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.
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.
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
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.
- 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
3. Control Issues
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
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.
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
- 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
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.