Not every stepfather-integration has to be a nightmare a la the movie The Stepfather. Sure, you will likely not be bringing home a psychopath to marry you and meet the kids, but the situation can get ugly for some families. "If a new relationship is properly introduced to the children, they won't act out. They act out because the adults get caught up in the romance, and the stepfather is forced on the kids," says Tina B. Tessina (a.k.a. Dr. Romance), a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "The adults should be grownups and introduce a new person to the kids as a 'friend,' giving the children a chance to get to know him without the pressure of knowing mommy's all excited about him."
"Integrating a father, or any person for that matter, into a family of existing relationships is something that requires a strategy," says Dr. Nathaniel J. Williams, author and CEO of HumanWorks Affiliates Inc., which provides social services to children and adults. "It should not be left to chance. Great caution should be taken that the presence of the new (male) figure is not seen as an indication of the failing of the dad or previous significant other." Each person should be seen in their own light. We must be diligent not to oppress any of the parties involved in the transition, and make all voices heard.
"Give your blended family a chance to bond," Tessina says. "Don't worry if everyone doesn't settle in right away -- bonding takes time." Tessina believes if you all get to know each other before moving in together, the transition will be an easier one. Remember to be patient, too. "Living comfortably together can take time," she adds.
As uncomfortable as it may sound, it's better than avoiding communication. "Set up a meeting with you, Dad and new husband if possible. Get to know each other. Discuss expectations of roles in both households," says Dianna Gould-Saltman, certified law specialist in Los Angeles, CA, who works with lots of blended families. "Discuss things like allowances, vacations, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. As much as possible, try to make the rules consistent for the children -- even if for no other reason than to prevent children from playing one parent against the other."
Parents, it's important to work out your parenting methods (like rewards, punishments, chores, allowances, bedtimes and homework). "Each of your single-parent families is unique, and everyone has to adjust to change. Transition is much easier if the parents are in agreement," Tessina explains. "If something happens that you haven't discussed, just defer to one parent, and work it out later. If you allow the kids to create discord between you, they'll jump on it right away, and make your lives miserable."
It's also important to let the kids communicate their feelings. "Unresolved heartbreak is one of the reasons that it is so hard to integrate the stepfather into the family," says Aurora Winter, founder of the Grief Coach Academy and author of From Heartbreak to Happiness. "Children need the opportunity to express their feelings of grief over the loss of their father, and the loss of their former family living arrangements." Kids will act out if their point of view is not expressed and acknowledged. Winter experienced this firsthand when her 33-year-old husband died, leaving her widowed with a 4-year-old son. "By allowing my son to grieve and express his feelings of loss, it created the opportunity for him to warmly welcome the next man in my life," she attests.
Just because your household is changing, doesn't mean everything else has to. "It's good to maintain routines and relationships, Winter explains. "Don't bad-mouth their father and go out of your way to help your kids maintain contact with him, for instance," Winter suggests. "Even if the change is for the better, change can be stressful -- so go easy on yourself and others."
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