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by Lynn Vale from STEPFAMILIES Quarterly

The honeymoon is over. And now it's just you and your spouse, and the stepchild who sits staring suspiciously at you across the breakfast table. Sometimes, as you attempt to merge "yours" and "mine" into "ours," the problems seem overwhelming. But, whether your stepchildren are resident or visiting, it is possible to ease this transition from strangers to family.

Is your stepchild a permanent member of your household? If so, try these five steps to stepfamily success.
  1. Establish marriage as the center of the family "The primary stepfamily faces a set of problems that are different from those faced by the traditional family," according to John Rosemond, author of PARENT POWER. "The biggest hurdle involves the need to establish the marriage as the center of the family." "The marriage must be the most important relationship in the family," he said. "Stepfamilies are no different from other families in this respect." The child may complain about her central position being usurped, particularly if she and her biological parent and a close relationship when they were a single-parent family. However, she will eventually discover that her own sense of security, in fact, is strengthened when the marriage is strong.

  2. Allow for differences while building your own family traditions In trying to blend different backgrounds, histories, and lifestyles, conflicts will certainly arise. Alice, whose 11-year-old stepdaughter, Tammy, has lived with her for the past two years, said, "I wish Tammy liked camping, hiking and picnicking. But she doesn't. Tammy wishes I likes shopping and catching the latest movie releases. But I don't. So we accept those differences and find our common ground elsewhere." Alice and Tammy cook together, take long walks at sunset, and Alice has recently begun teaching Tammy how to operate her camera. While still maintaining their differences, Alice and Tammy are beginning to develop their own traditions and are building a history together. A photo album is a great way to chronicle these new family traditions. Looking through our photo albums, my stepsons and I share memories of birthday parties, a very special trip to Texas, and seven years of putting the star on top of the Christmas tree.

  3. Hold family meetings Children need a chance to vent their frustrations, to plan family entertainment and vacations, and to help find solutions to family problems. These meetings don't have to be held at a specific place and time. When the atmosphere is relaxed and talk is easy, you can begin tossing ideas back and forth. Linda Craven, author of STEPFAMILIES: NEW PATTERNS IN HARMONY, emphasizes the importance of these family meetings: "Many stepfamilies have regular meetings to discuss such things as curfews, chores, and allowances. Everyone gets a chance to say how he or she thinks things should be done. And everyone feels more cooperative for having worked out a plan together.

  4. Send positive signals Through words and actions, you can reach out to a stepchild. Maybe a kiss or hug isn't acceptable at this time, but a hand on the shoulder can say, "I care about you." Praise will also make the child feel better about himself and will encourage him to do what you ask. Did he dart outside without slamming the door this time? Did he really study for that history test and bring his grade up to a B? Remember to praise.

  5. Don't try to replace a biological parent Just in case you forget that you're not the ?real' parent, your stepchild will remind you with the standard stepchild refrain: "I don't have to mind you! You're not my real Mother (Father)!" You can be many things to your stepchild other than parent: authority figure, certainly; but also older friend, confidante, listener-to-tales, sharer-of-secrets. And sometimes, you can be just the person that child needs to talk to, when a parent simply won't do. Dr. Emily Visher, cofounder of the Stepfamily Association of America, and author of HOW TO WIN AS A STEPFAMILY, feels stepparents play a very special role in the lives of their stepchildren. "When children have permission to care about all the adults in their lives, it adds richness and variety to their existence. Each adult has something unique to give a child - whether it is a joyful sense of humor, the talent to tell a good bedtime story, or the ability to share the child's delight in visiting the zoo. The more adults contributing to the child's life, the more opportunities the child has to experience diversity."
Is your stepchild a visiting member of your household? Secondary stepfamilies, too, can take steps to assist them in their journey from strangers to a family.
  1. Give the child a place of her own Whether it's a room of her own or simply a portion of the family bulletin board, the child needs to know that there is some space in the house that's hers and hers alone. Jim and Donna's five-year-old daughter Jessica eagerly anticipates sharing her room with her nine-year-old half sister Marilyn on alternate weekends, during school holidays, and for a month in the summer. Even at this young age, Jessica understands that one drawer and a small portion of the closet in the room are not hers. They belong exclusively to Marilyn. And Marilyn knows that the clothes, books, and games which she leaves behind will be untouched when she returns.

  2. Give responsibility Donna realized the importance of making the visiting stepchild feel like part of the family. Is the child who's spending every other weekend with you a guest or a resident? He really falls into neither category. Giving the child responsibilities will make him a contributing member of the household. Picking up after himself, helping with meal preparation and cleanup, and making his bed will send a clear message that he is at home and not a guest in a hotel. This will also benefit the other members of the family because the responsibility of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the household will be shared. However, it is confusing for a child to live under two sets of rules. Much confusion can be eliminated if you have simple written chore and rule lists for the children to follow.

  3. Establish the same age-appropriate rules for all the children It is easy for a parent to be more lenient with the visiting biological child than with those children who live in the house full time. "After all," the parent rationalizes, "we have so little time together, I don't want to spend it criticizing him." If your husband's resident daughter has to go to bed at 10 p.m. on weekends, is it fair for your visiting son to have the privilege of staying up until midnight? If your resident children have to make their beds and clean their rooms, is it fair for his visiting Sons to be exempt from these duties? Whatever age-appropriate rules you establish for the children in your home, be consistent with all children - biological and step, visiting and resident.

  4. Mentally prepare yourself for the child's arrival Donna said she's found it useful before Marilyn's arrival to use mental imagery. "I picture myself laughing with her, playing with her, enjoying our time together," she said. "Sometimes reality misses this mark, but more often than not, when I've envisioned a great weekend, we have a great weekend." What problems recur whenever your stepchildren come to visit? With resident children, as one harried stepmother explained, "when you're in the midst of family problems, there is not much time for reflection. "With visiting children, you have the advantage of time between visits to find objective solutions to recurring problems."