November 6th, 2010
There are classes available in almost every state which go by the lables: Parenting Class, Co-Parenting Class, and many fewer labeled StepParenting Class. If you are reading this blog it is probably highly likely that a Parenting Class is not what you are looking for. Parenting Classes can be useful to all, including teachers and counselors without children, but they often have suggestions which are impossible if you are a stepparent. I have had too many divorcing couples, and stepparents come back from those classes feeling even worse about themselves and the prognosis for their children. Co-parenting classes are designed for couples who are de-coupling with children. It focuses on the parenting that goes on, often successfully, with two households. They address the communication and logistics of raising children moving between two different homes often with different ideas of what “should be.” Remember no one gets divorced because they agree on everything; the disagreements hopefull will be less volatile after a divorce, but if you couldn’t agree on how important grades and school work is before a divorce it is not likely to happen afterwards. Unless, of course, the fight about the importance of homework was a smoke screen for real and deeper issues. Children move between worlds with different values all the time; they are usually good at it. They go from school with different teachers, to home, to clubs, sports, music lessons, church, and other places where they have to act differently, where what is important is different. They can adapt happily and successfully between households where they are loved and safe. If one household is truly abusive or dangerous then the court, not the co-parenting class, is the place to deal with such.
Stepparenting skills idealy should be an added skill set. They are not a replacement for co-parenting skills. Stepfamilies which form when there is a peaceful well thoughout co-parenting structure already in place are less complicated. But even so, hurt feelings, jealousy and fear can disrupt even the calmest of co-parenting systems when a third and fourth parental figure enters into the picture. Step-parenting involves all the adults involved to focus on soothing their own ruffled feelings, getting appropriate reassurance if needed, and keeping the focus on the goal of raising children to become happy successful adults. That is still the task.
There are wonderful books available on Parenting, on Co-parenting, and on Stepparenting. Make sure you find one that is respectful of the positive aspects of the parenting tasks. If the book seems to take the stance, that “since you are in the miserable situation you should make the best of something which is never good.” Get rid of the bookand find another. We form stepfamilies because we love, and increasing the number of people we love is seldom a bad thing. Enjoy your expanded opportunities to love and grow and share your life.
October 25th, 2010
Over the past few weeks several parents and step-parents have written about the need for clairty in the difference between the roles of parent and step-parent. When step-parents are expected to take over the role of the ideal bilogical parent trouble will follow. No matter how awful the bio-parent may be, the new step-parent is not a replacement to make up for the deficiencies of the biological one; it is far more complicated than that. The roles are different, and when a biological parent is impaired by an addiction, psychiatric problems, or unresolved grief and anger it can make for a very difficult transition. It may seem like an impossible task to deal with an alcoholic bio-parent, or one with severe emotional or behavioral problems. In such cases professional help in terms of counseling or coaching may be advisable if you want to make the new step-family last. It is not impossible or get over one’s rage at the end of a prior marriage and the loss of all the hopes and expectations that were not met, but it takes time and soul work. Involving a new spouse into this before the grief work is done will make for very rough sailing. The shipwreck of many second marriages all too often starts in the unresolved problems from the first still poisoning the atmosphere. Great step-families start with former marriage partners working out a co-parenting system based on respect and dignity. If that is impossible due to addictions and other personality issues, get professional help in understanding how this will impact the newly forming step-family difficult, and how to define roles and ways to cope with the upsets. A step parent can never replace a biological parent, but they can make a wonderful loving impact on everyone. Each step-family is unique and the roles should be defined, flexible and evolving as all age and get to know each other better, but clear roles and boundaries are important in all families.
October 14th, 2010
Divorce always involves suffering loss and grief work for adults and children; as does living in a home with a toxic marriage. However, divorce does not harm, people harm. Perhaps blaming “the divorce” can be seen as a way of avoiding our personal responsibility for careless actions by adults going through a such . Parents and stepparents alike can do and say things that damage self-esteem and result in trauma, depression and anxiety. Being angry and vindictive, trying to get children to hate or be disrespectful to another parent, demanding children take sides, and not working out a respectful co-parent communication to serve the needs of the family now forming in two homes — those actions harm everyone, not just children. It is human and natural to wish to avoid suffering, but life has losses and suffering. It always hurts to realize that someone who once loved you, no longer loves you, but being cruel and vengeful is an inappropriate response when chidren are involved. Learning to cope and grow through such experiences is important for all of us. What I do ask people contemplating divorce is to recognize that grief does not harm in and of itself, how we cope, and what we do as we greive does. To insist that divorce in and of itself harms is to pass responsibility for the health of children off onto some invisible process. I listen daily in my work to people who as children knew their parents hated each other, to people torn, depressed, and anxious who as children were subjected to being ignored, neglected, and often abused while parents raged at each other, both before, during and after a divorce. Divorce is not a spontaneous event or something which happens suddenly, most wedding vows include honor, respect,love and a sense of cherishing another, and as those things diminish or become non-existent staying married begins the process of harm as all are living in an lie or at least an unauthentic situation. People harm each other, parents harm children. It may demand all the maturity one can muster to go through a divorce honoring the other co-parent and being respectful. It may be hard work to accept that one is no longer husband and wife, your former spouse no longer loves you, and may love someone else, but life long co-parents can still commit to not harming their children. Divorce can be far less harmful than continuing to live in a toxic hostile angry environment. If one wants to stay for” the sake of the children,” or for the sake of economic security, then work on developing a non-toxic relationship with your spouse; you will always be co-parents until death do you part.
