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Video: Fixing families

TODAY
updated 4/14/2005 11:22:19 AM ET 2005-04-14T15:22:19

There are more than 22 million stepfamilies in America, and each one comes with its own set of challenges in combining different attitudes and lifestyles. Psychotherapist and family mediator M. Gary Neuman, the author of "Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way," was invited on "Today" to share advice on how these new families can come together and, with minimum conflict, build a shared life.

How common is it for two families to have problems blending?
Quite common because most people don't have a real plan of how to make their new blended family work.

What can you do to fix an already bad situation?
First, you need to be open with each other and decide to be on the same team. The parents need to realize where their family has gone and how they'll need to take control by dealing with these issues. Then the whole family has to sit together and start talking about the past and how to change the future. Some apologies might need to be made and some new agreements will have to happen. Kids should be allowed to be open about how they feel as long as they talk in a courteous manner.  Mostly, you have to make a conscious effort to do family things together, whether it's a board game or an outing.

The parents also need to make sure that the kids feel comfortable in their house — the stepparent must really go overboard making sure that the kids are comfortable. The stepparent should let the kids know it's their home, and they can raid the fridge and pantry and choose some new paint and sheets for their room. And if there are existing rules in the home, be open to tweaking them with the input of your new spouse and stepkids.

When is it too late to repair mistakes?
It's never too late because kids are great at honest talk. They can understand that their parents made real mistakes that affected their family, and these kids can even learn from these mistakes.

What can you do from the start to best blend your families?
First, create a plan of how to blend this family. So many families think they can come together under one roof and everything will just fall into place.  Well, it doesn't. Remember, you fell in love with your new husband or wife — but that doesn't mean your kids will. You've got to come up with a plan: Who takes care of the kids, how much should the stepparent pitch in, what will the rules of the house be, are kids responsible for chores, how much time does the biological parent need alone with his or her kids, how much time will you all spend together, will you take a vacation with kids or without them, who disciplines, who punishes, etc. Work hard at creating consistent time together so that everyone develops a comfort with each other. Set up family dinners, meaningful family pursuits — visiting the old-age home together weekly, making pies for the neighbor who just had a baby — and new family traditions, like Friday nights becoming family pizza-and-video night. Too many families just throw everyone together for a 10-day vacation and have a terrible time because the family isn't used to being around each other so much.

Most importantly, talk openly as a family about what is and what is not working for everyone. As long as everyone speaks respectfully, it'll work.

What is a stepparent's role?
I've found that the best vision for stepparents is to see themselves as an uncle or aunt. That relationship can be incredibly meaningful, yet uncles and aunts are not in charge of raising their nephews and nieces. They can hold confidences unless they feel it's so serious that they must tell mom or dad. Also, we're not close to all of our uncles and aunts. Those are relationships that have to be developed, and respect is earned. I think this kind of perspective helps a stepparent to recognize how important a role she can play in her stepchild’s life, yet helps the stepparent maintain respect for the biological parent's role at the same time.

Who should do the disciplining?
It's always a good rule of thumb to have the biological parent provide the actual consequences or punishments. Otherwise, every kid feels the same thing — who put you in charge? Please remember, you two fell in love, the child is just an innocent bystander here with enormous changes being forced on her. This doesn't mean that the stepparent can't report to the biological parent that the child did something wrong and deserves consequences. It also mean the stepparents can tell the kid (if the biological parent isn't around) to stop some offensive behavior. But when it comes to grounding the kid or taking something away, that's the job of the biological parent.

What happens when you have different ways of parenting?
There has to be some compelling reason why children are treated differently. There's nothing wrong with one child close in age having a different bedtime or items due to individual circumstances. But parents have to be ready to work together to minimize these differences. Partners have to realize that if they see parenting so differently, that may be a reason to push off marriage until they have a better sense of how they'll be more united in their approach.

What do you do when you're spouse's ex turns the stepchild against you?
It really becomes the job of the biological parent to deal with this one. Mom or dad who's now married to the stepparent needs to help the child understand that caring for her stepparent is not disloyal to the biological parent. For example, dad would need to explain that mom may have her personal reasons for being upset with stepmom, but the kid needs to find a way to allow this stepparent into her life as a kindness to dad. Of course, he first needs to asses if perhaps stepmom is doing some things that might be offensive and be willing to honestly listen to his kid and see if some changes might need to be made.

Sixty-six percent of those living together or remarried break up when children are involved, according to stepfamily.org. That's a higher statistic than first marriages; why is that?
It's quite simple. This time around, there is no honeymoon and it's no longer about two people. There are complicated mixes and it takes extra effort and attention, as we've discussed above, to make it work. If not, then we get very mad. We love our kids dearly and nothing tends to upset us more than when we feel our kids aren't being treated kindly.

How should parents who are thinking of getting remarried conduct their dating life?
Ideally, parents should not date seriously or introduce someone serious in their kid's life for the first year after separation. There are many reasons for this. First, the kids need a year or so to adjust to this new family system and deal with the hurt and sadness of their family loss. Second, I think any adult should use a year to discover some things about his responsibility in the failure of the marriage before trying again with the same results. Most people say they're divorced because their spouse was crazy or they were young and stupid when they got married. Both of those reasons avoid any personal role, and any hopes of getting into a healthier relationship the next time around. Kids are much more open to a stepparent when he comes in after some time from the divorce. When the parents wait a year, often the kids are happy for that parent, even if it carries some sadness that their parents aren't getting back together.

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