A stepfamily forms when one or both adults in a new couple bring children from a previous relationship. Although stepfamilies look like first-time families on the outside, they are very different on the inside. The first step toward making a successful stepfamily is understanding the differences between stepfamilies and first-time families. The previous marriage may have ended in divorce or in death. The original parent may be a never-married single parent or an adoptive parent. The new couple may be gay or straight.
How Stepfamilies Are Different
Stepfamilies have "insiders" and "outsiders." In a first-time family, the adult couple is considered the "insider unit," but insider and outsider roles shift. Sometimes mom is closer to Danny. Next month, dad and Danny are closer. In stepfamilies, insider and outsider positions start out painfully stuck. Agreements about every day issues lie within the parent-child unit, not between the adult couple. And single parent families usually have become a very tight unit. All of this makes stepparents outsiders in their new families. This outsider position often leaves stepparents feeling invisible, powerless, rejected and lonely. Biological (or adoptive) parents begin as the stuck insiders. They are most connected to their own children, to their new partner, and to their ex-spouse. Insider parents often feel torn and anxious trying to balance everyone's needs. Children, too, occupy stuck insider and outsider positions. When Mike's 13-year-old son, Johnny, visits his dad's new family on weekends, Johnny enters as an outsider. David and Jenny, Mike's new stepchildren, are stuck insiders. They must share their space with a new stepbrother they did not choose and may not even like.
Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations
New couples naturally wish for their new families to blend right away. Stepparents want their stepchildren to love them. Straining to make the impossible happen, however, creates constant failure. Stepcouples need at least two years to begin to function as a unit. Some stepchildren will need even more time and some will need less. Letting go of understandable, but unrealistic wishes frees you to meet the challenges.
Children's Losses and Conflicting Loyalties
For adults, new partners are thrilling. For children, however, the entry of a new stepparent often creates loss and change. Mom spends the evening with her new boyfriend. Dad's new girlfriend bans a child's favorite sugar cereal. Stepparents also create conflicts of loyalty for kids. A child may think, "If I care about my new stepmom, I am disloyal to my mom". Arguing parents make this situation even worse for kids. For all these reasons, children need time to adjust. Spending regular time in pairs helps shift insider-outsider roles. Carve out couple time, without children, to form a bond and to give stepparents time in the insider role with their new partner. Balance this with reliable parent-child alone time, including some vacation time. Re-establishing consistent parent-child time can improve the behavior of an acting-out or depressed child. Outsider stepparents maintain well-being and sanity by continuing activities with friends outside the new family. Develop stepparent-stepchild relationships by engaging in "shoulder-to-shoulder" activities, without the parent present. A stepparent might say to his stepchild: "I will never take the place of your dad. His place in your heart is permanent. You have a big heart. Sometime, I hope there will be room in it for me. Even then, it will be a different place from your dad's place." Further, expect civility-but not love. We can expect stepparents and stepchildren to treat each other with respect and decency. We cannot, however, demand love of people who did not choose each other. A parent might say to her son: "You have a right to be upset with all these changes. I will really try to listen. But you do need to be respectful to Mike, like any other stranger."
Recognize that Stepparents are Not Parents
Children benefit when stepparents can help parents become firmer. Biological parents need to help stepparents become more kind. However, stepchildren cannot initially accept any parenting from stepparents. The parent must remain in charge until children are ready. Stepparents can give input, but the original parent retains final say. Stepparents may consider expressing caring and encouragement: "How was that test?" And reporting concerns to the parent: "I think Johnny didn't do his homework." When parents are absent, stepparents aim for "adult babysitter," not parent. "While I am out tonight, Mike is in charge." Stepparents then enforce the rules of the house.
The "Other" Household
Decrease conflict with the "other" household. Parental conflict seriously compromises children's adjustment. Keep drop-offs and pickups peaceful. Handle differences between households calmly and neutrally: "You drink Coke at mom's house. We drink milk here." Address problems with your ex out of children's earshot. In conflicted divorces, stick to a detailed, iron clad visitation schedule.
A Therapist Can Help
Therapists with training and experience in stepfamily dynamics can help meet the challenges of stepfamily living. Couple therapy can offer a safe place to share feelings and can help resolve differences. A skilled therapist can sometimes help ex-spouses work together. If the children's behavior deteriorates, try increasing parent-child time, backing the stepparent out of a parenting role, and easing loyalty conflicts. If depression or acting out continues, seek help for your child, or for you as the parent. Children caught in intense loyalty conflicts sometimes appreciate a neutral therapist. Stepfamily living occasionally exposes very painful old "bruises." A good therapist can help resolve some of the old hurts and make living in the present easier.
