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Stepfamilies are becoming increasingly realistic in the societies we live in. The stepfamilies can be formed as a result of the death of one of the spouses, divorce or separation. When these unfortunate incidences occur, one parent is left to take care of the children, a situation which could influence the need to remarry. Remarrying, however, comes with its own unique set of challenges; while both spouses try to fulfill the needs of their partners and of the expectations of the children in the relationship. The path is never easy, nonetheless, with a myriad of expectations from both the stepchildren’s side and the stepparent’s side. Statistically speaking, most of the time a stepparent is the mother.
Making people in the stepfamilies fully appreciate each other is a daunting task due to the immense challenges always experienced by them. For example, in the case of the death of one of the parents, the children involved may still be mourning the loss of their loved ones, thus, find it extremely hard to accept the incoming parent to occupy the place of the ‘lost’ and beloved parent. This feeling of resentment may result in a very slow acceptance of the stepparent by the child.
The challenges experienced by people in stepfamilies could be attributed to many factors, amongst them the fact that both parties involved have very different historical backgrounds and at times blending the long history of experiences and habits is problematic. The stepmother, for instance, may come with her own rules of how she expects to run the family. However, the children in the relationship may not entirely buy into her new idea of parenting and may thus rebel towards her. If the mother above came from a background where younger children were taught to entirely obey their elders, she may feel that stepchildren lack respect for her and thus she may feel hurt. To avenge her feelings, she may start expressing her negative emotions towards the children and, as a result, the children feel mistreated and rejected by their stepmother (Visher & Visher, 1979)
When dating, couples often expect that their beloved ones will love their children the same way one loves his or her own kids when they get into marriage. However, this is never the case when the couple fully enters the relationships as married partners, because the children may start pulling away from the new parent in the relationship. This particularly arises in the situation when a a parent has older children, who may never accept their stepparent fully and instead may pull away from them and never want to be associated with them in any way.
In cases where the incoming stepmother also has her own children, she might find it hard to fully accept her partner’s children of as her own, and may tend to show more affection towards her own children. The children of her spouse, therefore, feel unloved and uncared for by the new stepmother.
Reactions to one another’s children may also be a contributing factor to the tensions for dating or married couples. At times the stepchildren might be expecting too much from their current parents; at the same time the parents can set high expectations of the children. Some cases exemplify that the children expect their stepparents to treat them the way their biological parents used to, like pamper them, take them for movies, or help with homework, just to mention a few expectations. When this does not take place, it causes disillusionment, especially from the child’s end.
The fact that stepchildren are never really biological children may make the stepparents feel less obligated towards them. There may also be external pressures from the stepparent’s friends from the outside, probably encouraging him/her to love the children less. If such a parent responds to such external pressures, he/she may feel less affection towards the children of the spouse (Schaff, 1859).
Expectations are usually high, especially from the children’s end. Kids sometimes believe that they will be showered with love and enjoy a high degree of affection from their stepmothers. Because of the failed fulfillment of high expectations, the stepchildren may lie about their stepparent to the other spouse or simply show very high resentment towards their new member of the family.. As a result, they may even attempt to spoil the relationship between the spouses.
Women are naturally more social than men, and would love to see their relationships work in most cases. Due to their social nature, and their desire to make relationships work, they may feel resentment towards the children, especially if they feel the children are a hindrance to the working of their relationship in any way. Some of these women would even go to extreme cases of wanting to eliminate some of these children completely.
Most stepchildren never feel close to their stepmothers because no one, according to them, can rightfully occupy the space of their missing biological mother. At times they still feel obligated to be loyal to their biological mothers and not to any other person. Children, therefore, may never wish to offend their mothers by being loyal to a stepmother. This may take place especially in case the biological mother lives in a nearby city. Such children can wish to spare some time to spend it with their biological mothers rather than spending time with their stepmothers. Additionally, stepchildren may openly express the fact that the void created by their biological mothers can never be occupied by anybody else at any cost.
Bringing in two sets of children from previously different families is not an easy task to manage. Most of the children who are under the father’s custody find it very difficult to accept a stepmother. McClenahan’s group (1978) admits that the most challenges for stepparents in bringing up stepchildren are related to disciplining them, and them not accepting their stepparents.
Amongst other problems the researchers list is communication with their ex-partners, which the new partner may not be comfortable with, and general difficulties in creating rapport with the new children.
In law and ex-in law interferences has also been a major factor contributing to the disintegration of stepfamilies. At times the stepparent may be trying their best to gain the children’s attention but continued in-law presence always works to hinder such a relationship, especially if the in law views the step parent with contempt.
The myth that stepmothers are never friendly to their children has also proved a great deal to hinder the stepmother - step children relationship. In many cases the children believe that there is no stepmother who will be friendly to them. Such perceptions, therefore, result in the situation when the stepmothers arrive and the children are slow to accept them. At times it does not even matter how hard the step mother tries to be good, because it is a challenge to eliminate such a mentality from the children’s heads, and the appreciation of the stepmothers becomes difficult.
