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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creating a Stable Stepfamily: Get Professional Help When You Need It

If you follow national news, you've probably seen the story of the stepfamily in Oregon that has been missing their seven-year-old son for more than three weeks.

The father of the boy has now filed for divorce from his wife, the stepmom, and it appears she may be a suspect in the case. The father has also removed the 18-month-old child they share together from the home, and filed for sole custody.

Overwhelmed stepparents face challenges every day that require more mental and emotional strength then they possess. Stepparenting is not an easy role. But there is help out there for those who want it.

My husband and I sought counseling within six months of our marriage. Blending four children proved more difficult then we imagined and we quickly realized we needed help. We worked with a wonderful counselor who understood stepfamily dynamics and guided us toward healthy development in our stepfamily roles. The counseling we received at that time probably saved our marriage.

In seeking a counselor, I strongly recommend you inquire about his/her training with stepfamilies. If counselors try to counsel stepfamilies the same way they counsel traditional families, it does not work! It's important to work with someone who understands stepfamily dynamics.

It also helps to ask others in your community about counselors they recommend. Unfortunately, there are too many incapable counselors who can do more harm than good. Finding a good counselor is worth the time and effort it takes.

If you recognize that your family needs help, don't wait to find it. There are precious children at stake who deserve the chance to be raised in a healthy home.

Do you need help coping with your stepfamily challenges?

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Creating a Stable Stepfamily: Commit to the Long Run

ā€œI learned that if you want it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.ā€ Gale Sayers

Stepfamily researchers tell us that the first decade of stepfamily life is the most difficult. The first decade - ten years! That is a long time.

But if we want success in our stepfamily, we must be willing to commit to the long run. And we must make that commitment from the beginning.

My husband is a marathon runner. When he begins training for a marathon, he maps out weekly runs and cross training workouts. He methodically puts a plan together to train his body to complete the grueling distance.

But the most important component of the training is his commitment to go the distance, even when it gets tough. He has completed training runs in the brutal heat and piercing cold. He has completed training runs when he didn't want to and didn't feel up to par. But he understands the commitment to the training if he wants to be successful in the race.

As stepparents, we must recognize our commitment to the process if we want to be successful in our relationships. We must be willing to endure the good times and the bad. We must engage in our stepparenting role on days we don't want to and days we feel less than optimal.

But we can trust there are rewards for our efforts. Just as training for a marathon leads to race day success, investing in long-term commitments leads to stepfamily success, creating stable relationships that last.

"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

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Creating A Stable Stepfamily: Be a Friend First

It's not uncommon for a new stepparent to attempt a disciplinarian role before a relationship is formed with his/her stepchild. However, it is one of the most damaging mistakes a stepparent can make. Without a relationship, disciplining a stepchild will create anger and resentment toward his/her stepparent.

When a child's biological parent takes the lead in disciplining his/her children, it allows the stepparent a chance to naturally bond with the children. As a friend, a stepparent can build trust and understanding of each other.

On occasion, the stepparent might even take the "good guy" role. When there is positive news to share with the stepfamily, let the stepparent present it. When the family is planning a special trip, let the stepparent take part in soliciting ideas and suggestions from the kids on where to go and what to do. The more frequently a stepparent can be seen as someone making a positive offering to the family, the quicker a relationship can be formed with his/her stepchildren.

As trust and compatibility are established, a stepparent can slowly begin moving into a parental role. It usually happens quicker with younger children and may not ever happen with older children. But it's important for a stepparent to always consider how well the relationship is developing before attempting parental discipline. It's easier to continue the "friend role" for a longer period than undo the damage of a "parental role" taken too soon.

Have you sought to offer friendship with your stepchildren first?

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Creating a Stable Stepfamily: Live out your Faith

I caught a glimpse of a police car as I approached the door that Saturday afternoon several years ago. Upon opening it, the policeman asked for my husband, Randy, while reading the legal document he clutched.

