Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Problems of stepfamilies

Problems of stepfamilies

By William Shao

THE stepfamily has become a common type of household in many parts of the world. Yet, stepfamilies have unique problems. The most challenging is undoubtedly child rearing. However, as The African on Sunday shows, it is possible to rear children successfully in a stepfamily environment.

Traditionally, stepfathers and stepmothers have had a bad press. When we were children, many of us heard some version of the fairy tale of Cinderella, who suffered so much at the hands of her cruel stepmother. Children in Europe learn, too, the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White's stepmother turns out to be a wicked witch.

Do such fairy tales give an accurate view of stepfamilies? Are all stepparents really so bad? When these questions were asked during the survey, the answer was NO. Most of them want only what is best for the children they inherit by marriage. But they do have to face some difficult problems inherent in stepfamily life.

When a first marriage breaks down, the cause is often the immaturity of the mates. In a second marriage, dealing with the children can strain the relationship. Some records, according to Kenya’s Parent Magazine show that more than 4 out of 10 blended families end in divorce within the first five years.

The newlyweds may not realize the emotional turmoil, the conflicts of loyalty, and the feelings of jealousy and resentment that the stepparent's arrival sparks in the stepchildren.

These may imagine that the stepparent has replaced them in the affections of their natural parent. Moreover, a natural parent abandoned by a mate may find it hard to understand the children's ongoing attachment to the former mate.

One boy tried to explain his good relationship with his biological father, saying, “Mom, I know Dad treated you badly, but he has been good to me.” Such an expression, while honest, could make a mother feel bitter resentment toward the child's father.

One synonymous stepfather confessed: “I was not really prepared to deal with all the problems related to bringing up my stepchildren. I went into the situation thinking that now that I had married their mother, I was their father. It was as simple as that! I did not understand the children's attachment to their biological father, and I made many mistakes.”

Tensions can arise especially in the matter of discipline. Children need loving discipline, but they often rebel against it even when it comes from a natural parent. How much harder to accept it from a stepparent!

Commonly, when faced with such discipline, a stepchild will say something like, “You are not really my father—or father!” How devastating such words can be to a well-meaning stepparent?

During the interview for this article, some basic questions were asked: Can children be successfully reared in a blended family? Can stepparents play a positive role in building a successful stepfamily?

It may seem self-evident, but it is nevertheless worth saying that the basic quality needed for any family to be successful is love. The word “love” is much misused. It works actively for the good of others.

Genuine love helps to smooth over differences and unite people with very different upbringings and personalities. And it helps to counteract the devastating effects of a divorce or a biological parent's death.

One man who became a stepfather describes his very real problems: “I was often too concerned about my own feelings to analyze the emotions of my stepchildren or even of my wife. I had to learn to be less sensitive. Most important, I had to learn to be humble.” Love helped him to make the needed changes.

Love can help in handling the children's relationship with their now absent biological parent. A stepfather identified himself with only one name of Joseph, confides:

“I wanted to have first place in my stepchildren's affections. When they visited their biological father, I found it hard to resist the temptation to criticize him. When they returned after a pleasant day with him, I felt terrible.

“When they had a bad day, I was elated. Really, I was afraid of losing them. One of the most difficult things was to come to terms with the importance of the biological father's role in my stepchildren's lives.”

Genuine love helped this stepfather to face the fact that it was unrealistic to expect “instant” love. He should not have felt rejected when the children did not immediately accept him.

He came to realize that he may never completely replace the biological father in his children's hearts. The children had known this man from their earliest days, while the stepfather was a newcomer who would have to work for the children's love.

Researcher Elizabeth Einstein, in her book Discipline: A Touchy Subject, reflects the experience of many when she wrote: “The biological parent can never be replaced—never. Even a parent who is dead or one who has abandoned the children retains an important place in the children's lives.”

