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Stepparents, the Kids, Blending Families – and School

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Former School Counselor Pat Bubash Shares Her Unique Perspective

RemarriageWorks spoke with Pat Bubash, author of Successful Second Marriages and a now retired school counselor, to get the inside scoop on stepfamilies from a school counselor’s experience. Pat offers her perspective and some great insight into the challenges of blending a family and how she witnessed first-hand the impact on kids. She also offers some advice on what to expect, and what it may be like from the kids’ perspective.

How does being in a stepfamily make life a little different for students?

That’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. I had an open-door policy in my office. If I didn’t have something scheduled, my door was open. You get a lot of insight when people can just come in as needed. A lot of conversations over the years were with parents or kids or even grandparents when there was a remarriage.

It’s a difficult transition. It’s even difficult when the kid likes the stepparent because the composition of family life becomes different then. If the stepparent has children and they come over, those living in the house have to learn to share – their room, their time. I think that’s one area that has a big impact on kids, and when they find they have to share time with their parent.

There are so many factors involved that make blended marriage so difficult. One of the stories in my book is about one couple who in five years’ time, separated four times. Not because they didn’t love each other, but there were four kids among them and they drove them nuts. The kids didn’t want their parents to be married again – they were quite fine with how things were. Now the kids have moved on, and the couple is very happy.

What would prompt a student to come to you?

An advocate, an ear. I’ve always told kids this: even if they’re coming in to complain about a parent, what was said to me was between us. If they came to say they’re really mad at mom or didn’t like their stepmom or stepdad, it was safe. If they came in and said they were going to hurt somebody – that was different. Kids knew they could come in and tell me whatever was on their mind. It was safe with me and they could trust me. Then, it’s like any of us: you get something off your chest, and then you can go back and deal with it. I felt I had more of a rapport because I knew what it was like from my own experience. I think it made the relationship between my students and myself a closer one.

What would prompt parents to come to you?

Well, thinking I could – again – listen to their frustration and anger. I’ll give you an example. There were two kids, they were really great kids, in elementary school, and their dad was single. He was a very good dad, very involved. He was a lawyer, successful, and they lived with him full time. He met a woman who was a school counselor for their district. He was smitten with her. He’d been so super-involved with his kids, but he now needed time to woo this woman, and the kids’ behavior really changed. They became more difficult, not so pleasant and challenging with him. He came to the office, the only time he came in there, and he said how much he was in love with this woman. I said, “You may be, but it doesn’t mean they are, and you were there first for them.” It didn’t mean the kids were on board.

He was so involved with his kids and there for them, and then trying to have a relationship with this woman – he wasn’t even thinking how it affected them. He thought because he was so happy, everyone should be so happy. Your kids were there first. I tell parents, you are maybe forgetting they have a parent: the person you’re divorced from. They may not be your spouse, but they’re still their parent.

If parents took time to build a friendship first, they had a better chance. I was never quiet about the fact that I was a divorced person, which gives some credibility to what you’re talking about. I think that’s such a big problem with people who want to remarry, and more than half of people who divorce want to remarry. When they find someone again they think “finally” and they want everyone to be happy with that person, too.

It’s different for kids: it’s not their biological parent, and now they have to share you and your time – and sometimes your finances. It’s a lot of being willing to share everything, and I find teenagers are most unhappy about this and they’re in their own world and don’t want to be involved with what’s going on with their parents. They feel the focus should be on them. Little kids are easier: you go out play ball with them, and spend time with them, and they’re young enough to build that rapport. For teenagers, as far as they’re concerned, it’s “my world is the most important world right now.”

We all want somebody, but the kids were there first. And when you put them first, it’s to the detriment of a new relationship. I guess it’s like the couple who separated all those times… if you can wait it out until those kids are out of the house, it’s probably an easier transition and might even be better. Otherwise, it could be a lot of stress on your life. It’s not an easy thing; couples need to talk to a counselor, share the family dynamics and its composition. Understand how kids feel about it rather than how the adults feel about it.

Why would a grandparent approach school counselor?