Randy took the document, not understanding why he was being served custody papers for his 14-year-old son, Payton. As he closed the door, Payton, who had come to visit for the week-end, slowly walked toward him. He knew what the papers stood for and began to talk to his dad of his desire to continue living with his stepfather, older sister, and 4-year-old half brother, more than 300 miles away.

Payton's mother had passed away a few months prior, after a year-long illness, and Randy had granted his son's wishes to finish out the school year before moving to our home. But living there permanently was not in the plan.

We knew it would be hard for Payton to leave his siblings there but firmly believed he needed to be part of a stable home environment. His sister would be moving out soon to finish college and his stepfather was not around much. What we didn't know was that his mother, before passing, asked her two older children to stay together to help raise their younger brother.

I followed Randy to our bedroom after hearing the devastating news. He cradled his head in his hands and stared at the floor. "Why?" he asked.

The following months held a blur of lawyer appointments, court hearings, and disappointing conversations with Payton. We didn't understand why he insisted upon staying with his stepfather.

But during that period, Randy never gave up on his son. Even when it appeared Payton was choosing his stepfather over his father, Randy showed unconditional love and mercy toward him.

Several months into the proceedings, the courts began dragging our other children into the custody process. The stress seemed unbearable and we finally opted to quit the fight. We told Payton he would always be welcome in our home, and we would be praying for him and his siblings, but we wouldn't continue to subject our family to the grueling custody process.

The next year proved difficult as we watched the lack of supervision and guidance Payton received. We knew it was not a healthy home but couldn't change the circumstances without going back to court. We relied on our faith with each step, praying for wisdom and perseverance.

Eighteen months after his mother's passing, Payton called his dad with some disturbing news. He needed our help because his step dad was tangled up with drugs and alcohol. His sister had driven the kids to a nearby relatives' home to figure out what to do next. Randy knew what needed to be done. He gave his son only one choice: come live with us immediately. Payton agreed without hesitation.

The transition to our home went smoothly. Payton knew we still loved him, despite his hurtful words and disappointing choices from months' past. We made ongoing efforts to allow him to continue his relationships with his sister and brother. Eventually, he lost complete contact with his step dad.

Payton witnessed his dad live out his faith through a difficult season. He eventually latched on to what he saw. And although it wasn't an easy period to endure, the rewards of faithfulness far outweighed the efforts extended.

How do you live out your faith with your family? Are they catching it?

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Creating a Stable Stepfamily: Have Fun Together

First, I want to give a belated Happy Father's Day to all the great stepfathers out there. Father's Day can be an awkward day for some and if it wasn't a great day, try not to take it personally.

Loyalty conflicts can get in the way with our stepchildren, preventing them from expressing their feelings and acknowledging their love for their stepparent. As a stepfather, affirm yourself for the role you play and re-commit to the journey, working to make a difference in your stepchild's life.

We only had three of our five children together for Father's Day but made the best of it to create a fun day for all of us. After church, we celebrated at home with a special lunch and gift exchange so the kids could show their appreciation to their dad/stepdad. My girls acknowledged the significant impact their stepdad, Randy, has played with them and thanked him for his role as their dad. Thankfully, loyalty conflict is no longer an issue because of the bonds Randy has created with them and the lack of involvement from their biological dad.

Since it was too hot to do anything outside, we opted to go to the movie, which we rarely do as a family. We drove to Little Rock to see Toy Story 3 and enjoyed the entertainment, complete with cokes and popcorn. When we left the theater, the sweltering heat prompted us to head to a nearby Baskin-Robbins. We enjoyed lively conversation about summer camps and a family vacation in the upcoming weeks.

As we headed for home, we reflected on our time together as a stepfamily. My husband and I have made a lot of mistakes as stepparents. But we're committed to the "long haul" in our relationships, and we see some rewards for our efforts. We're able to have fun together as a family, which hasn't always been the case.

If we're seeking stable relationships in our stepfamily, we need to spend time together. Bringing the kids together at least once a month for a fun activity creates special bonds and a sense of belonging to the family. Even if it's not possible to have all the kids together every time, it's worth the effort to spend time together with those you can.

We'll talk about additional thoughts on creating a stable stepfamily in upcoming posts.

