energy to keep trying. But when I beat myself up emotionally for tension in our home, it resulted in discouragement and paralysis toward strong relationships. If I focused on the long-term goal of growth and maturity, while working on short-term goals of healthy interacting, I saw gradual improvement.

Lowering our expectations doesn't mean we quit trying for harmony in our home. It means we accept the current state of our relationships, thankful for the progress we've made, and hopeful for the evolution yet to come.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #3: Take Care of Yourself Spiritually, Physically, and Emotionally

As we talk about how we adjust to our stepparenting role, I always think about taking care of ourselves. Stepparenting can be a demanding role with few rewards, especially in the beginning. If we take care of ourselves first, we will then have more energy to take care of others.

There are a lot of ways to take care of ourselves and different people have different needs. For our spiritual needs, it's helpful to be involved with a fellowship of believers where we can study the Bible together and fellowship with one another. We also need our own personal time of study and prayer to grow spiritually.

For our physical needs, it's important to set aside time to exercise regularly. I find I'm more consistent with exercise when I take part in activities I enjoy and have some accountability with others. My husband and I enjoy running with a group through our church, RockRunners. It allows fellowship with others while meeting our goals of exercising regularly.

Emotional needs need to be dealt with also. We often ignore these needs until we reach a crisis point and are not coping well. Recharging ourselves emotionally might include going to lunch with a friend or getting away for a few days with our spouse. As we reflect on the demands of our stepfamily and changes taking place, we are better able to address specific needs and how to meet them. When we're caught up in the middle of day-to-day challenges without a healthy escape every now and then, we end up overwhelmed and frustrated with each other.

Taking care of ourselves spiritually, physically and emotionally requires effort to identify our needs and find appropriate ways to meet them. But as we work toward that goal, we will then find we have more to offer in our marriage and parenting roles.

"I am the only one who can make my well-being my top priority. I owe it to myself to pay attention to the needs of my body, mind, and spirit."
Courage to Change
by Al-Anon Family Groups

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #2: Recognize the Impact of Loyalty Conflict

Loyalty conflict is a foreign term to a nuclear family. But for stepfamilies, it can be an unfortunate reality, resulting in crippling emotions for stepchildren and unseen barriers toward relationship building with stepparents.

Loyalty conflict occurs when a stepchild experiences conflicting feelings between his biological parent and his stepparent. It can also occur when a child feels emotionally torn between two biological parents and is forced to take sides.

Children naturally have strong loyalties toward their biological parents. As they build a relationship with a stepparent, they may experience guilt and confusion because they worry about the impact on their non-residential biological parent. When stepchildren struggle with conflicting emotions, they will remain loyal to their biological parent, shutting out their stepparent and any emotional ties to him/her.

If a stepparent tries to compete with the biological parent or win the child over, the loyalty conflict will increase. The stepchild may feel that enjoying a relationship with his stepparent is hurtful to his biological parent. These feelings are compounded when an insecure biological parent discourages a relationship with the stepparent.

In order to help combat these feelings for stepchildren, stepparents must never criticize the biological parent or appear in competition with them. The stepchildren should be allowed continued contact and communication with the other biological parent without a threat of anyone hindering that relationship.

In time, stepchildren learn it's okay to love a stepparent in addition to their biological parent. It takes longer in homes where the step-relationship is discouraged by the other parent but the stepparent has no control over that. Once again, stepparents will find that time and patience are on their side.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Galatians 6:9


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Healthy Stepparenting #1: Ease into Parenting Role

When my husband, Randy, and I married, my two girls were 2 and 5 years old and Randy's kids were 5 and 10 years old. Because we both had children of our own whom we parented daily, it was natural for us to try to parent our stepchildren also. But we quickly learned that we needed to form a relationship with our stepchildren before they would respect us as parental figures.

A common mistake new stepparents make is trying to assume a disciplinarian role too soon. The primary concern of a new stepparent should be about building a relationship. After a casual friendship has developed with respect and comfortable interaction taking place, a stepparent can begin to move into a parental role. The timing of when that happens will vary for every child, depending upon a number of variables (age of child upon marriage, frequency of contact with other biological parent, personality traits of stepchild, etc). It's important for the stepparent to discern the nature of the relationship and how to change his/her position accordingly.

In the early years of our marriage, I was often in the position of babysitting my stepchildren when my husband was working. While still in the process of building relationships with one another, my husband explained to the kids that I was in charge while he was gone and they were to respect my role as parent. When he came home, he resumed the central role of authority with his kids. We learned that parenting our kids in the beginning went much smoother when he assumed the primary role with his kids and I assumed the primary role with mine.

When stepchildren are given the freedom to build relationships with their stepparents without alot of rules and discipline, the relationship forms with trust and respect, rather than resentment and bitterness. It requires more patience by the stepparent in the beginning but results in stronger relationships in the end.


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Difficult Role of Stepmother

I've heard it said that stepmothers may have a more difficult time in their stepparenting role than stepfathers. Stepfamily authority Ron Deal lists several reasons this may be true in his outstanding book, The Smart Stepfamily:

1. Children oftentimes have more contact with their noncustodial mothers, creating a strong loyalty conflict between the stepmother and biological mother.
2. It is believed that children have a stronger attachment to their biological mother than their father.
3. Stepmothers feel more pressure to bond with their stepchildren because of the expectations of society.
4. Women carry most of the weight for childcare and nurturing of children, whether the children are biological children or stepchildren.

The lack of healthy role models and clear expectations for stepmothers can leave one feeling inadequate and misguided. In the early years of our marriage, I remember feeling totally unprepared and emotionally exhausted with my new role of stepmother. It seemed I was living on an island by myself with no one to turn to for answers or guidance.

