Stepfamilies, blended families, and families that approximate the Brady Bunch are common enough now that the book market is overflowing with resources on how to cope, bond, and get to know each other better. As a therapist, I often see children and teens struggle with new family members, or with respecting the boundaries and rules of a stepparent. For adults, the main challenges are how to blend parenting skills, become a stronger parental system, create rules everyone can follow, and learn the boundaries of everyone involved.
The most difficult reality is that not everyone in the family unit is ready to identify different desires, wishes, goals, strengths, and even weaknesses during the beginning stages of becoming a blended family. Identifying differences means being exposed to different ways of thinking, which can trigger confrontation.
In Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships, Patricia Papernow understands how difficult blending can be and attempts to make the process easier by illuminating several key phases. Papernow can also help readers who don’t quite know what they’re getting themselves into: It wasn’t until one of my clients began to read her book that they realized how many hurdles they had to conquer within their new family.
In my work, I see that it is especially the younger kids who struggle the most. Such a big change is hard for most youngsters to comprehend and adjust to. If a stepparent is too stern, too conservative, “too nice” (trying to be a friend), or not nice enough, (very detached or afraid to be a parent), children have a hard time. Many of my young clients feel that their new parental figure is trying to be their “real dad” or “real mom,” and also find themselves not getting along with new siblings. Hopefully, with work, this can change. For Papernow, the process can be broken down into differences phases in what she calls the stepfamily cycle.
At first, Papernow writes, there is a kind of fantasy that everything will be rosy in the future. This is the honeymoon phase — until, of course, reality sets in. In what Papernow calls the immersion stage, problems and differences emerge. Confrontations break out. But after the new family realizes that this is a normal part of the process, they begin to air their differences more openly. They eventually — hopefully — become more flexible, willing, and open to working on understanding one another. Finally, later on, stepparents and stepchildren respect each other more, and eventually the entire family unit becomes, as Papernow puts it, a “we.”
The book, and the outline of the stepfamily cycle, gives readers an organized way to identify challenges and find ways around them. Some chapters also offer tips on interpersonal skills and ways to openly communicate. At times, however, it is not quite clear who Papernow intended her audience to be — whether counseling professionals, newly blended parents, or both. Still, hers is an easy-to-read book that can help clinicians as well as family members begin to understand the complex nature of stepfamilies. And, hopefully, help them begin to work together.
Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t
Routledge, May 2013
Paperback, 248 pages