How can you have fun together in your stepfamily?


Friday, June 18, 2010

Good News for Stepfamilies

I encounter divorced parents everyday who neglect healthy parenting because they allow guilt from their divorce to drive their actions. They believe their children will never recover from the pain of divorce.

I refuse to dwell on the negative side of divorce and the emotional scars our children endure. I am fully aware of the consequences of divorce, but I do not believe our children have to suffer permanent scars.

In his book, Stepfamilies, Dr. James Bray outlines a comprehensive nine-year-long study of stepfamilies and reports that, "A stepfamily can heal the scars of divorce." He goes on to say that, "a loving, well-functioning stepfamily can help restore a youngster's sense of emotional and psychological well-being." And--

"A strong, stable stepfamily is as capable of nurturing healthy development as a nuclear family.

Wow! I love that! We have the opportunity to raise healthy children in our stepfamily if we offer stability through a loving, well-functioning environment. The responsibility rests with us as parents and stepparents.

So, the question becomes: how do we create a strong, stable stepfamily? I'll address that next time.

Is your parenting driven by guilt? Have you allowed God's grace and mercy to release you from your past?


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hope for the Future, Part Two

Before my husband, Randy, and I married, we dreamed of having a child together. But, unfortunately, Randy had chosen to have surgery to prevent more children with his previous wife.

We underestimated the challenges ahead when we blended our four children together. Life soon became consumed with sibling rivalry, conflict with ex-spouses, and daily mundane chores.

The promise of a child together faded into the background but remained etched in my mind.

Five years into our marriage, life settled into a manageable routine. One day, Randy stumbled upon information of a nearby Christian doctor who performed vasectomy reversals. We were surprised to find his surgery fee much more affordable than others we researched in the past. We agreed to pray about the option and necessary steps for the surgery.

God clearly spoke to me during that time through Psalm 37:4: "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart."

Randy arranged for a consult with the doctor. However, the news he received was not favorable. Because of the length of time since Randy's original surgery and the fact we were both approaching 40 years of age, the likelihood of conceiving a child was slim.

We questioned whether to move forward with the surgery. But as my friend recently remarked, "How can God direct our steps if we're not taking any?" We knew there were no guarantees, but would regret not seizing the opportunity the procedure offered.

The surgery was a success and I was pregnant three months later! We knew God had intervened to make our dream come true. Randy and I were overwhelmed with the birth of our only child together, Nathan, who united our family with a common thread.

Our hopes and dreams for our stepfamily are different now. We dream of quality time together as a couple as our children grow up. We hope for future spouses and grandchildren. And we take intentional steps to continue to guide our children through transitional periods into adulthood.

What hopes and dreams do you have for your stepfamily? Do you seek the Lord for steps to achieving them?


Monday, June 14, 2010

Hope for the Future, Part One

Have you considered lately what hopes and dreams you have for your stepfamily? Do you face the the future with intentional effort toward achieving your goals?

If we want changes in our stepfamily, we need to first define what changes we're striving for and what steps we need to take to get there.

Are you pining for relationships with less conflict, more stability and greater understanding of one another? Do you desire full-time custody of your children or stepchildren? Do you need help with financial struggles to find peace in your circumstances?

It's easy to become comfortable with our present state and neglect the effort it takes to improve our situation. We can settle for mediocrity with little work or strive for excellence with intentional effort.

As my husband and I consider goals for our stepfamily, we ask the Lord to direct our steps in meeting those goals. Proverbs 3:5,6 tells us, "Lean on, trust in, and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding. In all your ways know, recognize, and acknowledge Him, and He will direct and make straight and plain your paths." (Amplified)

The Lord knows our deepest desires and heart-felt longings. He wants to give us "the desires of your heart." (Psalm 37:4) But we must include Him in our plans.

In the next post I will continue our discussion on hope for the future with an example of how God allowed a far-reaching dream in our stepfamily to come true.

What are your dreams for your stepfamily? Are you taking steps to achieve them?


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Out of Town

I'm at a writer's conference in Chicago for the rest of the week. I'll be back to regular posting next Monday.

