Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
“Carla was an only child when her father died when she was 12 years old and her mother remarried. Her new step-family consisted of three children, two boys and one girl who was the same age as her. The girl was developmentally disabled. When her father was alive it felt to her that she had the attention and support of both of her parents. When her mother remarried, it felt to her like she not only lost her father but the attention, love and support of her mother. All of her mother’s attention seemed to have shifted from her to her step-sister. These losses brought about feelings of depression and anger, particularly at her mother for not protecting her from her step-sister. In every way, her step-sister interfered with her life. Not only developmentally disabled, she was mentally ill, constantly taunting her, interfering with her friends, being unclean by wetting her pants into and including her adolescence. She became too ashamed to invite friends home. She was always upset at her birthdays and holidays because of the way her sister would embarrass her. It seemed like there was no way to escape her outrageous behavior. When she tried to talk to her mother about these problems, she refused to listen and insisted that she was lying about all of it. Even when planning her wedding, many years later, her mother insisted that she invite this sister to her wedding despite the fact that her behavior had not changed. Once again, her mother would have none of it, opening a major breach in their relationship.”
At best, blended families go through difficult periods of adjustment, particularly during the firs two years of living together. Jealousies and rivalries develop over everything from school performance to birthday parties and Christmas presents. When one of the partners has an only child, there is a perceived loss of attention and love just as in the case of Carla above. Then, too, there is always the grief reactions to either a divorce situation or the death of one parent, as in the case of Carla above.
There are several strategies that Carla’s mother could have used to avoid the types of problems that developed. These are strategies that all parents of blended families should use.
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1. There is probably no more important coping strategy than for a parent to communicate. This includes communicating with the child and with the ex-spouse in the case of divorce. In the latter circumstance, parents need to keep in touch with one another with regard to decisions about their child and the problems the child might be going through. In one very sad case, divorce and blending did not result in the ex-partners talking over important child issues. Instead, bitter, jealous and angry patterns shut down all communication, leaving the children in the middle of the feuding parents. In addition, the children refused to accept the step-parent and that worsened the bitter problems between the two parents.
2. It’s important that step-parents refrain from engaging in favoritism. In the case of Carla, the unfortunate sister ended up being seen as the favorite without the ability of Carla to have her mother listen to her complaints. Carla’s mother needed to show enhanced interest in her daughter. That might have prevented her from experiencing the double loss of both of her parents. Interestingly, Carla came to appreciate and love her step-father whom she found to be more understanding and empathic.
3. It’s important for step-parents to encourage bonding between the new siblings in a blended family. This did not happen with Carla who, to this day, feels alienated from all three of her step-siblings, not just the one sister. It’s important that the new family become a cohesive and cooperative unit.
4. It’s also important that step-parents set boundaries with their step-children and that both parents support one another in setting those boundaries and limits. Otherwise, children will engage in splitting parents and ignoring household rules and the positive behaviors necessary for the family to become a cohesive unit. This is enhanced by parents working cooperatively so that they do not find themselves playing favorites with their own children.
The entire process of adjusting to the new family can be extremely stressful which is why family therapy might be called for. Of course, in the case of divorce, this should happen with the knowledge and consent of the other parent.
What are your experiences with blended families. Your comments are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
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