Economic hardship and financial distress can have devastating effects on families. In tough economic times, many families lose their jobs, homes, cars, retirement accounts, belongings, savings, health insurance, and more. Families often struggle just to meet their basic needs. Stay-at-home moms may suddenly find themselves searching for work or selling their prized possessions. Unemployed fathers feel like a failure, are guilt stricken and ashamed of losing their identity as the family's provider.
Grown, adult men and women with children may find themselves moving back in with their parents until they can put the pieces of their lives back together; other families are moving in with each other. The shift from having "something," even moderate means, to having "nothing" is devastating. When families are faced with the grief of losing everything and the fear of never being able to recover, these uncontrollable circumstances have a drastic impact on families as a whole, on marriages, and on husbands, wives, parents, and children.
Common responses to such devastation include:
- post-traumatic stress
- severe grief
- alcohol or drug abuse
- overwhelming levels of stress
- feelings of detachment
- feeling surreal
- over- or under-eating
- inability to sleep (or excess sleep)
- upset stomach
- and other physical and mental symptoms of stress and depression
Families may become torn apart or separated. For example, children may move in with extended family or friends, or marriages may be extremely stressed and fall a part, and there may be underlying tension or feelings of despair. Parents may interact with their children in tense or punitive ways with a short temper; children may respond with negative behaviors and emotions, and teens may face problems in school, negative peer groups, lost self-esteem, and delinquency.
How do you know when to seek help?
If you or your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek help. Stress may feel overwhelming. Depression, if left unaddressed, could cripple one's ability to get out of bed, take a shower, put on clothes and look for a new job. In the worst case, if left unaddressed, depression can, in some cases, lead someone you love to committing suicide.
What options for help are available?
Medications are commonly used to treat anxiety, panic, depression, and other symptoms one is experiencing. While medication is helpful in restoring health and healing to one's physical body (the brain in particular), treatment is most successful when coupled with psychotherapy or "talk" therapy. Talk therapy (psychotherapy) occurs in a relaxed, straightforward, and non-judging environment, in which you or your loved one will sit down with a therapist and discuss the things that are bothering you in a safe and private space. A therapist is skilled in helping to bring important issues to the forefront, and in helping each voice and perspective be expressed, heard, and understood. Areas may include:
- Financial health issues, such as instrumental and psychoeducational interventions, to aid job searching and financial management
- Mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, confidence and esteem loss, and depression, in adult and child family members
- Behavior issues, academic issues, and issues of negative activities and peers, in children and adolescents
- Couple and marriage issues, reducing financial strain effects on relationships
- Parent-child relationship issues, parenting emotions and practices, understanding negative and positive parenting practices and effects
- Family issues, including family counseling to reduce blame, to build resiliency, and activate family resources
- Community issues, helping families to engage with community resources and increase social support
How can an MFT help the client and family?
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help you or your loved one and the family. MFTs are trained to understand the complex nature of problems, especially problems resulting from external social factors, such as economic hardship. They address problems that an individual may be experiencing, as well as difficulties in couple and parent-child relationships. An MFT can help alleviate symptoms like anxiety or depression through addressing the social or familial circumstances that may be contributing. They can help you to ensure that your children are buffered from the worst effects of financial strain in effective and concrete ways. MFTs believe in the power of healing that occurs when treating and working with the whole family unit. Even though a particular family member may be the one who seems to be suffering the most, generally all family members are also affected in various ways. All perspectives and resources come together in family therapy to create positive and helpful changes in a shared and co-created vision. MFTs can work with family relationships to restore trust, improve communication, increase satisfaction, and foster healthy ways of relating. Clinicians are knowledgeable about research findings about what protects families from the adverse effects of financial strain.
- Couple/marriage therapy. Couples who treat each other well in times of financial stress fare much better than those who argue and blame each other for problems. While some amount of argument about money is to be expected, how couples argue is important to relationship quality. Couples therapy can help spouses/partners communicate safely and effectively. Couples therapy can help couples work together to partner, support, and care for each other through difficult times.
- Family therapy and parenting. Positive parenting practices and good parental relationships substantially protect children from the serious negative impacts of financial strain in families. Family therapy focused on parenting and parent-child relationships can go a long way in helping children. Clinicians may work with mothers and fathers to reduce irritability and stress expressed toward children, and to reduce negative parenting—aversive, punitive, arbitrary, coercive techniques (such as threats, derogatory statements, slaps)—and to build positive parenting—(reasoning and loss of privileges)— that is nurturing, affectionate, and sensitive to children’s needs.