There are times, more often than not, when their child divorces, especially if it’s a daughter-in-law involved and they don’t get to see the children as much, or even at all. Women are like this more than men: they are so angry at that ex-spouse, they remove their kids from the grandparents. Unfortunately, the grandparents get caught in the middle of it all. I love my mother-in-law – she was the best. I allowed my kids to spend time with her and love her. But that’s not the majority: the animosity, hurt - it’s one way to get back at your spouse by keeping them from those grandparents. It’s hard to recall that these grandparents were part of the kids’ life and need to continue to be. And grandparents need to understand that they need to stay out of that disagreement going on: they have to be uninvolved with what’s going on with the couple. Even with their own kids, they should not take sides. My mother-in-law managed to pull that off, but I know she felt I was the better parent.

I imagine school work is affected. What is your advice to a couple about to blend their family?

They need to not expect their kids to be as in love with this person as they are. And when children are involved, make sure you have family dinners together, but continue to let the biological parent have time with their own kids. If they want to go somewhere with them, don’t think you automatically have to become this family and share. If they only see their kids on weekends, give them time to do something together because they don’t get a lot of time. They need that time with their parent. I really think that’s important.

Don’t expect right off the bat that everything has to be done altogether, that everything has to be shared. I think that’s where resentment really gets built up. For kids not living with their biological parent, they really need that time with their parent. It builds up animosity when it’s not honored. They think the stepparent gets to see their parent all the time, while they’re their child and they don’t, and think ‘how fair is that?’

And when changes are being made, the parents should let the school know. Teachers know when kids are acting different and acting up. They’d come to me and ask me “What’s going on?” If there are any changes in family composition, let the school counselor know: it’s what they’re there for. Counselors are there to help – a resource.


Top 5 Reasons Why U.S. Presidents Have Neglected to Make National Stepfamily Day an Official Holiday

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hey, all you stepfamilies out there… do you have your plans set for National Stepfamily Day that’s coming up on September 16th?

So it’s not the most recognized holiday in the United States…yet. Sure, there’s a National Parents’ Day, which occurs annually on the fourth Sunday in July. Former President Bill Clinton signed the resolution into law not quite a decade ago, which Congress enthusiastically passed—unanimously, if you can believe that. That means at least parents in general are acknowledged.

But what about the, er, stepchild, of family-centric resolutions, one that acknowledges stepparenting?

That one, so far, has been overlooked, underappreciated, and possibly just plain ignored.

RemarriageWorks has put together its take on the top 5 reasons why presidents haven’t yet jumped on this one—a light, tongue-in-cheek look at politics as usual. Here we go:

Reason #5: Economists Haven’t Told Them about the Potential Economic Boost

According to a Pew Research Center survey that was done just last year, at least four in ten adults in the U.S. has at least one steprelative, be it parent, sibling or child. Now, imagine the economic boost to card companies, florists and bakeries across the country if there were only a National Stepfamily Day!

Reason #4: They Didn’t Like their Stepparent

This one may be a bit of a stretch but hey, if you’re President, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to—and that includes being nice to your stepparent. Though we’re sure all of our presidents who experienced the joys of a stepfamily would never think such a thing.

Reason #3: They Fear Offending the “Traditional” Constituency

America was built on good, old-fashioned traditional family values. Then along came stepfamilies… and no one knew quite what to do with them. The fear may be that, by acknowledging this brand of family, they may lose votes. We don’t want to be jaded—we’re just saying it’s a possibility.

Reason #2: They Don’t Realize How Many Voters They Could Get

Remember that Pew Research Center survey? Presidential candidates and incumbents, take note: there’s a whole group of folks out here who just may be swayed if shown a little holiday love in the form of National Stepfamily Day.

Reason #1: They Don’t Know Their History

If any president doesn’t fit in with that demographic of four in ten adults having a step-someone or other, then they need look no further than some very famous portraits on the walls of the White House.

For instance, George Washington married Martha and became stepdad to two children. Abraham Lincoln was a stepson.

So, if stepfamilies were good enough for George and Abe, they should get the acknowledgement they so richly deserve. We urge our leaders to elevate this platform to where it belongs: on a par with Thanksgiving… at the very least.

Let us know…

What is your take on why National Stepfamily Day has yet to take root?

