“Living in Step”
—An interview with the director of the Stepfamily Foundation
Mrs. Jeannette Lofas, director of the Stepfamily Foundation and coauthor of Living in Step, has studied the unique pressures within the stepfamily. The following interview with her by an Awake! staff writer tells how these can successfully be met.
Q. Mrs. Lofas, why is it so tough being a stepparent?
A. Often a stepparent starts with a mythical black eye and goes on to earn the real one. Most stepparents hope to get the recognition a biological parent gets. Generally, they will not. Consciously or unconsciously, they nearly always try to prove themselves. Often the stepchildren reject all this parenting because of feeling disloyal to their departed parent. The biological parent has a hallowed place. In the beginning the stepparent will take a battering. It doesn’t always follow, ‘If you love me, you’ll love my children.’
Q. Why are stepchildren often hostile?
A. It is real tough on a child to go through a divorce. The child feels bad that Mommy has left or Daddy is not around paying enough attention. Often the children will transfer these bad feelings onto the stepparent. This is called displacement. So stepparents are easily made scapegoats for all these bad feelings. All of a sudden, the child is just being awful to you.
Q. How can you help a child cope with these “bad” feelings?
A. First, both the parent and the children need to recognize that such feelings are a normal part of the dynamics, or pattern of behavior, of a stepfamily. If you blame the child or blame the stepparent instead of the dynamics, you could be in deep trouble. The children need to understand that at the beginning it is normal to be upset and to feel anger and frustration. Often, just helping the child to recognize why he feels that way and empathizing with him is a big help. The biological parent should reassure the child that he will always have a special position and therefore has no reason to fear the stepparent as a usurper of ‘position and turf.’
Q. Can a stepparent really discipline a stepchild?
A. Yes, by setting down ‘house rules’ from the start. Love means you will give the children boundaries and not let them run wild. Discipline and love need to be balanced, in or out of step. But living in step, the love is often hard to feel. The blood and the history are missing, so a stepparent may overreact, or a stepchild may resent discipline from a “stranger.” A stepfather should establish his authority by leading rather than by commanding.
Q. What causes serious problems with punishment?
A. When the father and the mother disagree in front of the children. For a child to have the two adult figures in his life disagreeing is the worst thing. A child then has nowhere to turn. If the stepfamily has no ‘company policy,’ it is devastating. It is very important that the parents discuss privately, and agree on, what the standards of the home are and the consequences if these are violated. They must then make this clear to the child. One stepfather put it this way: “It’s a beautiful thing when the mother says, ‘This is my husband, your stepfather. Together we are bringing you up.’”
Q. How important is the relationship of the couple?
A. This is the primary relationship, and it has to be strong; otherwise the rest won’t work. You need to build what we call the couple strength. This creates a cohesive family. Without it, not only will you give the children mixed messages but they will drive a wedge between the two of you. Go out as a couple. Enjoy the children as a couple, not burdening just one parent.
Q. Do religious values help?
A. Yes, a great deal. They enable you to rise above the petty wrongs done against each other. For instance, a husband may on an occasion wrongly favor his biological child. The wife fumes. Now, is she going to rise above the pettiness of the argument, not staying in the morass of what has happened? True, he was wrong. So what? It happened. Where do we go from here? Her religious values help because she thinks: ‘What would God’s will be? That we make the family work. So what do we need to do now to make that occur? By sincerely trying to follow God’s will, we can make the system work.’