Stepfamily Strategy: How to Recognize Trouble

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your stepfamily dynamics would simply work out like they did for the Brady’s on TV?

Lots of laughter. Problems get resolved in less than an hour. One big happy family.

The reality, though, isn’t quite as simple or entertaining. When you throw two different families together, trouble is bound to surface sooner or later.  And it won't come with canned laughter or commercial breaks.

Understanding that fact about stepfamily dynamics will help you avoid feeling blindsided or unprepared for the inevitable problems.. There is a learning curve with every new endeavor – including this one.

For new stepfamilies, that can mean going through various stages in the beginning. The initial excitement and expectation of the new couple have them looking toward the future, fantasizing that all will work out well. Children, however, might be facing this stage with trepidation. They might look toward the past, wistfully still wishing their biological parents would get back together.  

This confusion can signal the start of trouble, communication glitches, and situations not working out as well as initially hoped.

It’s important to recognize what is happening so you can handle the problems immediately. Otherwise, it may lead to highly emotional moments, divisions within the family, and assigning blame.

But how can you notice trouble before it gets out of hand?

How to Recognize Trouble in Your Stepfamily

Consider a few examples of problems that may arise and how you can identify them.

A disconnect between new marriage partners

Switching all of your attention from your children to putting most of it on your new marriage is hard. Your children may not appreciate the change and even repeatedly interrupt private time with your mate.

Your spouse may feel that acceptance should happen quickly or that you should put the children in their place more often. Either way, some feelings may get hurt. But when you can’t properly connect to your new spouse to work through these matters,, trouble is brewing.

The predicament of loss and loyalty brought on by acceptance of the new stepfamily

Quite naturally, your children will feel a sense of loss and grieve the dream of their parent’s reconciliation. They may also grapple with a change in social position, lifestyle, or a sense of stability and security.

Perhaps all was well when you were just dating, but now after you’re married, everything looks different. Connecting with their new stepparent may seem like a betrayal of loyalty to their biological parent.

When your children have trouble adjusting to the new situation and even distance themselves from their stepparent, you may be looking at trouble.

Disagreements about parenting style

Every parent has his or her own parenting style; every household has its own established rules. Incorporating changes that require a shift from being the sole responsible parent and decision- maker to sharing those duties can create challenges. You may be more set in your own ways than you realize.

If you are the one with children, you may be highly sensitive to your new spouse speaking negatively to or about them. To see your partner act as the disciplinarian, and create a bunch of new rules, without clear, intentional communication means you can expect parenting trouble as well.

Conflict with and jealousy of the ex-spouse(s)

Aside from simply not liking your new spouse’s ex as a person, you may also find it hard to accept that they have a “special” bond. They have children they created together.  You may not have that yet or have no intentions of having children together. 

Having to co-parent the existing children can be stressful if the ex-spouse(s) are not very cooperative. When the ex(s) don’t respect healthy boundaries or roles and communication about co-parenting is not productive, trouble is not far off and occurs often.

Once you recognize potential trouble, you can act decisively and head it off. Obviously, being part of a stepfamily isn’t easy and requires time and effort, but every member of the family can contribute to creative solutions. Recognizing the challenges and having realistic expectations can help everyone.

Finally, when parents stay tuned into all family members and establish their roles, your stepfamily will begin to stabilize. Sure, it will take time. But you’ll eventually start to feel a sense of commitment and see the “us” in your family develop.

When you're unable to gain clarity on your own, seek professional help. Don't wait until problems are out of control.