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Thriving In a Stepfamily

Understanding what your stepkids are thinking and why can bring strength to your family.

"Being a stepmom is much more difficult than I imagined," Nancy, a stepmom of four years shared with me. "Since my husband and I are excited about our marriage, we assumed the kids would be happy too. But they're really struggling and I'm not sure what to do."

As a stepmom of more than 24 years I understand her concerns. A few months into my second marriage I was discouraged by the complexities associated with being a stepmother of two boys aged 11 and 13. Learning how to function in a blended family has been a process for all of us. Along the journey we've discovered a few insights on how to succeed as a stepfamily.

Stepfamilies are Formed Out of Loss

According to research an estimated one-third of children will live in a stepparent home before the age of 18, and 50 percent will have a stepparent at some point in their lifetime. Whether death or divorce has disrupted the biological family, children often wrestle with the adjustment. The family unit typically provides a child with safety and security. However, the death of a parent or a family divorce is likely to induce insecurity and fear in a child's life. Nancy continues to explain, "After my husband and his former wife divorced, his kids moved to a different neighborhood plus had to change schools. They attend a new church causing them to lose good friends and a familiar routine. All of this loss has caused them to be angry and sad, and I'm an easy target for their grief."

It's not uncommon for Christians to falsely assume that a stepfamily formed due to the death of a parent is easier on the children than a remarriage after divorce. However, all loss is painful. Kids who are grieving often display frustration, depression, or belligerence. It's crucial for a stepparent to understand how loss can shatter dreams and instill long-term anxiety.

A Healthy Stepfamily Takes Time

About 75 percent of those who divorce will eventually remarry. However, one of the most common misconceptions about stepfamilies is that everyone will bond quickly. "If I had this to do over again, I'd wait to remarry," Don states. "My wife and I both brought children into this second marriage. During our six months of dating everyone got along great, however once we got married that all changed. It's been three years and the children still resent the new family dynamic." Stepfamily expert Ron Deal shares, "The average stepfamily takes seven years to integrate. Parents want to believe their kids will be okay, thus the power of hope blinds couples to the realities of stepfamily integration." Many couples enter a remarriage without understanding that the kids may struggle or battle against the marriage. When parents attempt to rush or force a bond between stepchildren and stepparent, it creates tension and sets the marriage up for failure.

Time with the Biological Parent Is Crucial

A smart stepparent encourages their spouse to spend time alone with his or her kids. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a stepmom was to underestimate the need my stepsons had for time alone with their dad. A child often views a stepparent as a threat. Therefore, it's wise to plan special time for the parent and child to be alone without the stepparent or step siblings. When a child understands that the parent hasn't abandoned him or her, the child has a better capacity to adjust. A smart stepparent desires for her spouse to have a healthy relationship with her kids. Then gradually, over time, begin to integrate activities together as a stepfamily.

The Marriage Must Come First

Thirty percent of people remarry within a year after a divorce, and many don't take into account the tug-of-war that may result between their new spouse and their kids. If a marriage is going to thrive, it's necessary for the relationship to be the first priority. However, guilt may prevent one or both parents from placing the marriage before the children. Jennifer, a stepmom of seven years says, "My stepchildren are extremely rude toward me, and I feel like a stranger in my own home. My husband says I'm overreacting and that I should ignore them. This is causing tremendous stress in our marriage. I feel as though my feelings don't matter, and that he doesn't care. I'm emotionally shutting down and losing respect for him."

In a stepfamily it's vitally important for the parents to form a unified team. In a biological family the children feel safe and secure when Mom and Dad have a strong foundation and bond. However, it's completely the opposite in a stepfamily. The marriage may be viewed as a threat propelling the kids on a mission to "divide and conquer." When this occurs the biological parent holds the key to success. While demonstrating unconditional love, he or she must also clearly communicate to the children that disrespect toward the stepparent will not be tolerated. In addition, the children must understand that consequences will occur if they choose to disrespect the stepparent. In difficult circumstances the couple may need to obtain professional help from a counselor who understands the complexities associated with stepfamilies. With unity, diligence, understanding, and patience you have a stronger chance to overcome those challenging issues.

God Can Teach You How to Love

It's embarrassing to admit but sometimes I didn't like my stepkids, much less love them. I realized on my own strength I couldn't do it. So I asked God to help me see them through his eyes. He answered my prayer. Stepkids can be difficult and unloving but it's important to remember that hurt people … hurt people. You may love your stepchildren differently from how you love your own biological children. The goal is to learn to care even if they never love you in return. Stepfamilies are complicated, which is why you often need to practice sacrificial love in order to survive. Jesus is capable of filling us with an attitude of compassion and grace. He longs to fill us with love for others as he loves us (Philippians 2:2-5).

Our stepfamily journey is filled with mistakes and victories. One of my greatest pleasures is to use my experience to help others. My stepsons are now 34 and 36 with children of their own. We continue to build our relationships, seeking the Lord's guidance every step of the way.

Laura Petherbridge (www.thesmartstepmom.com) is a speaker and author of When "I Do" Becomes "I Don't": Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce (Cook) and co-author of The Smart Stepmom: Practical Steps to Help You Thrive (Bethany House).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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