Healthy Communication in a Blended Family

Friday, August 24, 2012

Healthy Communication in a Blended Family

Define Your Communication Style Mix

Communicating well is a challenge for all of us, but it would seem as if a blended family would have even more challenges then most when it comes to communicating well.

Why is this?

Blending a family is more than just two people getting together who happen to have some kids. There are pre-existing family dynamics, personalities and differing communication skills that must now suddenly “blend.”

This blending can either be a harmonious occurrence, such as what you get when you blend together ingredients for a smoothie. Or, it can look like what happens when you leave the lid off of the blender: you are wiping the results off the walls and ceiling.

There are various levels of communication issues that can occur in a stepfamily. For one, children may feel torn between their natural parents—and not sure what to make of the new arrangement with the stepparent. Some will respond by being vocal, while others may hide how they’re feeling, fearful of rocking the boat. This becomes a communication issue, when either nothing is being communicated, or a child is lashing out as a means of expression.

Then, there is the parent and the stepparent and their way of communicating with kids. Maybe mom’s style of parenting has been to allow her child to debate every decision with her, while stepdad’s style is more “what I say goes.” This can cause a communication issue between the couple because of differing communication styles in the parental role.

Stepfamilies aren’t unique in having communication issues. They simply have a more unique situation than what is traditional. But think of traditional families: how many do you know that have perfect communication skills? There’s a reason many people dread the holidays—communication can either be the “special sauce” or the meal that goes down in flames.

Communication takes ongoing effort, and for a blended family, it needs to start from the top. If you are preparing for remarriage now, consider going to some form of pre-marital counseling so that you can learn more about what to expect after the “I do.” One thing that is beneficial to uncover are the expectations each of you has for how you will communicate with each other, with the kids, and what is acceptable and unacceptable when communicating.

If you’re already remarried, it’s not too late to have this discussion—and set some guidelines. It can be as simple as: “We as a family will always be open and honest with each other about what we are thinking and feeling, as long as we communicate it in a respectful tone.” Or, you and your partner may decide that how you have always communicated with your natural children is the way you will continue, and the stepparent will not interfere.

Communication works best when people take the time to actually sit down and discuss their thoughts and feelings on various topics and issues. And it’s more helpful to do so before there’s a major problem or blow-up. However, even a blow-up can become a learning experience when you work together to do better next time.

As a blended family, you are not at a disadvantage when it comes to communication. In fact, blending those different styles may make you a stronger unit, as you learn to navigate different ways of communicating with people who have a different style than you—a skill that will extend into the world at large.

 

Does your blended family have any communication issues with which you’re currently struggling, or have in the past?

 

If so, what have you tried to do in order to resolve them? Has it worked?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. 

Stepmoms: Have You Discussed Parenting Style with Stepdad?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Stepdads mean well. They marry you, knowing full well they’re taking on the family package—and they do it willingly. So let’s give these intrepid souls their due.

Let’s also not become disillusioned with the differences in child-rearing opinion and methodology we may discover after the “I do.”

Learning about each other’s parenting philosophy is a conversation that you hopefully have had prior to making your vows. Even first-marrieds can have differing opinions on how to raise children: one may be a strict disciplinarian, while the other takes more of a laissez-faire approach.

You can see the potential for a clash!

If you haven’t had that conversation, it’s never too late. You may not agree with your husband’s approach to pitching in with your kids. I recommend you offer a guiding hand so he knows what your expectations are.

To begin with, understand that stepdads don’t get a lot of press, unless it’s a negative story or character in a movie. So, stepdads don’t get as much information as what’s out there for stepmothers, or they may think, “No big deal—nothing I can’t handle,” and then they enter the reality of the stepfamily dynamic and think, “I’m in over my head!”

No doubt they enter the remarriage union with the best of intentions. But if your husband runs afoul of the way you have been doing things for years… they suddenly find themselves on shaky ground when you get upset.