Stepchildren at the adolescent stage may also prove to be very difficult to control. They may feel that their stepparents should not demand too much from them and in most cases they prefer to be left to run their errands alone. Such children may lay substantial ground of stressing the parents, and at times the stepmothers or stepfathers have very little control over this stress. The adolescents may simply decide to rebel against the new order of the family. In retrospect, the stepmothers may feel that they are not being treated with respect and may therefore reject such children.
There are also the cases of increased rivalry between children, especially in a situation where both spouses joined their children into one family. Some children may feel like others are being treated better than themselves, which could result to discontentment. The piling up of negative feelings make the children start competing even for the resources available. Such unhealthy competitions results in a great deal of strained relationships amongst the stepsiblings and into extension amongst the parents as well.
A well composed nuclear family is the desire of many people in the world. Divorce or separation of parents may therefore kill children’s dream for a nuclear family. Feeling disillusioned, therefore, may make the children go a very long period of stress and depression. They may mourn over the unfortunate end of their family for a long period of time, and by the time their stepparents are in, they might not be ready to accept them because they have not yet healed from the exit of the other parent. This may have an excessive psychological impact on the children and may contribute to their further resentment of the incoming parent.
The children might be angry at their parents for having divorced or separated. Someone coming in to fill the space of the missing parent may not be adequately welcomed by the children. The stepmother might try to show them love, therefore, but the feelings of anger may override the feelings of love trying to be expressed. Practice shows that the stepmother may eventually bear the guilt of having not sufficiently fulfilled the emotional needs of the children in the new relationships.
There may be competition for love from the remaining parent by both the spouse and the stepchildren. Competition for love and attention may at times lead to strained relationships between both the stepparent and the stepchild. This mostly affects women, who are always trying to ensure that they get constant love and attention from their spouses. If they feel the spouses’ attention they receive is less compared to what their stepchildren receive, they may mistreat kids and even completely reject them.
However, not all hope is lost for the stepfamilies. They can also be happy if they take a few factors into consideration, amongst them lowering their expectations from each other. A stepfamily can never be exactly as the natural family was, but the most important thing is to accept each other with their drawbacks and try lowering their expectations from each other. The realization that in life one does not always have the cake and eats it helps in accommodating to the new order of the family. The ultimate goal should be a desire to live a happy life. Such a desire can only be achieved by accepting people as they are rather than trying to change them (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008).
Stepmothers should also try and preoccupy their minds with positive attitudes rather than filling them with negative ones, say of how their stepchildren do not love them. In addition, it is important not to concentrate of the small wrongdoings of the family members.. Despite the fact that their stepfamilies might not be working as they initially expected, they should not allow their minds to be preoccupied with bitterness only, but they should learn to focus more on the positive aspects of their lives, and realize that life has more to offer than sadness.
The stepparents can also choose to focus more on their marriages and try to make them bring happiness into their lives, the joy that they seem not to get from their stepchildren. When their spouses treat them with love and respect, then the marriages becomes fulfilling enough that would give a reason to smile even if the stepchildren don’t fully accept them into their lives.
Stepmothers can also try and seek solace from other stepmothers, because they could be undergoing the same problems. Their close family members may never really understand what problems they are experiencing. A problem half shared is a problem half solved. By sharing with people almost similar experiences, they will learn to know that they are not alone in the problem and may even come up with common solutions to those challenges.
In order to effectively parent stepchildren, the stepparents should follow a few pieces of advice:
They should know that the place the child’s biological parent occupies in the kid’s life is very huge and the stepparent should not attempt to take the place of the missing biological parent because this will only lead to more resentment and hatred on the stepparent’s side, especially if the child is not able to effectively accept him/her as she/he would wish to be accepted.
Disciplining the child should also be left to the available biological parent because otherwise the child might feel like the stepparent is being too harsh on her/him, because the child might not really share the stepparent’s disciplining ideologies. Nonetheless, equal treatment of the stepchild and other children in the house should be taken into account.
Older stepchildren may express a great sense of hatred towards their stepmothers compared to than the younger ones. The stepmothers should avoid taking this personally and instead see it as a normal problem that most other stepmothers undergo. They should not therefore keep these feelings towards their step children.
Stepfamilies may also involve other family members to help them solve their problems. These other family members could include the grand parents or even close relatives like uncles and aunties. They may also invite their church ministers to help them sort out their problems within the family.
A number of stepfamilies can prove to have withstood the test of time in curbing the challenges that most stepfamily’s households face when they get to understand each other’s needs and adequately learn how to deal with them. They can eventually have very fulfilling relationships and become a very happy family (Verduin & Overholt, 1964).