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Helping stepfamilies takes patience, time

CottleIn my work with children and their families, one of the most difficult circumstances to establish healthy patterns of relating is in the step family. Both the adults and the children in stepfamilies tend to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Children have experienced major wrenching changes in their lives that they have not been able to control. They are cautious and often unwilling to relent control over their current circumstances because of the scars left from the breakup of their nuclear family (family of biological mom and biological dad).

And stepfamily couples are typically bombarded initially by situations and emotions they have not anticipated.

However, with awareness and work, stepfamilies can thrive in a healthy, happy and stable environment. Research is indicating that it is the relationships within the household and not the form of the family that leads to satisfactory or unsatisfactory outcomes for adults and children.

The first step in being a healthy and happy stepfamily is recognizing and accepting the difference between the newly formed stepfamily and the past nuclear family. There are seven basic differences between the structural characteristics of remarriage families and first marriage families in the United States:

1. The family begins after many losses and changes.

2. Both adults and children come together with incongruent individual, marital and family life cycles.

3. Children and adults all have expectations from previous families.

4. Parent-child relationships predate the new couple relationship.

5. There is a biological parent in another household or memory.

6. Children are often members of two households.

7. There is little or no legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren.

I am often asked what I believe to be the greatest problem for adults entering into a remarriage in which children are involved. My answer to that is the adults’ unrealistic expectation that the household will integrate and settle down relatively quickly. Adults in this situation must understand that relationships are not developed overnight, and integrating the different expectations and ways of doing things often takes considerable time.

Part of this patience involves letting go of situations they cannot control and becoming active within their own sphere of influence. Children, above all, need to feel trusted and have a mastery over their day-to-day life.

Once a stepfamily has accepted their unique and particular circumstances, taking into consideration the history and personalities involved, there are eight integration steps that help with stabilization.

1. Deal with losses and changes.

2. Negotiate different developmental needs.

3. Establish new traditions.

4. Develop a solid couple bond.

5. Form new relationships.

6. Create a parenting coalition.

7. Accept continual shifts in household composition.

8. Risk involvement despite little support from society.

Each stepfamily has its own culture and dynamic, but that dynamic does not have to be consistently volatile, chaotic or unhappy. By recognizing their differences from the nuclear family and walking through the integration steps, they can function securely and safely.

Lexie Ainge Cottle, M.A., LPCI, is a Lake Oswego resident who grew up in Lake Oswego and now has a private practice in professional counseling as part of the Compassionate Counseling Center in Tigard. She can be reached at 503-400-1512 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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