Evelyn de Villers, Ph.D.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
A remarried couple called me for help. They heard from a friend that I not only coached stepfamilies and had written my dissertation on the subject, but also I was a mom and stepmother to seven children. They both said they were madly in love and had recently married, vowing that this time around it was going to be different. Their hope and enthusiasm, however, was beginning to unravel. Their new marriage was complicated by the children they each brought into the picture. He had three and she had two—all between the ages of eight and fifteen.
When they married they knew they would have some challenges, but reality was harder than they’d imagined. An overwhelming sense of frustration and tension was settling into their new stepfamily. They both felt uncertain about what their roles were as stepparents, and some of the children were not adjusting well. I explained to them that it is not unusual, particularly for stepfamilies early on, to feel that the problems they may encounter are too big to handle alone. They often need help, and an experienced coach can be just what is needed to help their new family.
At the heart of the problem for this couple was that the children were not enamored with their new home life or their new stepparent and the children’s unhappiness was creating tension in the house and beginning to create problems between the couple. Some of the children were acting out, breaking the rules, and lashing out at each other and at their stepparent. The couple felt angry but also guilty that they didn’t feel instant love for their stepchildren. When one spouse complained about their partner’s child or imposed discipline, it not only made matters worse with the children but it also created tension and anger between them as a couple.
We focused on three main tasks that would help their family move forward with greater peace and unity: They were to behave toward their stepchildren as though entrusted with a children’s ministry and only the biological parent disciplined each child; they were to create new family rituals to promote family cohesion; and they were to nurture their relationship by making time to be alone.
The sad truth is that second marriages break up more often than first marriages. This is tragic for children who have already suffered loss from their parents’ first divorce. This loss is often the very reason children act out toward their new stepparent or step- siblings.
It’s vitally important that a stepparent understand what they are getting into when it comes to being in the life of a child that is not biologically their own. When stepchildren act out toward stepparents, it’s usually more about the children’s own feelings of loss and the anxiety that change causes than it is about the stepparents’ attitudes and actions.
If the stepparents view their relationship with their stepchildren more as a ministry, a responsibility and opportunity that honors God, then it will feel less like a chore or a burden. It is a beautiful opportunity to love in a Christlike way, that is not about self but about others. What a gift it can be when a stepparent gets the opportunity in the life of a child to exemplify patience, kindness, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love— especially when it’s hard. That’s why I asked this couple to leave the discipline to the biological parent.
As part of their new ministry, the stepparent was to devote time and attention to each stepchild on a daily or weekly basis to build a relationship of trust and caring. The stepparent was to find something that was important to each child and to become involved somehow so that a connection could begin to take place. Time and attention gives an underlying message to children that they are important. For example, the stepfather took his stepson to his favorite professional baseball team’s home game, and baseball became a fun and enthusiastic connection between them. The stepmother took her stepdaughter shopping for a special dress for an upcoming school dance. Afterwards they went to lunch and just had fun. There are many creative ways to devote time and attention in the life of a child.
As an added piece of information, the couple understood that they were not replacing the child’s other biological parent but were adding to the child’s life as another adult who cared for them.
Children can feel cared for and adjust better to their new family structure when the parents implement traditions and shared-family rituals. These traditions and rituals can shape a family’s identity and help children form shared memories with their new family unit. I mentioned to this couple that one of the first things that I did as a new stepmom was to create photo albums for each child. These albums contained happy and funny pictures from our family vacations and special events. Every year I added new pictures to their albums. Our children are grown now, but for years when they would bring a new friend over they would pull out their own album for a show and tell. I also took family pictures, which I framed and put up around the house. Viewing lots of family photos of us happily doing things together promoted family cohesion and happy memories.
My husband and I also made it easy on the children during holidays by being flexible about Thanksgiving, birthdays, and Christmas. Children can become anxious if their biological parents are fighting over holidays. We tried to keep the holidays consistent and predictable, but if a wrench was thrown into our plans we tried to make it as easy as possible on the children by not overreacting and by being flexible. I encouraged this couple to come up with their own special family rituals and traditions and involve their children in the planning. Shared rituals can help create cohesiveness and a sense of family. I also warned them that everyone might resent forced activities, which can be destructive to the relationships they were building.
A sense of family promotes feelings of security for children and parents, but you can’t make your family work if you don’t make your marriage work. Raising children in a stepfamily can feel like chaos at times. Finding time to be alone and nurturing the marital relationship is mandatory and will make raising children and stepchildren easier if each spouse feels supported by, loved by, and important to the other. It is also a great role model for children to see a happy, loving couple spending time together. I explained to this couple a few ideas of what they can do to nurture their relationship:
- Find time daily to talk with each other in conversations that have nothing to do with children. Talking on the phone for a few minutes or sitting down for a few minutes after work or before bed can become the best part of the day.
- Go for a walk and get out of the house. My husband and I walked on the beach nearly everyday, and it was something we looked forward to.
- Plan a getaway when the children are with their other parent(s).
- Help the children understand the importance of your alone time together without interruptions.
- Show affection in front of the children, like holding hands, supporting each other’s views, and treating each other with respect and importance.
- Pray together or read a daily devotional together. Focusing on God’s will and God’s ways is a priceless gift and often the glue needed in a stepfamily.
When a couple feels good about their relationship, everything else seems to fit into place and they’ll feel like better parents as well.
No one says it is easy. Those in stepfamilies must overcome a lot of pain, grief, and loss from the past. This is especially true for the children involved.
Coaching this couple and many other stepfamilies is also a ministry of sorts. Divorce is so prevalent in America and families are breaking apart so often, even among the Christian population, that today stepfamilies are now the most-common basic unit in American society. Coaching stepfamilies can provide a road map, educational resources, and a godly perspective, so that more American stepfamilies have a better chance at success.
Coaching the Coach Tip:
The U.S. Census Bureau provides stepfamily statistics: By 2010, stepfamilies were predicted to be more common than the conventional (two biological parents and children or single-parent households. Now in 2013, stepfamilies are the most common form of the American family. Nearly 10 million children under age eighteen are part of stepfamilies, and more than 1,000 new stepfamilies are formed each day. Sadly, second marriages break up more often than first marriages (60 percent, compared to just under 50 percent, respectively). Second marriages with children break up even more often. Coaching these families to manage realistic expectations, nurture the marriage, develop appropriate stepparenting roles, and find fulfillment in honoring God in the lives of children is a real opportunity for clients’ own personal growth and for preventing another family breakup. Coaching them is teaching, among other things, about love of the highest order. Coaching Christians to succeed in a stepfamily is bringing light to an otherwise dark place.
Evelyn de Villiers, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association, the International Christian Coaching Association, and an alumni member of Dr. John Townsend’s Life Coaching Program. She teaches and speaks at churches, schools, conferences and retreats. Her office is in La Jolla, CA and she lives with her husband in San Diego where they are empty nesters after raising their blended family of seven children. They have a very handsome grandson whom they love to spoil.
Georgia Shaffer, M.A., is a professional speaker, certified Life Coach and the author of four books including Coaching the Coach: Lessons from Christian Coaches. She is is a regular columnist for Christian Coaching Today and a board member of the International Christian Coaches Association (ICCA). Georgia is on the teaching team of AACC’s Professional Life Coaching Training. She specializes in coaching coaches, women and communicators To find out more, visit www.GeorgiaShaffer.com.