- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Forming a step-family is like merging two corporations. Suddenly there are more people in power at the top and resentful underlings who did not choose the situation.

The underlings children can often make life miserable for a new stepparent. Some are angry that their parent's new marriage puts an end to the hope that their biological parents will reunite. And when a parent remarries after the death of a spouse, many children do not want a stepparent to take the place of a lost parent.

"The first five years are really tough," says Amy Scott, a family therapist and director of the Montgomery County chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America, a nonprofit education group. "Kids have to get used to different households, different parenting styles and new roles in the family."

She recommends that couples talk about the role of the stepparent before getting married and decide together what type of parenting style will be appropriate. It also is helpful to agree on general house rules.

"This all has to be tailored to the age of the kids," she says. "The more kids feel like they have some sense of control the better it is making the transition." She suggests that the stepparent assume the parental role slowly. "You should try to be friends first before you parent and go slowly let the kids set the tone."

Taking it slowly

Melinda Kiesow, 25, is feeling out her new role as stepparent with her new stepdaughters, who are 11 and 14. The Madison, Wisc., woman, who has a 5-year-old daughter, got married in June to a man who was divorced for eight years.

"The girls are at a very fun age, but this is fairly new for me," she says. "It's been tough." She has a good relationship with her husband's girls, but there are emotional strains involved in juggling schedules and dealing with her stepdaughters' mother.

"They are good kids and they've been really great to my daughter," she says. "But I have had to learn when to pick my battles. I caught one of them kicking the other a few weeks ago and told them to knock it off." On the other hand, she doesn't demand that the girls keep spit-and-polish order in their rooms.

Mrs. Kiesow says she feels her daughter is benefiting from the new stepfamily. She has been divorced for about three years and says her former husband left the marriage and has had little contact with his daughter. Now the little girl has two big sisters and a stepfather she sometimes calls daddy.

One of the most difficult transitions was moving into the house where her new husband and ex-wife had lived during their marriage.

"It has caused a lot of stress because I felt I was invading their territory," she says. "The first couple of months, I did not do very much. But after living there for a year, I'm much more comfortable."

While working on her relationship with her stepdaughters, she has found that the girls' mother is not always comfortable with her new role in the girls' life. For example, the 11-year-old girl asked her stepmother to attend a parent-teacher conference in the fall. This did not sit well with the biological mother, Mrs. Kiesow says.

"I like to go to school functions, but since the mother goes, I don't want her to feel I'm trying to take over that role," she says.

Sources of stress

The mixture of different parenting styles and expectations for behavior makes it difficult for children, says Peter Gerlach, a Chicago-based family therapist who has studied stepparenting relationships for 20 years. There is a high rate of failure for second marriages about 60 percent end in divorce, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

"Most people don't know what they are getting into," he says. "Trying to build a stepfamily is like looking at a rocky hillside and deciding to grow a garden. You can do it, but you have to do your homework."

Stepparents face four major areas of stress when starting a new marriage involving children, Mr. Gerlach says:

• Unresolved differences from a previous marriage. People who divorce often don't understand why their first marriages fail, Mr. Gerlach says. It is easy to blame the other partner and not look at one's own fault in the failure of the marriage. "People ought to investigate these issues before they think of remarrying," he says.

• Lack of understanding about the impact of divorce on children. "Many people are not aware of the different developmental tasks that a remarriage demands of children," Mr. Gerlach says. Besides facing the loss of their biological parents in an intact marriage, many children also mourn the relationship they had with each parent separately

before a remarriage. This is even more profound in cases where a parent has died.

• Failure to acknowledge losses. When people remarry, a rosy romantic glow glosses over the past for the adults embarking on a remarriage. "Any stepfamily is founded on two sets of losses divorce or death," Mr. Gerlach says. "If adults and kids don't acknowledge the sadness they feel, this 'blocked grief' can interfere with forming new relationships."

• Lack of support for the new step-family. "In most communities, there are few to no resources for step-families many of whom have no idea of what they are getting into," Mr. Gerlach says. He recommends that step-families find a church or community support group where they can learn coping techniques from other experienced step-families.

Maintaining respect

Adrienne Trainor's formula for keeping peace in her step-family is to maintain flexibility and a friendly attitude even when scheduling demands put a strain on her patience. The Laurel mother, who is a stay-at-home mom, has two children with her husband and is a stepmother to her husband's 14-year-old son from a previous marriage that ended in divorce.

"We've been very lucky we've not had any difficulties," Mrs. Trainor says. "The boys get along well together." Mrs. Trainor says she took special care to make sure that Ian, her stepson, would not resent the birth of her two sons, who are now 5 and 6.

"We made it adamant from the beginning that Ian would not be a day care provider," she says. "If we need a baby sitter for an hour or so, we pay him for that. I really didn't want Ian to feel that the boys were an intrusion into his life."

Mrs. Trainor, like many mothers, spends hours in the car shuttling her boys from one event to another. She enjoys the chauffeuring because it has given her special time with Ian to get to know him. She finds out about his school day and learns who his friends are during the conversations en route to activities.

"My boys have spent their whole life in the car taking Ian around," she jokes. Now that they are beginning to get involved in sports and after-school activities, juggling schedules is getting more complex. "When coordinating with the other family, you have to be very flexible," she says. "We put the interest of the children first."

Challenges vary by age

When Elaine Neafsey married her husband in September, she went from a mother of two boys to a mother of six. Her sons are 10 and 12; her husband has a 15-year-old, 12-year-old twins and a 10-year-old. The boys' mother died eight years ago, and Mrs. Neafsey's ex-husband died a few months ago. The children have known each other for three years and attend the same schools.

"They get along well, but there is a lot of competition," says Mrs. Neafsey, who lives in Ardmore, Pa. "It's very interesting."

Family therapists say the teen years can be the most difficult time for children to make an adjustment to being a stepparent.

One of the ways to minimize conflict is to build a new family structure, even to the point of crafting a family organization chart, says Barry Miller, director of research for the Stepfamily Foundation, a nonprofit group that counsels people on step-family relationships.

"We help couples formulate a mission statement and teach them how to deal with the 'ex' and discipline the stepchildren. We even suggest they tell people where to sit at dinner," Mr. Miller says. "Often there is no structure when the family is breaking down," he says. "We try to build a structure, because if you don't, the anxiety level rises."

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