Loving discipline is essential for young people, and that includes stepchildren. As one quotation by Professor Ceres Alves de Araujo goes: “By nature no one likes limits, but they are necessary. ‘No' is a protective word.”

However, in a blended family, views on discipline can lead to serious rifts. Stepchildren have in part been molded by an adult who is now absent. Likely, they have habits or customs that may irritate the stepparent. And they probably do not understand why the stepparent feels strongly about certain matters.

Love, admits some respondents, helps both stepparent and children to be mild and patient as they learn to understand one another. If the stepparent is impatient, 'anger, wrath, and abusive speech' can quickly ruin any relationship that has been achieved.

One of Tanzania schools’ inspector, Esther John, made the following interesting comment: “It is not the type of family that is important but the quality of the relationship. In my studies I have observed that young people who have behavioral problems almost always come from families in which there is weak parental supervision, a lack of rules and communication.”

She also said: “It can never be sufficiently emphasized that rearing children implies the need to say no.” In addition, Mama Kimambo of Kinondoni stated: “Basically, discipline works only when the person receiving the discipline cares about the reactions of and the relationship with the person doing the disciplining.”

These remarks touch on the question of who in stepfamilies should administer the discipline. Who should be the one to say no? After talking matters over, some parents have decided that, to begin with, the biological parent should be the main disciplinarian in order to give the stepparent time to build a closer relationship with the children.

Let the children learn to feel confident of the stepparent's love for them before being disciplined by him or her.

What if the stepparent is the father? However, a stepfather may wish to delegate the matter of discipline for a while, especially if it involves punishment. He may allow the children to obey 'the law of their mother' while he lays a foundation for them to 'listen to the discipline of their [new] father.'

Evidence shows that, according to the ‘Psychologist’ magazine, in the long run, this does not work against the principle of headship. In addition, one stepfather who wished to remain anonymous says:

“I remembered that discipline includes admonition, correction, and reproof. When this is given in a just, loving, and compassionate way and is backed up by parental example, it usually works.”

In a stepfamily, calm and frank confidential talk between the parents is vital. A columnist in the some of local newspapers, Flora Wingia, observed: “Children always tend to test the limits set by the parents.” That may be doubly true in stepfamilies.

Hence, the parents need to come to an agreement on different matters so that the children will see that they are united. What, though, if a stepparent acts in a way that the biological parent feels is unjust? Then the two should sort things out in private, not in front of the children.

One mother who remarried relates: “The most difficult thing for a mother is to see the stepfather disciplining her children, especially if she feels that he is acting hastily or is not truly just. It breaks her heart, and she wants to defend her children. At such times, it is hard to remain subject to one's husband and support him.

“On one occasion, my two boys, aged 12 and 14, asked their stepfather's permission to do something. He immediately refused and then left the room without giving the boys any opportunity to explain why the request was important to them. The boys were ready to cry, and I was speechless. The older boy looked at me and said:

“'Mom, did you see what he did?' I answered: 'Yes, I did. But he is still the head of the house.' They were good boys and agreed with this, and they calmed down a little. That same evening, I explained things to my husband, and he realized that he had been too authoritarian. He went straight to the boys and apologized.

“We learned a lot from that incident. My husband learned to listen before making decisions. I learned to uphold the principle of headship, even when it hurts. The boys learned the importance of being in subjection. And my husband's heartfelt apology taught us all an important lesson in humility.

Mistakes will be made. Children will say or do things that hurt. Pressures of the moment will lead stepparents to act unreasonably. However, those simple words, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” can do much to heal wounds.

It takes time to build a warm relationship in a stepfamily. If you are a stepparent, you need to show empathy. Understand, ready to spend time with the children. Play with the younger ones. Be prepared to talk with the older ones.

Stepfamilies can be successful. Many are. The most successful are those in which all involved, especially the parents, cultivate right attitudes and realistic expectations. Consensus has it that the heartfelt love is the real secret of a happy stepfamily.

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