The good news about stepfamilies

Children can find nurturing homes in blended families

When divorced parents remarry, they may hope their new family will be similar to the one on the "Brady Bunch," a 1960s-'70s sitcom in which a man with three sons marries a woman with three daughters. They all go on a honeymoon together and "live happily ever after."

In real life, it doesn't often happen that way – at least not initially.

Children in a new stepfamily may not be as pleased about the situation as their parents are. They generally don't spend most of their days happily joking with their new stepbrothers and stepsisters. In fact, they often resist closer relationships with their stepparents and stepsiblings. They long for their biological parents to remarry.

However, the news about blended families isn't all bad. Once children adjust to their new lives, they learn valuable social skills that they might not acquire elsewhere, experts say. Children who have been raised in successful stepfamilies often are tolerant of others' differences and are well-equipped to negotiate stressful times.

"When stepfamilies are really doing well, they can bring to children a broader definition of family, the potential for a larger network of support, and a place to work out socialization," says the Rev. Bill Hays of Boise, Idaho, who's a stepfather.

Learning to interact with divorced parents, stepparents, and stepsiblings gives young people important interpersonal skills, says Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.

Many of these children and teenagers are especially sensitive to others' emotional states, because they become very aware of their parents' feelings during the ups and downs of divorce, she says. Later, when one or both of their parents remarry, they master the fine art of living with nonfamily members who have varied styles, tastes, and cultural backgrounds.

"Children in stepfamilies learn a lot of interpersonal skills, like fighting fair and reading people's faces and interpreting their tones of voice," says Ms. Engel.

By addressing troublesome topics during their monthly family meetings, the Hays children are honing their interpersonal skills by working out issues at home. Recently, Sam, who is 13, took advantage of the family meeting to practice an important social skill: asking a girl – in this case his 13-year-old stepsister, Megan – to stop giving him a hard time at school.

"Megan was being silly with her friends," says Mr. Hays. "She was trying to embarrass Sam at school, and he felt comfortable using the family meeting as a place to bring up and resolve his concern."

Stepsiblings to depend on

For the Hays children, being part of a stepfamily isn't just about talking frankly with others. It's about helping each other out during stressful times, says Joyce Hays, Bill's wife.

The Hayses' union brought together two sets of stepsiblings who are about the same age: The couple has two seventh-graders and two ninth-graders. Those pairs depend on each other, she says.

"In traditional families, you don't often have two seventh-graders and two ninth-graders," she adds. "Whenever we start something new, if we have to move to a new town, the kids have their stepsiblings – their buddies – along on the new adventure. They aren't alone."

Not only do children in blended families benefit from built-in buddies, they also have an extra built-in support system: more adults available to them for advice and encouragement.

When life gets too emotionally charged between college student Lara Beers of Portland, Ore., and her mother, Nancy Hertzberg, Beers can count on her stepfather, Joe Hertzberg, for level-headed counsel.

"Because Joe is not Lara's biological parent, Joe keeps an even keel," says Mrs. Hertzberg. "He has been able to form a strong bond with Lara as the rational, clear-thinking adult in her 'parent group.' They both benefit from this connection."

In this case, the stepparent serves as an "intimate outsider," says psychologist Patricia Papernow of Sudbury, Mass.

"When a stepparent is intimate enough to know the kids well, but enough of an outsider to not react the way a biological parent reacts, the stepparent can step back and serve as confidante and mentor," she says.

"The stepparent is often good at talking about difficult issues such as drugs and sex," she adds.

But children in blended families don't just learn how other family members can help them. Through day-to-day living with stepparents and stepsiblings who join the family with sometimes vastly different cultures and backgrounds, children learn how to tolerate other family members' differences, says Ms. Papernow.

"What's talking in one family may feel like yelling in the other family," Papernow says. "Working out those differences in an up-close and personal way can be an incredible learning experience."

Big, loving families

Once these former strangers learn to tolerate and understand new family members, they may find themselves celebrating and being enfolded into that larger family, says Judy Osborne, a family therapist with Boston-based Stepfamily Associates.

"Some of these kids end up with big, loving families," she says.

That was true of her own children. For 20 years her children's stepmother invited Osborne's children on family vacations, she says. Her children loved spending time with their stepmother's extended family, along with their father and their stepmother.

At Ms. Osborne's daughter's wedding, Osborne finally met her children's step-aunts, step-uncles, and step-cousins – people who had welcomed her children on family vacations for so many years, she says. "I gave them a toast for their loving acceptance of my children."

Kristi Holden, who lives in Portland, Ore., says a large, welcoming stepfamily can create lifelong bonds among its members.

"It took me a long time to get to know my stepsisters, because I never lived with them," she says. "When they came into my life, they were already married and living out of the house. But over the years, we have bonded, and we now consider each other sisters. It's such a nice feeling. I didn't grow up with biological sisters, and having sisters as an adult is a wonderful thing."

The hope for bonding among members of blended families often prompts adults to grow in surprising ways. Stepparents say their desire to provide a nurturing environment for their stepchildren pushes them to stretch emotionally.

"Our marriage is much stronger because my husband and I have to be a united front," says Mrs. Hays. "My husband and I have to do a lot of talking about issues before we can talk with the kids."

But it's not always easy for stepparents to talk with their stepchildren. They want to be liked and accepted, and are concerned that if they raise difficult issues, that may not happen – or it may interfere with the parents' relationship with each other.

When Gerry Miale, a stepmother in Denver, first began dating the man who became her husband, his daughters were upset about their dad's divorce and critical of her. She worried that if she tried to set limits for them or even reached out to them, they wouldn't listen.

At first, "I tried not to care," Mrs. Miale says. Then one day, when one of her stepdaughters was upset with their father, she decided it was time to help her stepdaughter understand her father's point of view.

"I got high anxiety and worried that she wouldn't listen to me. [Finally], I told her that her dad wasn't trying to be a jerk, but really cared for her," Miale says.

"I felt I had to jump off the cliff and reach out to someone who wasn't very open. It was a real emotional risk for me," she says. But it was worth the anxiety: Her stepdaughter listened.

Her hard work has improved not only her relationship with her stepdaughter but also her relationship with her husband. "Getting over the communication hurdle has made me feel more powerful and closer to him," she says.

Joyce Hays agrees that learning to communicate with spouses in stepfamilies can be challenging and rewarding.

"When something bugs you about your stepchild, you have to be sensitive when you bring it up to your spouse. You have to learn to say, 'This is going to be hard to hear, Honey, but I see this happening,' " she says.

"In a stepfamily, the adults really have to figure out how to be a much stronger team than in a nuclear family," she continues. "You learn emotional skills you thought you'd never learn."

Every day, stepparents such as Hays and Miale push themselves to communicate better, open themselves to emotional risks, and leap into unknown territory in order to create a nurturing environment for their stepchildren and spouses.

Over the years, divorced parents across the US have embraced similar goals, says Engel. They have become more mature. They understand that being part of a stepfamily means focusing on what's best for the children.

"Stepparents do things for the kids that they thought they would never do. And that makes [being part of] stepfamilies better and easier for the children," says Engel. "Parents are sitting together with their ex-spouses at football games and school plays. When divorced parents are willing to hang out together, they remove a lot of the children's guilt and worries."

Divorced parents' willingness to focus on the children is the best news of all about stepfamilies, adds Engel. "[They're] realizing that they're there to cheer on the kids," she says, in life as well as in sports.

Although blended families may not reach "Brady Bunch" status right away, if the parents are dedicated, open, and flexible, stepfamilies can provide a nurturing home for children and can help heal some of the scars left by divorce.

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