Stepmoms and stepdads may well be familiar with this refrain: “You’re not my parent! You can’t tell me what to do!” Conflicts are inevitable when new families form, and girls may be especially vulnerable. Studies show that girls often exhibit more anxiety than do boys after a remarriage. The good news is that stepfamilies have a range of resources to make the transition easier on their daughters—and on the whole family.
For those new to stepparenting, it’s important to understand that the dynamics in a stepfamily differ from those in a nuclear family. “People go into stepfamilies thinking that because they’ve found the perfect husband or wife, everybody is just going to blend together,” says Michele Diamond, a Massachusetts social worker who specializes in stepfamilies. The blending process, she notes, is often very choppy.
Some parents are proactive, seeking out stepparenting information before problems develop with either the children or the new relationship. Jackie has a 17-year-old stepson and a 15-year-old stepdaughter as well as two children of her own. “Trying to put together two already formed families with all their own rules and their little ways and their understandings—collision course!” Jackie says. Before she and her husband got married, they went to a stepfamily workshop and started couples counseling as well. Five years into their marriage, they still check in with a counselor periodically.
It’s best to find therapists, lawyers, and other professionals who are trained in stepfamily dynamics, notes Marjorie Engel of the National Stepfamily Resource Center, which maintains a list of therapists trained in stepfamily dynamics as well as an extensive list of support groups, books, and websites.
Some problems can be avoided through some simple long-range solutions. Before a new stepparent can achieve legitimacy as a parent, he or she will need to put in the time to build a relationship with a stepdaughter. Fifteen-year-old Bridget and her stepmother Jackie have developed a very close relationship by spending one-on-one time together. “Have stepmom-stepdaughter time,” Bridget advises. “Find something you both like to do together. We both like coffee shops and movies.”
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