Research indicates that parents, as well as children, benefit when parents feel more effective and capable, parent-child relationships improve, and parenting feels less difficult and more satisfying. In turn, as parental well-being improves, so does children’s. Themes commonly addressed in therapy include grieving loss, confronting denial or unrealistic expectations, symbolism and meaning of money, restoring trust, emotion regulation and couples skill development, stress management, money management, job search skills, parenting skills, and children’s well-being.
Family ties are one of the strongest contributors to individual character development. Many of us spend years trying to understand, erase, or copy the influence of our family unit. When anger is part of a family's tradition, it spreads itself much like a virus to future generations. The wider the spread, the more difficult the anger is to contain. The effect of anger in families is usually apparent in the way that members relate with one another. Our earliest experiences communicating and relating to others occurs within the family. Patterns of anger in relationships are then taken and recreated in later relationships outside the family. Thankfully, a committed, well-designed treatment plan can repair the damage of having been raised in an angry family system.
Anger in Relationships
Anger is one of the most common negative patterns in relationships. Couples sometimes report that it is their anger that makes the relationship feel alive. Anger takes root in insecure relationships where open communication is absent and the emotion of love is buried beneath years of resentment. There is typically hopelessness in the present and doubt about the future in these relationships. The good news is that individuals committed to improving their relationships through the hard work of therapy are generally rewarded with a renewed sense of hope. Here are some tips on how to limit anger producing interactions in your relationships:
- When you have anger toward another person, start with an internal check of your own emotional state. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do.
- Before feeling attacked or hurt, make an attempt to give others the benefit of the doubt, especially if you have nothing to lose by doing so.
- Ask yourself if you have legitimate assumptions about the intentions of others.
- Keep the lines of communication open. When you feel resentment building, see if you can journal your feelings and then share your thoughts with a loved one.
- Explore your participation in relationships that repeatedly bring out the worst in you.
- Always consider individual or family therapy in instances where your anger feels out of control and/or mysterious.
How Do I Know If My Family or Loved One Has an Anger Problem?
Angry individuals are, in most instances, very aware of their problems in controlling anger. Unfortunately, too many come to accept their anger as an unchangeable part of who they are and feel hopeless to change. If you feel that you or a loved one may have an anger disorder, look for several of the following symptoms happening in your life on a regular basis:
- Becoming more angry than is appropriate in regard to mild frustration or irritation.
- Having feelings of guilt or regret over something that you have said or done in a fit of anger.
- Repeated social conflict as a result of anger outbursts (law suits, fights, property damage, school suspensions, etc.)
- Family and/or friends approach you with the concern that you need help managing your anger.
- Having chronic physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, gastrointestinal, difficulties, or anxiety.
Where to Get Help for My Anger
Fortunately, the mental health profession has been responsive to individuals seeking treatment for help with anger. Referrals to treatment programs and services are often available and mandated for those individuals suffering moderate to severe social conflict. Many chronically angry individuals feel shame and guilt about their anger. There may be times when a friend or loved one may need to request help or plan an intervention for the angry individual. In such instances, it is critical to take advantage of mental health professionals with a background in anger management training.
What Kind of Help Will I Get for My Anger?
An effective anger management plan can include individual or family therapies, which are some of the more common ways people attempt to deal with chronic anger.
- Individual therapy, which explores the root of angry feelings and behavior, is traditionally a safer, more secure option to working with the entire angry family at once. Treatment with individuals helps facilitate a thorough focus on the most important emotions beneath the individual's anger.
- Family therapy is a powerful way of repairing the damaging effect of long-term anger interactions. Over time, chronic anger drives a wedge between family members, resulting in the members becoming disconnected from one another, or overly involved with one another in an unhealthy manner. Therapy would consider each member's role in the anger interactions, versus assuming any single member is responsible for the family's anger.
How Marriage and Family Therapy Helps Control Anger
More often than not, chronic anger has a lengthy, definable history. Marriage and family therapists are trained experts in identifying anger patterns that pass from one generation to the next. Identifying these patterns helps to explore individuals' learned perceptions about the appropriateness of anger expression and suppression. Encouraging a parent to share how emotions were expressed in his or her immediate family allows other family members to understand the family's inherited concepts about anger.