Chuck Semich, a licensed family therapist and RemarriageWorks advice columnist, offers the following three tips so a stepmom can guide her husband through the transition into the stepfamily:

1-    Practice Patience

If you keep in mind that your husband means well, it will help you to remember to be patient as he gets situated in his new role. Don’t become disillusioned with your dream man when you discover his beliefs about raising children are diametrically opposed to yours! He may simply not understand your preference for how you want your kids raised, and needs time to assimilate your way of doing things.

2-    Have a Calm Discussion

 

It needs to be a calm discussion, because yelling doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I would encourage stepmoms who find themselves in the position of having a different parenting style from their husband to calmly but firmly explain that they seem to have two different sets of expectations. Let him know you welcome suggestions, but that you want him to leave the parenting decisions and the parenting style up to you. Often what happens is that a stepdad thinks he’s helping his wife when he steps in with the children when they seem to be getting out of hand. In my opinion, when that happens, he is really undermining her authority with the children. She needs to tell him that, because he probably doesn’t realize it. Actually, your husband may be relieved to find out he’s not expected to rescue you from your children!

3-    Compliment, Relate, Repeat,

Some women say, “I’ve told him over and over, but it keeps happening.” If your husband didn’t hear you, it’s possible either he wasn’t listening or you didn’t express it very clearly. I think that sometimes the husbands feel they’re not doing a good job, and when it’s presented to them in a way that they hear that, they’re going to resist it. I think it’s good when you want to start that conversation, point out some of the things he’s doing well, and let him know you really appreciate what he’s done. Then say, “Here’s an area where we need to come to some agreement.” Sometimes it’s just a problem of marital communication where a good family therapist may be of help to get you started on the right path.


Spotlight on Stepdads

Friday, June 15, 2012

Spotlight on Stepdads:

An Interview with a former Stepchild, current Stepdad and StepGrandad…

In honor of Father’s Day here in the month of June, let’s give a round of applause for one of the most unsung heroes out there: stepdads.

I recently interviewed a stepdad who grew up as a stepchild and is now a stepgrandad. He’s a successful licensed family therapist specializing in stepfamily relations, and is RemarriageWorks’ very own advice columnist: Chuck Semich.

Today, I’d like to offer you some highlights from that interview, particularly Chuck’s top 3 pieces of advice for stepdads. These are some nuggets of wisdom that can help stepdads gain some insight into their own expectations that they may be bringing to their blended family and their experiences as a stepdad, as well as help their wives see what it’s like to be in a stepdad’s shoes.

Paula:

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for stepdads, such as new stepdads—newly  remarrieds, in particular?

Chuck:

I have some very strong opinions on that, from hard experience and learning—I hope—from my own mistakes!

I would say my top 3 pieces of advice are as follows:

1-    Let their mother do the parenting. Don’t try to change the rules or impose your own standards and values. If you don’t agree on how she’s handling things, make suggestions, not demands—and do it privately. Say something like, “You might want to try this…” or “Maybe this will work…” If she decides not to follow your advice, be graceful about it.

2-    This is extremely important: never force your wife to choose between you and the kids. That should always be a non-issue. She is a wife and a mother, and she should be free to function in both areas, in both roles, and never forced to make a choice.

3-    Work on your relationship with each of your wife’s children: spend time with them, take an interest in what they’re doing, ask them if there’s anything or any way you can be of help to them. Be a consultant, not a disciplinarian. Good relationships aren’t built overnight; they take a long time, even years.

Paula:

What if a family has kids that are a little older and they don’t want to have anything to do with the stepparent? What if the kids say no? Let time roll by and hope for the best, or are there things you can do in the background?

Chuck:

It’s a real challenge. I think at some point, the stepfather might want to make a statement to the kids and say something like, “I know we haven’t really hit it off, but I hope over time we can have a good relationship, and I’m here if you need anything.”

Also, be a very good husband to their mother. I notice that my stepchildren were really impressed with our relationship, they told me that many times. And I know that they felt good about the fact that someone really loved and took care of their mother. I think that’s important.

And of course, maybe you’ll never be real close or friends; it’s something you don’t really have a lot of control over. You can take the high ground and you don’t need to take it personally, even though it does hurt sometimes.

To hear the interview in its entirety, go to: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thestepmomstoolbox/2012/06/05/remarriageworks-top-secrets-of-stepfathers

 



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