- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

The fairy tale image of the evil stepmother lurks in the background of every new marriage involving children from a previous marriage.

Although many children eventually learn to love or at least respect their stepparents, the first year can be tumultuous. One reason is that children often are not brought into the relationship until the couple is serious. Since many children long for their biological parents to stay together, news of a remarriage often isn't welcome.

"Children in a step-family are mourning their 'old' family and most of the time wishing that family would get back together again," says Peter Gerlach, a family therapist in Chicago and co-founder of the Stepfamily Association of Illinois, a nonprofit education group. "Stepparents are outsiders and have not been a part of that previous family. They may be sympathetic to what the children have gone through, but they can never really understand."

While children mourn the past, stepparents are excited about the future and eager to build a new marriage, Mr. Gerlach says. And some stepparents look forward to having children with the new spouse, a dynamic that can further strain the relationship with stepchildren.

"In a stepfamily, the children and the stepparent are strangers and must allow time to build their relationship," he says. "It is normal for a stepparent to have mixed feelings about the children, and the stepparent shouldn't feel guilty about that."

It takes three to five years before children are able to love a stepparent, according to therapists. This transition typically is easiest for young children and difficult for teens, but each situation is different. Stepparents can negotiate this complex emotional tangle, but it takes time and superior communication skills.

"It often takes a year or two to work things out," says James H. Bray, associate professor of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a family therapist. "Stepparents need to learn about the new spouse's children before they try and be a parent," he says. "If they jump in too fast, the children resent it and will rebuff them and that can have a boomerang effect on the whole web of relationships."

Therapists who work with step-families find that the most successful relationships come when adults agree to treat each other with respect and put the welfare of children above their own immediate needs. This does not mean abandoning the new marriage.

Because of the stress involved in blending families from different backgrounds, couples need to spend time strengthening the bonds of a new marriage. Here are some suggestions therapists recommend for forging good communication skills in step families:

• Work out a parenting plan for the children that lays out who will make the major decisions. This should include discussion of appropriate bedtimes, discipline, allowance, social activities and approach to school work.

• Reassure the child that having a good relationship with a stepparent will not harm the bonds with the biological parent.

• Hold a family meeting during which house rules and behavioral expectations are discussed. This is a forum in which the children should be allowed to express opinions, although the adults hold the final say.

• Make it clear to children that the biological parents make the major decisions about a child's health and education. However, there may be cases where house rules, such as upkeep of a room or household chores, may vary from one domicile to another.

• In the early months of a new marriage, leave the stepparent in charge of the children for a few hours to make it clear to children that they are responsible for carrying out agreed-upon rules. This helps dispel the notion that a stepparent's word carries no authority.

• Plan activities with the different members of a newly formed stepfamilies to allow time for relationships to build. Try to make the outings fun, rather than an occasion to discuss serious subjects.

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