Mental Illness (MI) is a term used by mental health professionals that includes many disorders. Although MI usually does not occur until late adolescence or adulthood, it can and does occur in childhood as well. When MI occurs in childhood, it is considered childhood-onset mental illness (COMI). COMI can cause serious problems for the children and adolescents who have it, including problems in their biological, social, and emotional development. Children with COMI need the significant adults in their lives (parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles, teachers, religious leaders, and others) to understand what COMI is, how it impacts children's lives, and learn how to recognize its signs and symptoms. If untreated, children with COMI can live their lives misunderstood and mistreated. Fortunately, COMI can be treated and children with it can have meaningful lives. If you think a child may be experiencing symptoms of COMI, it is important to have the child evaluated by a mental health professional. Children with COMI who receive treatment soon after symptoms appear have the opportunity to experience a quality childhood.
What is Mental Illness?
Children, adolescents and adults of all ages can experience a MI. Mental illnesses are biologically based, meaning that chemicals or structures in the brain are not working as they are supposed to, resulting in symptoms that cannot be managed or overcome without treatment, often resulting in lives that are unstable and unfulfilled. Symptoms of MI include problems in thinking, behaving, and feeling (moods and emotions). When a person is experiencing the symptoms of a MI, relationships with family and peers, school or work performance, and basic daily activities (sleeping, eating, bathing, dressing) can be difficult. Children who have MI sometimes need to be hospitalized to stabilize their symptoms or attend special programs, schools, or classrooms that specialize in treating COMI. These children also can receive treatment in community based agencies or private practice settings. There are many disorders that meet the criteria for COMI, including Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and certain Anxiety Disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Diagnosis can be difficult in children, as symptoms in children can look different than symptoms in adults. Additionally, some symptoms can suggest that the child may have more than one diagnosis, or an unusual presentation of a diagnosis. Organizations such as the NAMI and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have made gains in identifying and understanding how these symptoms specifically manifest themselves in children. Information on COMI is readily accessible to the general public through consumer-based resources like NAMI and NIMH.
How is COMI Diagnosed and Treated?
Although a child with COMI may experience periods of instability even with treatment, when a child with COMI is correctly diagnosed and receives appropriate treatment, the likelihood of having a relatively normal childhood increases significantly. Often diagnosis begins when a parent, teacher, or other significant adult in a child's life notices subtle or significant changes in behavior, thinking or moods that signal the possible presence of a COMI and the need for a formal mental health evaluation. This evaluation can be the beginning of treatment or the beginning of a larger assessment process, depending on the severity of the problem and symptoms the child is experiencing. Mental health professionals who can evaluate for COMI include psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and professional counselors who specialize in the treatment of children.
Will a Child with COMI Need Medication?
Due to the biological basis of COMI, psychiatric evaluation and treatment is generally necessary. The disorders associated with COMI usually require medications for symptom management. Child psychiatrists specialize in evaluating and treating the various disorders of COMI. Since some symptoms of COMI also can be symptoms of other medical conditions, a thorough medical evaluation is needed. Additionally, substance use or abuse can produce symptoms similar to those found in COMI. An accurate diagnosis of COMI can be made only after a general medical condition and substance use have been ruled out as the cause of the child's symptoms. However, even when substance use has been identified, it is not uncommon for children with COMI disorders to use substances to cope with the symptoms associated with their disorders. Therefore, further assessment for COMI may be necessary.
Is Psychological Testing Necessary?
Some children with COMI will need formal psychological assessment or testing. This assessment will inform those parenting, educating and treating the child how the child is functioning, direct the treatment and educational programs, and identify the child's strengths and vulnerabilities. Psychological testing should be done by a qualified mental health professional.
Who is Involved in Treating COMI?
COMI increases the need to create supportive and stable environments for children. Consequently, a team of mental health professionals is needed to effectively intervene. The lives of children are complex and can involve many significant adults. The child with COMI will experience the need for help in multiple settings, including home, school, and the community. The professionals involved with a child with COMI and his or her family may include 1) a family therapist, 2) a primary care physician, 3) a child psychiatrist, 4) a case manager, and 5) an occupational therapist or educational coordinator.
What Other Elements are Important for the Treatment of COMI?
In addition to medication, treatment for a child with COMI (regardless of the specific diagnosis) needs to include psychoeducation, behavior management, and psychotherapy. Psychoeducation teaches children and families about COMI and the impact it has on the child's life and family. This includes information about the disorder, its symptoms, treatment, and future risks. Children with COMI need age-appropriate psychoeducation regarding their illness, as well as an action plan to manage their symptoms and prevent the symptoms form reoccurring. Managing symptoms also includes behavior management techniques that help parents, teachers, and others provide a structured environment where the child with COMI can be most successful. Children with COMI may also need individual and/or group psychotherapy to develop healthy coping skills. Therapy can focus on a variety of issues including positive peer interaction, self-esteem, and identity development. It is important for children with COMI to be able to understand the role their illness plays in their lives, but also to recognize other parts of their selves that are separate from the disorder.