October 12th, 2010
I met yesterday with Patricia Skinner, M.A., LPC, http://www.stepparenting.com. What started as a morning coffee, became a ninety minute conversation about stepfamilies It was immensely fun to share ideas on how to increase awareness of the need for classes and workshops on stepparenting, not just parenting, as the two may overlap in places, but there are so many different issues in stepfamilies. We are in planning stages of doing such ourselves and will keep you posted as we develop them. Our discussion on language led to some thoughts on the word dysfunctional and how vague it has become to the point where we can label every family as such, making it a useless and redundant word to describe any family. Families are dysfunctional in different ways, and in different aspects of their complex tasks, but they often function quite well in other areas. If families are supposed to be a place of safety where a group of related people grow to become more successful, relational, creative, happy, spiritual, and healthy human beings then stepfamilies, which are part of over half the extended families in our society, and probably always have been about the same percentage, can function quite well to provide this kind of structure and nurturing support. If as a cultue we can embrace all families and help them become the best they can be, then labels such as dysfunctional will be relatively useless except in describing one of the aspects of family life that needs to function more effectively. Global shaming is an ugly burden for anyone to carry.
October 8th, 2010
How many of us have not heard someone say “my marriage was a failure,” their marriage ended in failure,” “she/he is a failure at relationships as they have been divorced,” or some other form of such. Please add any statements you have heard like this, or mail them to me at email@example.com. I have been working with people who were struggling with a ddifficult marriage,, and with people in the throws of a divorce and/or its aftermath for over forty years; yet I have never seen any marriage I would label as a “failure.” Life is about learning, and accepting and meeting the various challenges life provides each of us. Most people have friends from the past, jobstheyI used to enjoy, and groups to which the once belonged all of which are now part of my history. Some of them one would love to see again, some not. But none of these relationships, jobs, or groups have are usually considered by to be failures just because they ended. Most people have learned something of value from each friendship, each job. Marriages can be viewed similarly and the questions asked about what has one learned about love and life, about yourself and others and relationships. What is tragic is hearing divorced parents describe their marriage as a failure or mistake in front of children they love. Are the children a mistake? Should they have just been illegitimate? Never born? This cultural blindness to the self-esteem damage that this derogatory language causes helps no one. It is not compassionate, nor is it accurate. Marriages can end and it is possible to walk through the grief and suffering that the loss of love causes and come out stronger and wiser. If someone never loved, never learned anything, and never gained any wisdom or children from a marriage – then the person involved, not the marriagem failed.
I am convinced of one truth after doing this work for four decades, whatever of life’s lessons you don’t learn in one relationship will be offered again and again until you do. It may take a while when one is in the midst of greif, espcially during times a feeling extremely sad, abandoned, or angry to list all the gifts of learning, of feeling loved and loving, or of being in relationships that a prior marriage gave, but it is needed to go on a stronger and more loving human being. Any relationship may end, transform, change, or dissolve; if such happens with compassion and an opennesss to acepting the gifts each has brought, acknowledging the grief of loss, and moving on in life with more maturity, then divorce may be seen as the end of something important, and cease to be a destructive and shaming event which leaves everyone, including children feeling that their sel-worth has been injured.
October 7th, 2010
This week I decided to collect assumptions and stereotypes that divorced and remarried people hear almost daily which are often not true, and some that are. Trying to examine the prejudices which harm self-image and confidence unnecessarily for people in step-relationships is an important step toward changing the way stepfamilies are viewed. I am also asking for help with this project. If you hear statements which are shaming, demeaning, and inaccurate generalizations please e-mail them to me at Eleanor@stepwisdom.com, or comment on this blog. I would love to hear from you. When we label a whole group of people whose only common characteristic is that some of the children are not biologically related to both parental figures we are globalizing and shaming many people who simply do not deserve it, and in fact are wonderful families. Some generalizations may have a large degree of truth, such as stepfamilies are at time more complicated and challenging, but the tone of voice that implies admiration rather than contempt or defeat make the statement a compliment or an insult. When people are demeaned it is hard to function at ones best. Conversely, if stepparents were admired for their spiritual and moral courage and compassion in being willing to help raise children not their own, they will probably aim for being the best they can be. There is a reality to self-fulfilling prophecies. Predicting a disaster when a stepfamily forms does not encourage their desire to be their best. The words we use shape our reality. Tomorrow Divorce does not equal Failure.