See you soon!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Recognizing God's Blessings

The day is clearly etched in my memory as if it were yesterday. My husband and I were newly married and trudging through daily behavior problems with our four children. We were sitting together at an awards ceremony at the elementary school two of our children attended.

As the principal called the names of the children receiving the citizenship award, I looked at my husband and despairingly said, "Our kids will never receive that award." We had far too many ongoing issues with each child to believe any of them could ever receive such an honorable award.

But I was reminded last week that God is bigger than I am. He specifically showed me:

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

On the last day of school last week, our nine-year-old son, Nathan, the only child my husband and I have together, received the citizenship/character award for his third grade class. It's the first time any of our five children have received such an award. I clearly saw God's undeserved blessing for me through my child that day.

Nathan is far from perfect but I believe God knew I needed some encouragement. It's been a difficult month with unusual challenges from our older children. And God chose to show His faithfulness through our youngest child. It was a sweet ending to a long school year.

God's presence can be seen in our lives often if we're looking for it. In R.T. Kendall's book, When God Shows Up, the author states, "God wants to appear in my life and in yours. The difficulty is that we tell Him how He has to do it."

Have you seen God's blessings lately on your stepfamily journey? Are you looking for them?


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Take Care of the Small Stuff Before It Gets Big

I went to the dentist yesterday to take care of a broken filling. While I was there, I learned that in addition to breaking out the filling, I also broke part of the tooth.

If I hadn't taken the time to have it fixed, the tooth would have likely continued to crack, resulting in only one option: extracting the tooth. Instead I have a nice pretty crown, solidifying the cracked tooth underneath.

When our stepfamily relationships experience brokenness, we need to be intentional in finding solutions for the problems. If we choose to ignore the challenges or deny they exist, we create larger problems that result in more complex solutions.

A dear friend of mine took an active role in raising her stepdaughter for many years. She loved her stepdaughter and treated her as her own. But as the child reached adolescence, the young girl became involved in drugs and running with the wrong crowd.

Her father chose to ignore the situation, hoping it would remedy itself. Of course it didn't, and the young teen-age girl dove deeper into trouble with each friend she made. As a stepparent, my friend couldn't take action without the support of her husband. But the child's father refused to get involved, allowing his daughter to start down a path toward self-destruction.

Unfortunately, at 20 years old, the young lady now lives on the street, continues to abuse drugs, and has an out of wedlock one-year-old daughter she is ill-equipped to raise. The challenge of getting help she will respond to in her present condition has become insurmountable. It's too late for a clean fix to a simple problem.

As stepparents, we can't always control the solutions to stepfamily problems. But we can take part in finding solutions to the challenges we are directly involved in. We can also offer input to our spouse and pray diligently for wise choices with our stepchildren. If we approach difficult issues with our stepchildren as they arise, we are more likely to find answers with long-term success.

What challenges are you facing in your stepfamily? Will you take time to confront the small issues as they develop to prevent larger issues on the horizon?

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When our Thinking Becomes Distorted

I was reading a book recently with my youngest son titled Parts. It's a cute story of a young boy who gets paranoid about his body falling apart because of some normal changes he begins to experience - loose teeth, peeling skin, hair falling out, etc.

It made me think about how often our thinking gets distorted or blown out of proportion because of minor occurrences. If our stepson looks at us wrong, we convince ourselves he doesn't like us. If our stepdaughter rudely answers our question, we assume she is mad at us.

Our stepchildren have difficult days, just as we do. It's easy for them to take out their feelings on the nearest target, which might be us. But it doesn't mean we have to overreact and assume the worst of the situation. If we diffuse their feelings with sympathetic responses, the mood usually passes and our relationship with them has the opportunity to grow.

One of our older children moved out recently and my husband found an index card in his room that we had given him as a reminder for his relationships. The verse on the card is especially applicable for us, as stepparents, to remember and apply:

"Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless -- that's your job, to bless. You'll be a blessing and also get a blessing." I Peter 3:8 (The Message)

How can you be a blessing to someone in your stepfamily today?

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