by Jennifer Johnson
Try to put yourself in the following situation, paying particular attention to how you would feel:
You are in a classroom and the teacher says that you are going to have a competition, with a bag of mini Snickers candy bars on the line as the prize for the first place team. She explains that in your team of 3-4, you need to choose a scribe and make a list of all the changes a child goes through in joining a stepfamily. You are given eight minutes to try to create the longest list. The teacher says “Go!” and the competition begins. A couple minutes into the activity, a member of one of the other teams is asked by the teacher to join your team. Then a few minutes later, your team’s scribe is asked to move to another team, leaving you to quickly assume the role of scribe. More shuffling of team members occurs, including your being asked to move to another team. Throughout the course of this activity, you are filled with several emotions and thoughts. As you began the exercise, you felt a sense of unity with your team, which was then put into question when others were added to or taken away from your team. You had been in a comfortable situation but each change brought the need for readjustments. With each change, especially when the scribe was moved, there was a little bit of role confusion as to who would take on the various responsibilities. When you were switched into a different team, there was some inner conflict over which team you would be loyal to. Do you try to help your new team win, or do you keep quiet in hopes that your old team’s list will be longer? In the beginning, the team goal had seemed so clear, to make the longest list in the shortest amount of time, but with all the shuffling, was that still the goal and who would be considered part of the winning team? This situation gets even more intense if you are extremely competitive and/or really like Snickers bars.
In one of my grad classes this week, we did this activity that I have just described. It was very eye-opening as we discussed what this activity teaches us about a child’s experience when joining a stepfamily. There is confusion over roles, loyalty, place of belonging, goals, and many more areas. Often times these transitions are not chosen by the child.
Stepfamilies are very common in today’s world. If we are not part of a stepfamily ourselves, we surely know family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, or acquaintances who are. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by the time children reach the age of 18, anywhere between one-third and one-half will have been part of a stepfamily. That is a lot of families!
The challenges faced by stepfamilies are unique from those faced by other families. In a traditional family, a man and a woman marry and have some time to focus on their own relationship and getting to know each other before children enter the picture. However, in terms of stepfamilies, children are involved from day one. The blending of families into a stepfamily involves a more dramatic meshing of family cultures than when two individuals marry. Because there are children involved from the beginning of the stepfamily union, and each partner understandably stands up for his/her own children, conflict can arise. Thus, research has found that how well the stepparent-stepchild relationship is doing is a big determiner of the satisfaction level of the marital relationship.
There are a lot of resources and programs available to help strengthen stepfamilies and address the unique challenges associated with them. For example, Healthy Relationships Utah teaches a free six week course for stepfamilies. The National Stepfamily Resource Center website features articles and downloadable guides addressing possible areas of concern.
In the words of Emily Visher, author, researcher, and cofounder of the Stepfamily Association of America, “We need to validate stepfamilies as positive and viable units with unique structures that are not imperfect copies of nuclear families, but rather, complex family systems created from the integration of old loyalties and new ties.”