Building a Successful Stepfamily

by: Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P.

Are you struggling in your new stepfamily? It is important to ensure that all stepfamily members have reliable information about what is typical in stepfamilies and how to work toward building healthy stepfamily dynamics. Stepfamily success is built on strong one-on-one relationships before strengthening the larger stepfamily system. Specifically, the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship need to be stabilized before other step relationships are focused on. Often, solutions to step-issues are about finding a middle ground and having empathy and compassion. This is especially important as step-relationships tend to accentuate and polarize differences in families (Papernow, 2013)

In some ways, stepfamilies do not function the same as nuclear families do yet many stepfamily members enter into their new family relationships with hopes or dreams of “returning to a normal” life pathway that was disrupted by death or divorce (Papernow, 1993). The more tightly stepfamily members hold on to expectations that may not apply any longer, the harder they will experience stepfamily formation and the more likely they are to experience significant difficulties in it. Building realistic expectations based on information about how stepfamilies function most effectively is important.

Stepfamilies tend to have more conflict than first families (Martin, 2009). This is distressing for adults and children alike, and can leave the adults more likely to give up before the family has had a chance to stabilize if they are unaware of this dynamic (Hetherington 1988). At times it can be challenging to integrate a step-parent into a child’s life. The manner of integration is crucial to how this relationship will evolve. Clinicians at CFIR are skilled in providing support to develop a healthy blended family environment.

References

Hetherington, E. M. (1988). Parents, children, and siblings six years after divorce. In R. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Relationships within families (pp. 55–79). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, W. (2009). Stepmonster (1st ed.). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Papernow, P. (1993). Becoming a stepfamily (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Papernow, P. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn’t (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P. is a registered psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Ottawa. She works with adults and couples to support them to relieve distress and overcome difficulties related to anxiety and stress, depression and grief, anger management and emotional regulation, and career and workplace issues.

Navigating the Teenage Years

We were all teenagers once, yet sometimes trying to understand what’s on your teen’s mind is harder than advanced high school calculus. What can make matters worse is when, in your parental quest to figure out your teen’s thoughts, feelings and motivations, both you and your child end up having a conflict and/or experiencing feelings of confusion, frustration, and at times, ultimate helplessness.

While teenagers sometimes aren’t as vocal and open with their parents, a crucial step in a parent confronting a teenager’s psychological challenges is helping them identify the source and then exploring options to address it.

“My teen is withdrawing from the family.”  

“You’re not the boss of me.” Or “You just don’t get it!” How many times did you say this to your parents as a teen? How many times have you been on the receiving end of those words? One of the most widespread challenges of adolescence is the parent-teen relationship. Parents often grapple with a balance between providing support while allowing teens to make their own decisions and life choices. Here are some things you can do:

  • Accept: Your teenager is exploring an unfamiliar life stage – – one in which friends and classmates are considered the most influential. You can continue to play a very prominent role in their lives often by merely letting them know that they can reach out to you when they need to. 
  • Avoid why questions: Checking-in with your child is essential. But try to avoid “WHY” questions. What you believe to be a simple question of curiosity might be interpreted by your teen as the ‘Third Degree’ leaving both of you equally frustrated. Instead of saying, “Why on earth did you do that?” maybe try rephrasing the question as “What did you hope would happen?” 
  • Plan activities: Shared interests (or maybe not…) Venturing into your teen’s world to learn about a new videogame might be an opportunity for him or her to teach YOU something new. Or maybe you can offer to teach your teen a new skill. Whether it’s teaching your teen a new recipe or how to change a tire – that might be another way to connect – – but remember: DON’T FORCE IT!   
  • Share your own experience:  Often times, teens appreciate hearing about their parents’ own teenage experiences. Feel comfortable sharing your own adolescent experiences and give your teen the opportunity to ask you questions. Most importantly, try to make connections between your skills and your teen’s current ones. 
  • Monitor screen time: Like it or not, screens – – whether they are smartphones, tablets, portable games, video game consoles, computers, and TVs – – have become an integral part of teenagers’ daily lives. If you’re hoping it’s a stage, I have news for you – – this is unlikely to change soon. As such, setting limits on screen time use for the entire family (e.g., dinner time, movie nights) will encourage face-to-face communication among family members, without teens feeling singled-out.

“My teen experienced a traumatic event. How do I offer support?” 

