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Stepfamily Problems

Find tips on dealing effectively with stepfamily problems that may threaten your marriage and your relationship with the children.

Stepfamily Problems

As we've learned, problems leak. It's rare that only one person in a stepfamily is troubled or sad. People affect each other. Then there are all the interdynamics of living together….

Problems in Your Marriage

With all the usual strains of a stepfamily, it's no wonder marriages have such a high failure rate. Pay attention to your marriage, and keep your priorities straight. Watch for problems. Sometimes they can sneak up on you when you aren't looking.

It took an affair for Joe and Sue Ellen to get their priorities in order. They'd been so busy dealing with Joe's son's resistance to Sue Ellen and Sue Ellen's daughter's plunging grades that they'd stopped celebrating life and each other. Joe, desperately needing a break, began a brief affair with his boss at work. After several months of crisis (and some good counseling), Joe and Sue Ellen were back on track. This time they were paying attention to their marriage, as well as to the kids' problems.

Resolving Stepsibling Hostility

Stepsibling hostility is a normal part of living together in a family. Have you ever known sibling children not to fight? You have? Then I promise they aren't spending time with each other.

When you are trying to resolve stepsibling (or sibling) conflict, try to stay neutral and avoid taking sides. Think of yourself as a referee, or let them resolve it by themselves.

One disciplinary approach is to have all the kids take responsibility for a conflict or problem. (Remember, you don't need to be punitive.) There's a bonus if they all get annoyed at you for holding them all responsible: They'll ally themselves together (against you, yeah, but at least they're in agreement now!).

I Kid You Not!

There's a trick I learned back when I was a drama student. The cast of the play just hadn't gelled. Nobody liked each other much, and there was no sense of camaraderie on stage. The play stunk. The night before opening night, the director (a wise and experienced man) called us all together and chewed us out so thoroughly that we all left furious and hurt, but bonded against him! That was exactly what the show needed to give it that needed oomph. We were a hit!

The Specter of Step-Incest

They're not related, technically. They haven't been raised together, so they don't have the built-in taboo family members have against having sex with each other. Susie hasn't seen Bobby in his dirty dydee…. You get the picture. He's a boy, she's a girl…uh oh. Trouble.

When I was in high school, the following horror story happened to two kids (I knew them both) who were going together, and had been for about a year. A year-long relationship means a very serious relationship in high school. John and Kelly were one of the most popular couples around. John's parents were divorced. Kelly's parents were divorced. John's dad and Kelly's mom—you guessed it. They met through the kids, fell in love, and rapidly got married. Now John and Kelly (who had been having a sexual relationship) were suddenly living together like brother and sister.

This story struck chills into every kid's heart in high school (it still gives me the shudders). What could the kids do? Poor John and Kelly. Two months after the marriage, John and Kelly were barely talking to each other. Sixteen was too young for them to be living together as lovers, and living together as siblings was unbearable for them. For each of them, this had been their first love relationship. Friendship felt out of the question. The emotions were too intense. (And what I want to know is, what were those adults thinking of? I know, they weren't thinking at all!)

If you have kids in the house of preteen or teen age, consider these:

  • You're not the thought police, but it's a good idea to monitor potential incestuous situations and keep the bedrooms as far apart as possible.
  • Watch for intense feelings between them. “I hate her!” might be covering up intense attraction.
  • Don't ignore any sexual charge you see; it won't just go away.
  • Discuss it with the kids, even if you don't see anything between them. Assure them that it's normal to feel sexual feelings but that it's not okay to do anything about it.
  • Stress the risks: disease, pregnancy, family breakup, emotional breakdown.
  • Little kids are more likely to develop the normal sibling taboo.
  • If it's occurring under your roof, you have a say in what is and isn't allowed. It is up to you. If the kids are adolescent, sexually involved with each other, and unwilling to stop being involved, one or both of them may need to move out for the health of the entire family.
  • Adult stepsiblings in their 20s or 30s are adults. You cannot control their behavior, but you have a right to react and respond.
  • Don't be afraid to get counseling. The hormones are normal, the situation is difficult, and a therapist may be able to help.

Incest Across Generation Lines

Incest or sexual abuse between parents and children (step or biological) is, unfortunately, a huge problem. It is completely unacceptable and very damaging to the child and the family. If it is going on in your stepfamily (or even if you suspect it is), you need some help getting through this very difficult time.

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