October 3rd, 2010
I just attended a fascinating workshop put on by Sierra Tucson’s outreach coordinator, Lisa Jane Vargas. The workshops provide excellent continueing education programs for psychotherapists in the community while also providing a great venue to network. Dr. Robert Johnson provided two lectures this week on brains in addiction which certainly helps provide solid clinical evidence as to the damage addictions, stress, even mild head trauma (like from soccer balls and headers) can do. The good news is how wonderful the brain can be in healing itself with the right support, nutrition, exercise, medications at times, and removal of the toxins and stressors. The blunting of the ability of dopamine receptors in the brain, which allows us to feel pleasure in our relationships is a wonderful visual of what therapy and marital counseling intends to heal. I hope the model that Sierra Tucson with its SPECT scan brain imagery becomes a treatment model not only for addictions, but for Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, head injuries, and a sense of blunted affect which certainly can result in feeling no fear, and high risk taking impulsive behavior not helpful to family life. A holisitc approach treating body, brain, family, mind and soul certainly has the potential for making recovery more complete.
October 1st, 2010
Family life has always been a major casualty of military obligations during wars. the statitics on suicides for those who have and are serving in the military seems to vary between various sources. The four suicides over the weekend among those in active duty hit the news, while other sources “Suicide – Did you Know” from www.tearsofawarrior.com report that the norm is one suicide among active duty people every 36 hours, and 18 a day for veterans and active duty personnel. This is a nightmare for all of us. With the troops who are in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters experiencing a 80% divorce rate the families are also destructing at an alarming rate. We are a society and a culture which values family. Self-esteem, joy in life, and recovery from PTSD and depression is enhanced when a person suffering from such lives in a loving family. StepFamilies can be just a supportive, but all too often they are treated as part of the problem, not as part of the support system. Honoring the role of stepfamily formation in the midst of this war is an important part of any plan to reduce the suicide rate, and to increase the number of veterans returning home to a supportive honored family — whether it be a stepfamily or the original family they left when first deployed. The children of our veterans who are part of the families who are experiencing divorce and remarriage challenges also need to feel that they have not been relegated to some kind of second class family due the the military stress which may or may not have contributed to their parents divorce. Most of our young men and women who signed up to serve knew they were making sacrifices, but I doubt that 80% knew that their family structure was going to be one of the biggest sacrifices they would make. They and their new stepfamilies need to be honored not shamed for the sacrifices they have undergone.
September 30th, 2010
So many of my clients and friends have felt that some of the people in this country use the term Family Values to demean stepfamilies, and keep their status shamed. As if family values only are shared by those who have never been divorced. It is not my idea of a “family value” to discriminate with hostility and prejudice against those who are divorced and have a goal of living in a loving family structure.
In my experience the family values which I think are the most important: providing 1)a safe and loving family where children can grow up to be loving, creative, confident, successful at their chosen work, relational, spiritual and flexible people, and providing 2) a placewhere two adults form a loving foundation to support each other and their children. A family where adults and children can grow as people in an envornment where love is the primary emotion and foundation for the parental relationship. In fact, the thoughtfulness needed to adapt to the complexities of stepfamily life can truly provide a family that consciously strives for the highest success. It is the high value that adults and children place on family that drives the formation of stepfamily by the vast majority of those who begin that journey. In the past, stepfamilies were often seen by the culture as the highest form of loving family — with the abilty to include those not biologically related, a truly spiritual and selfless commitment to children who otherwise might be in orphanages, on the street, or worse. Modern Western Society has opened its heart to children who otherwise might have no family home, or live in a single parent situation. It would be truly wonderful if those who call themselves stepparents could be proud of the title, and all were aware of what immense selflessness of caring that often coincides with parents who call themselves “step.”
September 11th, 2010
Self-regulation and the challenges of stepfamily were made for each other! Psychologists endlessly discuss and develop ways to help clients regulate their emotions. This means to me that they feel their emotions and choose appropriate behavior and examine their thinking and attitudes. The goal is to feel emotions and then not escalate them to the point where inappropriate and relationally destructive behavior results in damge to self and others. It does not have to be physical damage, although such is of course not acceptable, and can even be illegal. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, inappropriately assigning guilt, shame, or blame can do damage to self-esteem and confidence, relationships and careers. StepFamilies are at times challenging gauntlets to experiencing intense emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, and having to choose appropriate responses. Emotional and psychological strength is a positive outcome if done with conscious intention to be as loving as possible.