By Joan Sarin
Here’s some relationship advice for stepmoms, stepchildren, and stepdads that is fundamental to all relationships, actually. The tip is this: if you want to grow a bond of love that lasts in the long run, start with respect. All around.
I recently heard from a new stepfamily which will now consist of eight children (of a variety of ages including several teens) and two parents all under one roof. Actually, I grew up in a family of this size, as there were eight kids in my biological family. Yet there are a host of significant differences. Our family gradually added a child at a time, and systems were in place to absorb additional children as they came. And when problems occurred (as they certainly did), we had a natural bond of love we could depend upon. That love wasn’t questioned when arguments got heated.
As I mused over what advice to give this new family, I recognized that although they have strong bonding within each side, it is too much to expect a natural love to exist between the two family units that are merging. It was a bit of a shock to realize that the love we took for granted in our biological family is actually a luxury for a new stepfamily.
Yet in this new stepfamily, suddenly, bedrooms need to be shared, bathroom time will be at a premium, and there are many lifestyle differences that have the potential of clashing: how much is each person expected to help? What are the standards for cleanliness? What communication styles are acceptable? The list goes on and on…
So after some thought, I decided that there’s one place to start that would make the biggest difference of all. It will have far more impact than starting with specific rules about how to share bathrooms or who does the dishes. And that would be for the parents to communicate and create an atmosphere in which each person feels respected. From this foundation, rules and systems will be much more easily established – and followed. Here are some guidelines:
Consider that every person in the family, from a toddler to a teenager to a parent, deserves to be treated with the respect and dignity deserved by a human being. Every single family member is going through major changes during this time of transition.
Listening to another is one of the greatest gifts you can give him or her. Just being heard will help each person in the family to get past the feeling of being powerless and help them to work through their feelings about the changes in the family composition.
It is not to be expected that each member of the new family will love each other member (in fact, it’s possible that some won’t even like each other). But it is to be expected that each one treats each other with respect.
How do we show respect? By noticing our tone of voice and assuring it is respectful, by not interrupting, by listening to the other’s words and needs, by eye contact, and by our actions.
I would suggest that any new stepfamily begin with a meeting or some kind of ritual in which each person shares what’s most important to him or her during the transition, and that it is begun by the parents with a discussion of the importance of respect. The parents can go a long way toward setting an atmosphere of respect by treating the children on both sides with respect, dignity and understanding.
If each person feels that he or she is respected, the likelihood of that person treating the others with respect goes up dramatically! So, in a new stepfamily, since it’s too much to ask for everyone to be “one big happy family” or “everyone love one another” – we can begin with the fundamental quality of respect. Out of that, harmony and bonding are much likelier to take hold.
Joan Sarin, M.S. is now a master coach with Stepfamily Foundation. Before that, she was a stepmom for fifteen years, and managed to make most of the classic mistakes made by stepfamilies. In her blog, [http://www.ConfessionsOfaStepmom.com], she tells how you can learn to avoid those mistakes.
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