So for the next couple of weeks I will be posting thoughts on what we can do as stepparents to feel more comfortable in our roles and adjust to the demands and expectations thrown our way. I hope the ideas presented will prove helpful for stepmothers and stepfathers alike.

Stay tuned!


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Birth Order Effects in Stepfamilies

When combining two families, it's easy to overlook the effects a birth order change can have among children. When my husband and I married, he had a first-born daughter, Adrianne, who was 10 years old, and I had a first-born daughter, Jamie, who was 5 years old. Both girls were accustomed to being the boss with their younger siblings. But when Adrianne began bossing Jamie around, the two clashed everytime.

We had never considered the birth order collision that would take place between Adrianne and Jamie. For us to expect the two girls to get along when they were both fighting for the same role they had played for years was unrealistic. Jamie needed time to adjust to having a big sister and Adrianne needed help in relating to a younger sibling who resented being thrust into the middle child position.

Dr. Kevin Lehman has written an entire book on the effects of birth order in a stepfamily: Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped on: Helping Your Children Survive the Birth Order Blender. Here's one important suggestion he gives:
When a child who is born into one birth order lands in another position in his blended family, do not treat the child as something he is not. He may have to take on different responsibilities or play different roles at times, but never forget who he really is.
Time helps the adjustment of birth order changes. In our family, Jamie grew to enjoy having an older sister and Adrianne learned to relate to Jamie differently than her other younger siblings.

But the effects of birth order changes need to be considered when two families merge.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Conversations that Count

My stepson is in between college semesters right now and is enjoying some time hanging around the house. One day last week, he and I engaged in a conversation on priorities of life. He had a difficult semester in the Fall and made some choices that led to less than desireable grades. He knows he is in jeopardy of losing his academic scholarship and must make different choices.

I was proud of the attitude he showed of wanting to make it right this semester. He talked about changes he was going to make to his work schedule and his social calendar to allow more time for studying. He recognized his lack of attentiveness to classes he didn't enjoy and the damage done by missed assignments and poor class attendance. He talked about a desire to succeed in college, not just get by.

I later relected on a similar conversation he and I had shortly after his grades came out. Unfortunately, that conversation had turned defensive and volatile. Emotions were heightened as we talked about the consequences of losing his scholarship. Instead of supportive statements toward what it takes to succeed in college, I criticized his lack of discipline and poor choices that led to near failure in some classes.

That conversation was damaging to our relationship and accomplished little toward solving the problem at hand. It took several days before we could even broach the subject again. But I was determined that we have another discussion on the matter with a positive slant. I wanted him to know I believed in his success and supported his efforts as a student. I wanted to affirm his commitment toward his goal, despite the results of the prior semester.

Following our discussion on his grades, we were able to talk about other priorities. I encouraged him to nurture his spiritual growth and look toward an area of ministry on campus. We talked about a current relationship with a young lady on campus, as well as other relationships his friends were engaged in and consequences of their actions. It was an extended conversation that allowed me to guide him toward healthy thinking on critical issues. But it would never have occurred if I had not been willing to be encouraging, rather than critical, of his behavior and choices he made.

Our kids are hit with critical remarks from friends, teachers, and employers regularly. They need a safe haven at home that provides support and encouragement from us daily.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Live by Faith, and Not by Explanation

Do you ever think if you could simply understand why certain things happen, it would be easier to get on with life? I have begged God for explanations at times, wanting a logical answer as to what was happening and why. But instead, I find God saying, "You can trust what I'm doing through faith, even if you don't understand it right now."

I was thinking about the relationships between my two daughters and their father this morning. They have had very little contact with him for years as he lingered in and out of addiction, homelessness, and general dysfunction. They've bonded with my husband, referring to him as Dad, and allowing him to be a father to them. His stepparenting has provided unending love and nurturing for them during critical years.

But their birth father has re-entered the picture, wanting to be a part of their lives. I want to say, "It's too late. Go away. We don't need you around." I don't trust him or see how anything good can come of his intrusion in our lives. But I'm trying to allow my girls to determine the relationship they want to have with him.

It's not easy. I want to detail the sacrifices I made to put him through medical school, only to watch him lose his medical license to addiction. I want to outline the expensive rehab centers he attended again and again, only to choose the bottle every time upon leaving. I want to complain about his disregard for financial help during the girls' upbringing, only giving excuses and lies of when he'll start helping.

But that's not what my girls need. They know he's been an absent figure during their childhood years and they know why. It's now their choice to determine whether they will allow him to be part of their lives.

I wish I understood why he suddenly determined he deserves a significant role in their lives. I wish I understood why my girls have to go through yet another emotional entanglement as they sort through their feelings toward him.

But despite what I understand, I am confident God is in control and will work out the details of their relationships, without my help.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Are You In It for the Long Run?

When I married my husband, I made a long-term commitment, for better or for worse. Without that commitment it would have been easy to quit. I remember how often I thought in the beginning, "Life was easier as a single parent than trying to make it work in this blended family." But I'm thankful today I stuck it out.

During our early years, my stepdaughter and I floated in and out of a tense relationship. I often felt compared to her mother and didn't think I would ever measure up. There were times I was hurt and discouraged with our communication. But I never gave up on finding a way to connect with her.

My stepdaughter now lives in another state. We don't see her as often as we would like, but she just spent five days with us and we had a wonderful visit. At 24 years old, she has grown into a mature young lady. She values her relationship with us and shows her appreciation for our efforts and sacrifices we made during her upbringing. Time and maturity has healed old wounds and we can laugh about our mistakes and challenges of years' past.

If I had quit trying to have a positive relationship with her, I would have missed out on the joy of what we now share. My relationship with her is a beautiful reminder of the difference it can make if we don't give up.

Commit to go the long run. Some days will be hard. But in the end, the rewards will be worth the effort.