Is Family Treatment Necessary?
Family involvement in treatment for the child with COMI is very important. Among other things, families provide structure, support and the opportunity for the child to stay interpersonally connected to others. Families themselves also need help in accepting, understanding, and coping with a diagnosis of COMI when it is made. Treatment for families with COMI includes psychoeducation and support that is balanced by attention to other family issues or problems that may be affecting the stability of the home--for example, substance abuse or domestic violence. If other family problems are not addressed and treated, there can be significant negative consequences for the child with COMI. Likewise, there can be significant gains for both the child and family when the family receives treatment for COMI. A marriage and family therapist can provide the necessary psychoeducation, support and therapy necessary for children and families dealing with COMI.
Many families in the United States are touched by divorce. The current divorce rate is calculated to be between 40 and 60% for those recently married and up to 10% higher for remarriages. A majority of divorces occur in families with children under the age of 18. Divorce propels adults and children into numerous adjustments and challenges. While great diversity exists in children’s adjustment to divorce, and a majority of children weather the transition and become competent adults, up to a quarter of children whose parents divorce experience ongoing emotional and behavior difficulties (as compared to 10% of children whose parents do not divorce).
In her research on divorcing parents, family therapist Constance Ahrons identified different types of post-divorce parenting relationships: "perfect pals," "cooperative colleagues," "angry associates," "fiery foes," and "dissolved duos." However, even when parents are "angry associates" or "fiery foes," there are ways they can develop cooperative or business-like relationships for the sake of their children. Parental conflict can hinder children’s adjustment and good co-parenting skills are very important to a child's adjustment. Most parents who have a difficult relationship with their ex-spouse but who want to co-parent start out with "parallel parenting." In this arrangement, each parent assumes total responsibility for the children during the time they are together; there is no expectation of flexibility and little contact with the other parent. As time goes on and anger dissipates, parents may develop some version of "cooperative parenting." In this arrangement, parents communicate directly and in a business-like manner regarding the children and co-parenting schedules. Marriage and family therapists can be helpful to families as they formulate or define their post-divorce parenting relationships.
How can you help your children?
- Tell children about the divorce together, if possible.
- Answer children’s questions honestly, avoiding unnecessary details.
- Reassure children they are not to blame for divorce.
- Tell children they are loved and will be taken care of.
- Include the other parent in school and other activities.
- Be consistent and on time to pick up and return children.
- Develop a workable parenting plan that gives children access to both parents.
- Guard against canceling plans with children.
- Give children permission to have a loving, satisfying relationship with other parent.
- Avoid putting children in the middle and in the position of having to take sides.
- Avoid pumping children for information about the other parent.
- Avoid arguing and discussing child support issues in front of children.
- Avoid speaking negatively about the other parent or using the child as a pawn to hurt the other parent.
When your children show signs of stress:
- acts younger than their chronological age
- fear of being apart from parent(s)
- acting out
- sadness and depression
- sleep or eating problems
- change in personality
- academic and peer problems
- irrational fears and compulsive behavior
When you or your partner begins to:
- use the legal system to fight with each other
- put down or badmouth the other parent
- use the children as message carriers or to spy on the other parent (children feel caught in the middle)
- experience high levels of conflict and children repeatedly try to stop the fighting
- rely on the children for high level of emotional support and major responsibilities in the home
- experience depression or anxiety
What help is available for divorcing parents and children?
- Court-connected divorce education programs for parents and children.Programs for parents and, sometimes, children are recommended or required in over half of the counties in the United States. Call your local family court for more information.
- School programs for children. Some school systems offer small groups for children during the day or after school. In these groups children learn that they are not alone in their experience of divorce and learn coping strategies.
- Family therapy, available through public and private mental health centers, and university family therapy centers. During separation and divorce, family members experience uncertainty, emotional upheaval, and changes in their family roles and rules. Family therapists can assist in the process of redefining relationships and addressing family members’ responsibilities and needs.
Many resources exist for adults, parents, and children who wish to learn more about the process of separation and divorce. In particular, numerous books exist for children at varying reading levels. A few books for parents are mentioned in this brochure; check libraries and bookstores for other titles.