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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 11:21am
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Relationships: How to bring step-families together

A stepfamily's summer test

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 10:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 6:02pm


My children are coming to Hong Kong this summer on a visit from England. We had many problems when they were here during Christmas. My boy, now 9, told my wife that she was not his mother and he didn't obey her rules. My daughter, now 11, sulked the whole time. My wife's teenage daughter from a previous marriage might also come to stay with us from Indonesia and I am worried we might not survive our first summer together. What can I do to make this time tolerable or should I just go somewhere else with my children ? My wife was too harsh on my kids last time. I don't want to become a "Disney dad," but I don't want to end up disciplining them all the time.

When people remarry, they believe that building a strong marriage and family is possible despite all the difficulties, and is worth the effort. But many fail to recognise stepfamilies must go through a process to become functioning families.

Child discipline and manners are often the major source of marital stress in stepfamilies.

Child discipline and manners are often the major source of marital stress in stepfamilies

Don't be too tough on your wife. She does not share a biological bond with your children and a lack of reciprocity from them (without even a please or thank you) could understandably snowball and foster resentment.

I am glad that you took the time to think of what you could do for the new family unit and your first summer holiday together.

Life as a pre-teen can be challenging. They often find themselves uncomfortable with who they are - hostile teenagers one moment, and carefree and childlike the next.

Things are just so much harder for step-tweens - caught between two parents, two families and two homes.

The plus side is that your tweens are starting to develop their identities and long-term interests. If you establish a close bond with your tween or step-tween, you could be forming a lasting common interest together.

From what you said, you know what you don't want, which is important. You are even aware of pitfalls that many divorced fathers fall into: free-for-all parenting or making up for the lack of parenting time with deep pockets.

Here are six tips to help you navigate the summer holidays with cross-cultural stepfamilies: Know yourself No one is perfect, but understanding your tweens' temperament, developmental age and challenges they face - as well as your own parenting style - will help you figure out their needs and the chemistry between you and your child. Communication and respect Learning the differences between your culture and your wife's will help communication. Showing respect will improve your relationship and help her to understand your approach to discipline.

Don't expect your wife to be a mind-reader. If something is important to you, communicate it clearly. In a second marriage, we sometimes forget our new partner may not know what we want. Likewise, ask your wife about her expectations. Practice active listening with your tweens Try to plan the holiday from their perspective (you need to be the adult but take their likes and dislikes into account). From my experience, children tend to remember the good things about the family holidays. It is necessary to communicate your acceptance of their feelings of loss and ambivalence. A united front There is no simple formula for improving how your wife gets on with your children, but a solid relationship between you and your wife and the commitment to grow together as parents may be the key factors to success as a family. Set limits and enforce them together.

You and your wife need to work out rules and expectations in advance; and support each other when applying them. Incorporate basic manners such as saying "please" and "thank you" as a house rule. You will be amazed how much happier your wife will be when she feels appreciated instead of being treated as a slave. Keep rules simple and few at the beginning. Don't short change yourself Ensure that you and your children have some quality time together. Set aside some time for each family unit to bond, fill the tweens' emotional tank with love, positive attention and open communication before expecting them to open up and accept the stepfamily. Expectation and flexibility It is unrealistic to think your children and your wife will love each other automatically. But it is reasonable to expect that over time they will learn to tolerate and even enjoy each other.

Be open to compromise and let the little things slide. The most important thing is to set your goal - in your case, to enjoy quality time with your children, develop a new relationship and learn to get along.

Children often resist rules and routines set by the step-parent. As the biological parent, you should be the main person to impose discipline. Let your wife be the good cop until trust and a relationship are established.

Lora Lee is a child therapist and parenting counsellor with a background in developmental psychology, play therapy, and post-separation counselling

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lintermans
As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which included not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of the high rate of divorce among these families.

One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.
A little clarification: In a stepfamily the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents; and, virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

The Landmines 

Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work.

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