Strategies for Step-Parents

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 Strategies for Step-Parents

Today’s blended families bring new challenges to relationships. Raising children is difficult enough for parents who are together with their biological children. But the challenge intensifies in blended families when divided loyalties and role confusion get in the way, especially if a child is troubled and angry as a consequence of divorce or death of a parent. The situation can erode even the best new relationship if not handled strategically.

Let’s look at a case study of a typical blended family: Maggie, Bill and his adolescent son, Ian.

Maggie cried through most of our session. “I love Bill tremendously but I am tortured living with Ian. Ian is 15 and shuttles between his parent’s homes. I know that adolescent boys can be rude, moody, and surly, but Ian is disrespectful. Last week he crashed Bill’s car and got arrested for drunk driving without a license. When we picked him up at the police station that little jerk showed no remorse whatsoever. I can’t take it anymore. I hate being in this position. I wish I never married Bill”.

“What kind of relationships do you want with Bill and Ian”? I asked.

“I don’t know. I never thought about it like that. I don’t have children of my own so I feel inadequate as a parent.”

I explained to Maggie that she need not worry about parenting. Ian already had two parents. Maggie needed to get clear about what she wanted from her relationships with Bill and Ian.

Over a few sessions Maggie recognized that she had control only over herself — not Bill, not Ian. The only way she could impact this intolerable situation was to shift the focus to herself. She needed to reorganize her thinking. By shifting the focus to herself, Maggie clarified what she wanted in her separate relationships with Bill and Ian. She accepted the fact that Ian’s treatment of his parents was none of her business and beyond her control. Bill needed to deal with his son in his own way. She didn’t need to feel angry or hurt for Bill, he could have those feelings for himself. By extricating herself from the negativity, she was free to maintain her own sanity.

That left Maggie to consider what sort of relationship she wanted with Ian, if any. She decided that as long as he was polite and respectful to her, she would be available at times he wanted to make a positive connection. She would keep to herself her opinion about his obnoxious behavior with his parents.

Maggie became adept at self-focus, especially when the environment turned toxic in their house. By distancing herself from the role of parent — a role she had no authority to enforce — Maggie felt more comfortable holding herself out as a potential resource for Ian. The anger, tension, and negativity lessened in her relationship with Bill and they resumed enjoying one another as a couple.

Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D. is the co-author with Mary Ellen Goggin, JD of the book , Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too-A Practical Guide for Couples Who Want To Be Free and Connected.  The couple offers couples counseling, couples coaching, webinars, and weekend intensive couples counseling retreats.

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