Talking about a traumatic event, at any age, can be overwhelming. Teenagers might not know who they should talk to, how to talk to someone, how much is appropriate to share, or where to start. Some teens might feel more comfortable talking to a friend, a sibling, or a mental health professional. Meeting your teen at a level where he or she feels comfortable is KEY! If your teen has reached out to you for support, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Try to stay calm/composed: Although you, as a parent, are also experiencing heightened levels of emotions, it’s vital for you to remain calm for your teen when talking about his or her traumatic experience so you can foster feelings of safety and security. 
  • Avoid judgment: Traumatic experiences often lead to feelings of self-blame and guilt. It’s crucial to listen openly and empathically, and, most importantly, convey the message that this was NOT the teen’s fault. 
  • Show openness to questions: Allow your teen to ask questions and try your best to answer these questions openly and honestly. 
  • Know your limits: if your teen is having difficulty talking about the experience with you, don’t take it personally. It’s not uncommon for a teenager to “not want to share” with a parent (at least initially). What’s most important is that your teen receives appropriate support. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance. 

“My teen can’t seem to meet school deadlines or focus in class.” 

High school has never been easy. At some point or another, many teens experience difficulty in school – whether it’s their ability to focus in a particular class, study for an exam, or find the motivation to do homework. For some teens, these daily difficulties pose challenges to their overall learning experience and impact their overall functioning.  As teenagers advance in school, academic demands increase, and challenges sometimes become more apparent. As a result, it is essential to understand when these challenges might be a sign of a learning disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or more commonly referred to as ADHD):

  • Has your teen experienced changes in attitude toward school/school attendance? For example, a teenager who previously enjoyed school now demonstrates resistance or a negative attitude toward school. 
  • Has your teen expressed emotional concerns like feeling anxious or overwhelmed about completing school work or writing exams? 
  • Has your teen complained about difficulty keeping up with school work/devoting an excessive amount of time to homework compared to other classmates? 
  • Has the school expressed concern regarding challenges (e.g., applying skills and knowledge, impulsive and disruptive behaviours, difficulty with focus) that are interfering with your teen’s ability to reach his/her academic potential?
  • Is your teen experiencing consistent difficulty with planning and organization, remembering details, and time-management? 

If you answered “YES” to any one of those questions, a psychoeducational assessment might provide a clear understanding of your teenager’s cognitive and academic strengths and challenges. In addition, an assessment might also inform you and your teen of appropriate accommodations that can be made at both the secondary and post-secondary level to ensure that your teen performs at an academic level reflective of his or her abilities.

Easing Your Child’s Back-to-School Worries

Originally posted by Ali Goldfield, M.A. on TherapyStew (www.therapystew.com) – August 2013

Lots of kids (and parents) have mixed feelings about the start of the school year. It can be really exciting getting ready for school: getting school supplies, new clothes and looking forward to seeing their friends. However, it can also cause a lot of anxiety for many kids, whether they’re starting a new school or not. Taking the time to talk through their anxieties and fears is the few weeks before school starts could make all the difference. Finding out what they’re nervous about – whether it’s meeting the new teacher, making new friends or finding the bathroom when needed, it’s all important to them.

Try the following tips to further ease back to school anxiety:

Make a Plan

If your child is starting a new school, a tour around the campus can be a simple way to ease the first-day jitters. Make sure they know where their classroom is, their locker and especially the bathroom. If you get a class list before school starts, arrange a get together with one of the kids in the class before school starts — first-day jitters are less jittery if there’s a familiar face in class. Teaching anxious middle-schoolers how to use their lock, talk about whether they will be buying lunches or brown bagging it, even sending your child’s teacher an email introducing yourself and your child can help.

Remind Your Child of the Fun They Had Last Year

Point out the positive aspects of starting school: It will be fun. They will see old friends and meet new ones. Try to refresh their memory about previous years, when they may have returned home after the first day with high spirits because they had a good time,

Address the Anxiety at Home

Talking about the different things that are causing them some worries and even role play out some of the potentially stressful scenarios your child may encounter at a new school — making friends, encountering older kids and encounters with strangers — may help ease their fears.

Get Back Into Routine

Anxious kids can feel soothed by a familiar routine. Prepare kids for a new routine by organizing your house in a back-to-school way. Get their school supplies ready, talk about what they want for lunch on the first day, help them decide what to wear on the first day. If possible, start the back-to-school routine a week or two before school starts. Make sure your back-to-school routine includes plenty of sleep and help your child get back on track with an earlier bedtime and wake-up time.

Read more about our Child, Adolescent & Family Psychology Service.

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