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Mastering the Big 6

Mastering the Big 6 - Secrets to Peak Performance

Featured in StepMom Magazine!

Click on image to go to the magazine.

The article has unique tips and insights from the fields of

interpersonal neurobiology and performance psychology.

This is a condensed version of my magazine article. The magazine article contains additional proven strategies including from the field of performance psychology. Due to copyright restrictions, the full article must be obtained by following the linked article image. 

The first step to a more peaceful stepfamily is GETTING REAL. We have to know what we are dealing with before we can deal with it. If it's white water rafting use a heavy duty raft. If it's a day at the beach, use an inner tube. No type of family is without its jagged rocks or awesome beauty. Stepfamiles have their own types of challenges, which take time to adjust to and master, just as do nuclear families. 

In my opinion, stepping is an X-sport. Think base jumping or shark surfing. We qualify for this elite distinction because we face unusual challenges while navigating a high number of inherently uncontrollable variables. Given that, who can deny that fast and accurate cognitive and perceptual processing is required to avoid serious injury?

A stepdaughter ignores our hello. Our partner ceases to parent. A step-parent insists on parenting. 

Stamina and skill are key! Unlike jumping out of planes, the major risks we face are to our psychological health, social connections, finances and careers. As with all X-sports, though, only a relative handful of stepparents (roughly 1-in-3) stay in the game. What makes the difference for those who land on their feet is mastery of stepfamily life’s six biggest challenges.

The hard fact is that certain stepfamily dynamics will always be there. Fortunately, our experience of them can change. Most dynamics can ease up over time. You have to stick with it though, and be strategic. It takes an average of 4-7 years to feel more at home in stepfamily life. It can be done.

I have lived through every one of the following 25 stepfamily dynamics – three times! First as a child in a stepfamily, and twice as a stepmother. It wasn't until I could see and accurately name what was happening that I could begin to respond more calmly and, eventually, wisely.

An advantage to having some stepfamily upsets under our belt is that knowing the challenges to expect allows you to be better prepared. You can prepare for situations, then respond to what actually happens, and look back on it all to make it better the next time. The good news is that it has been proven that we can continually tame our stepfamily situations if we accurately name those situations and prepare well. Here is the formula:

Prepare --> Respond --> Learn -->

Improved Preparation --> Improved Response --> Mastery -->

--> More Peaceful Stepfamily

These 6 Types of Challenges

Get Easier to Handle Over Time,

When We Use Effective Strategies

1. Burst Bubbles

It sounds like a preview for a scary movie: Confusion, overwhelm, blaming, and their fallout plague millions of stepfamilies. It makes sense, few stepparents, parents-in-step, and stepchildren understand what is happening and scramble to make the stepfamily look and feel like an original family or return to the past family configuration. 

It gets less scary when we know what is going on behind the scenes, why stepfamilies struggle. 

Without help, 1 in 3 stepfamilies hit their wall in the first two years, disoriented and discouraged by the following realities. The honeymoon phase and fantasies burst. 

When you feel "done", it is time to be done with the old ways of doing things, not necessarily give up your stepfamily. Unfortunately, most stepfamilies do not reach out for or receive expert help to explain what is happening and how to move forward. By reading through this list of 25 step realities, you are beginning to take charge of the situation.

4 Dynamics of Burst Bubbles

  • Blaming others and self instead of natural stepfamily dynamics
  • Unrealistic expectations lead to rejection and resentment
  • The unrealistic fantasy of instant love and becoming one big happy family
  • The unrealistic assumption that the stepparent can set boundaries by being a disciplinarian

Fact: The stepfamily does not and cannot function like an original family. Realizing this is the first major milestone. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article. 

2. Fragile Connections

Separation is a daily fact for stepfamilies. Everyone in the stepfamily can feel left out when other stepfamily members interact. Children are always separated from one parent or the other. Stepparents and their partners are separated when the children get parental attention.

The better stepfamilies prepare for and cope with the fragile connections, the stronger those connections become and these dynamics become less intense.

Stepfamily life has a way of revealing how we think about and handle separation. If you feel a trauma has been triggered, professional stepfamily counseling can offer the emotional support and guidance to heal and move forward. 

5 Dynamics of Fragile Connections

  • Rejecting the "outsiders"
  • Feeling invaded and like an outsider (any stepfamily members)
  • Loyalty conflicts are felt by adults and children
  • Sex life challenges – Inhibition, loss of attraction due to conflict, and jealousy
  • Sexual tension can easily occur between step-parents and stepchildren and among step-siblings, leading to contact or distancing

Fact: The parent is in the middle, between their children and partner, while the stepparent is on the outside when stepchildren are involved. Accepting this fact makes these dynamics easier to strategically manage. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article. 

3. Control Issues

Stepfamily members face loss of control every day, each for different reasons. Frustrations might grow and lead to conflict. The good news is that you actually do have some control – over how you respond both emotionally and practically to stepfamily situations. Self-control is made easier by naming and understanding the classic stepfamily issues. Here are three dynamics that are about control.

3 Dynamics of Control Issues

  • Constant adaptation to visitation schedules that are out of your control
  • Fear of loss of territory and rejection
  • Financial fairness gets complicated

Fact: Routine and agreements about as many future situations as possible increases predictability, which can build trust – crucial to stepfamily success. Putting agreements in writing about visitation, boundaries, manners, and money can reduce stress. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article.

4. Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Stepfamilies are the most complex type of family there is. Complexity fuels stress. You can simplify stepfamily realities by getting very clear about your roles in the stepfamily. 

5 Dynamics of Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

  • Co-parenting without verbal agreements about roles with people you may or may not like
  • Confusion about the role of the stepparent
  • Attempts at replacing the biological parent do not work
  • Super step-parenting does not work – it makes things worse
  • Extended family also gets confused about their roles and expectations.

Fact: You can not "wing it." Written job and role descriptions are crucial. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article. 

5. Power Outages

Dilemmas feel like any choice is undesirable, which can make it feel impossible to use one's power to make decisions. The parent's decision making process can be negatively impacted by dilemmas. As they lose their power, everyone loses. 

In stepfamilies, parents' power is tugged at by children, stepparents, and former partners. If a parent gets stymied and stops parenting effectively, the stepparent can not make up the difference because they lack the necessary authority. Gradually, order in the home is lost and the stepcouple begins to unravel. 

Difficult choices can become easier to make. Sometimes it is enough to learn about these dynamics and prepare ahead of time for common situations. However, due to the psychological complexity that causes and results from the loss of power, stepfamily counseling to help the parent navigate tough choices can be a powerful part of your strategy.

5 Dynamics of Power Outages

Trust and romance can be challenged by the stress of naturally unequal authority in the stepcouple

Discipline gets confusing because it is best that the stepparent not be a disciplinarian but needs to have some influence over their environment

Parenting may become based in guilt, which erodes boundaries and stability for everyone

Overindulgence may occur when there is a desire to play catch up or compete for affection

Parental Alienation Syndrome may occur - Loss of children's loyalty due to ex-partner's influence

Fact: Conflict over child rearing issues is the number one cause of stepfamily breakup (as opposed to ranking 6th or lower in original families). Positive communication skills are key. Working with a professional stepfamily coach or stepfamily counselor to write up a stepfamily management plan for household rules, manners, routines and other issues can make life easier. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article.

6. Burnout

Eventually, when the above dynamics are not addressed strategically, stepfamily members and entire stepfamilies burnout - 66% do not make it past the child rearing years. This psychological exhaustion can be prevented in many stepfamilies, with guidance.

3 Dynamics of Burnout

  • Children can pull the stepcouple apart - The #1 cause of stepfamily breakup (It's 6th or lower in original families)
  • Chronic stress-responses – Physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, social, and spiritual impacts
  • The reluctant stepparent – not very involved, refuses to enter another stepfamily or to have children as a result of stepparenting

Fact: Coping is as important as strategizing. Stepfamily life is always "messy", but this can be a lot less stressful with strong coping skills. Other proven strategies are provided in the linked article.

There are many ways to respond to stress in a stepfamily. Some help, some hurt. It's our job to help you manage yourself and your stepfamily more effectively. You do not have to figure it out alone.

Positive Dynamics

Believe it or not, it is possible to experience positive feelings in a stepfamily – when the above realities are acknowledged and managed. Children and adults alike can feel like they are a part of a "family" that they have shaped. A stepfamily does not have to be happy together all the time to be successful. Being able to effectively respond to and reduce the challenges is key. 

Children benefit from having more adults and the resources of those adults (money, wisdom, time, energy, etc.) Adults can gain the love, admiration, and respect of another child. Everyone learns from the variety of lifestyles, points of view, and experiences. 

All the lessons learned in a stepfamily can serve you well in other parts of your life. For example, we have seen improved job skills and deepened spirituality. Stepfamily success is worth the effort. 

Improve Your Situation

“Trying to be like a nuclear family blew us up each time,” explains a three-time father-in-step. The successful stepcouple no longer resists being a stepfamily; they accept and manage its realities. According to a stepmother, “It’s more work than a regular family, but it’s working.”

Now, I invite you to choose a situation to improve. Pick out the dynamics that are involved. Then, by asking yourself these five powerful questions, you are making solutions possible. 

This situation involves these dynamics: _________________.

I have responded to this situation by _____________________.

The effect of my response on others has been __________________.

The effect of my response on myself has been ___________________.

One way I can handle this situation differently is to

(Hint: Each category above gives suggestions) ________________.

What Is It Like to Read about the

25 Challenging Stepfamily Dynamics to Master?

Something happens when stepfamilies learn about the 25 realities of stepfamily life. It becomes clear that stepfamily life is naturally complicated and intense. You are normal!

For many, this makes blaming seem, well, kind of pointless as well as untrue. You may even find that the dynamics have less power over your state of mind. The deepest transformation happens when forgiveness begins to flow. However, seeing the dynamics named and listed can also make it all seem a bit daunting at first.

But, you do not have to figure it all out on your own. Stepfamily counselors, coaches, and educators help stepfamilies take the next steps. 

What are Your Next Steps?

Return to the Treasure Chest

*These dynamics and ways to improve them have been discovered by hundreds of studies into stepfamily life. 

Copyright © 2016 Iishana P. Artra. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on these pages are copyrighted by iishana P. Artra. All rights reserved. No part of these pages, either text or image may be used for any purpose other than personal use. Therefore, reproduction, modification, storage in a retrieval system or retransmission, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, for reasons other than personal use, is strictly prohibited without prior written permission.