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Building a Step Family

By Liza N. Burby

When Kathy and Gregg Burzine of Bohemia, N.Y. married two years ago, they each brought to their new household a 12-year-old son from their former marriages. As with most stepfamilies, there was a period of adjustment for everyone. “In the beginning I think Gregg’s son, Tommy, felt obligated to his mom not to let himself love me,” says Kathy. “And at first I was reluctant to be the one to discipline him. I’d call Gregg at work, asking what I should do. But he told me to deal with it using our household rules, and he spoke with his son about listening to me, so it helped.”

For his part, Gregg had a similar situation with Kathy’s son, R.J. “If R.J. did something wrong, I didn’t want to be the bad guy,” Gregg says. “Kathy and I talked about our hesitations, and then we set up regular family meetings so we can all share our feelings. But I think we got lucky because the boys were old enough to understand our relationship, and they really liked each other.”

Melding two families, as the Burzines found, requires a transition period that experts say can take four to seven years. During that time, stepparents often face open hostility from their stepchildren and discipline issues, not to mention the process of adjusting to their own new partnership. The result can be that stepmothers, in particular, invest less in children’s health care, education and nutrition than do their biological mothers, with fathers, to a large extent, leaving to women the responsibility for the family’s welfare, according to three recent and controversial studies from a Princeton University economist.

Regardless of what such findings mean, being less involved is a normal reaction, says Barry Miller, a counselor with the Stepfamily Foundation, which is based in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y. “A stepparent is expected to all of a sudden love another child,” he says. “It’s natural to feel competitive, worry your own child is being left out. As a stepparent, accept that you don’t have to love the child right away but be respectful of them.” What helps, says Jeannette Lofas, founder of the foundation, is becoming educated about step-relations. “As a stepparent, you don’t need to worry about being liked. You need to set rules as a couple, and then the stepparent can cite those rules. Rules help because we know children are traumatized by divorce and you’re the one who has to help put order in their lives,” she says. “Usually when children act out, the new couple start arguing with one another, which can lead to a second divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages end in divorce, and while children may not be the cause of that…in many cases, the couple thinks so. You’re the parent and you have the obligation to learn to deal with their feelings.”

How do you successfully blend two families when children routinely shout at their stepparent,” You’re not my mother/father. I don’t have to listen to you.”? Although such strongly worded emotion may make a stepparent cringe, Elizabeth Carll, a clinical psychologist in Huntington, N.Y., says you shouldn’t take it personally. “Hostility is a normal reaction for a child undergoing change,” she says. “They often come out of a divorce feeling tremendous stress. They feel there is limited and withdrawn attention from their parent because it is shared with a new person. You’re going to get lots of complaints. But have empathy for the child. When the child tells you how much better his biological mother is than you, don’t say anything. Often the best response is no response.” But stepparents should not face the problem alone. The biological parent has to set clear guidelines about how the stepparent should be treated, Carll says. “The child can be told he has to be civil, even if he’s not hapy with the situation. Hopefully, they’ll move toward a loving relationship. But families who expect the stepchild to love to spend time with the stepparent are not being realistic,” she says.

A twice-divorced mom of three in Woodside, N.Y., who is living with her fiancé and asked that their names not be printed, says the new family group is integrating slowly because of her children, ages 14,12, and 9. She and her partner are laid back, she says, “but it’s a challenge to maintain authority because my 14-year-old son is having a hard time with the divorce and getting to know my fiancé. The kids push his buttons, and he gets angry. They don’t yet see him as an authority figure. “but my fiancé and I spend a lot of time negotiating and talking about it,” she says. “And we make sure the household structure is in place so there is consistency.”

Miller, who is also a psychologist and career counselor at Pace University in Manhattan, says while it’s important to make sure the rules are consistent so that every child is being treated similarly, stepparents shouldn’t become disciplinarians. “Don’t let your spouse do that to you, so you become the wicked stepparent,” he says. “It’s the role of the biological parent to administer discipline. Rely on couple strength. Tell your child that when you’re not there, he has to listen to his stepparent. The biggest complaint of stepmothers is that their partner doesn’t support her in these issues.” How stepparents and children get along also depends on the children’s ages. In general, the younger the child, the easier it is to develop a relationship. Says Helen Crohn, a family therapist with the Jewish Board of Family and Child Services in Manhattan, babies will accept other people who are introduced in a friendly way.

Children ages 2 to 4 generally get easily attached to new people, she says, so direct problems are unusual. “But it’s a good idea for stepparents to read about child development so they can be prepared,” Crohn adds, because “kids this age are oppositional no matter who their parent is.” The 5- to 8-year-old set will display a wide range in their acceptance of stepparents. Some could feel they have to be loyal to their biological parent, which leads to episodes of “You’re not my mommy.” Crohn advises stepparents not to come on too strongly. “Take into account the child needs to get to know you and this can take a while.” However, she acknowledges that it’s not as easy for stepmothers to take a mellow approach as it is for stepfathers because women are expected to do more with the child, such as arrange play dates. She emphasizes that couple communication is key.

The bumpiest adjustment usually involves preadolescents because they’re trying to pull away from home anyway, Crohn says, so problems with them shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the step-parenting situation. “Their moodiness and anger are normal behaviors for the age, but when you’re the stepparent you may just think the child is a brat. Since you haven’t know the child his whole life, it’s not as easy to tolerate his talking back,” she says.

Because preteens and young teens are more interested in their peers than in making friends with parent figures, Crohn cautions not to expect them to be enthusiastic about doing things as a family. But it’s crucial that parent and stepparent get together on what you will and will not tolerate from the youngsters. She adds, “Don’t take their reactions personally since you’re probably being treated like everyone else.”

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