Stepfamilies and Blended Families in Today's Society
Stepfamilies and blended families are becoming prevalent in today’s society as adults choose to remarry and/or cohabitate with a new partner. When one or both partners bring a child from a previous relationship into their relationship, they create a blended family or cohabitating stepfamily. Current studies indicate there are unique challenges faced by blended families and/or stepfamilies than problems faced within a contemporary family. These families deal with lack of guidelines for their family situation which leaves them with the disadvantage of no idea what to expect or how to handle tough situations while merging into a different family unit.
Statistics conclude that second marriages actually have a higher divorce rate than first time marriages due to additional stresses of trying to blend a family. It can also be found that more than forty percent of adults in the U.S. have at least one step-relative within their family. Another fact of interest is that 1 out of 3 children will live in a remarried or cohabitating stepfamily household at some point before they reach adulthood. Therefore, it is vital that single parents, married or unmarried step-couples, and blended families become aware of the problems that might be experienced and focus on enhancing relationship skills and quality in remarriage and stepfamilies.
The goal of this program is to minimize stepfamily myths and negativity experienced by step- parent/child roles. Furthermore, this program will enhance marital quality and interpersonal relationships within remarriages, blended families, and stepfamilies through research based, educational curriculum. As a result, parents will have realistic expectations and healthy communication skills to work through problems within the family leading to a family that thrives instead of experiences further relationship decline.
“Stepfamilies are more common in the United States than any other industrialized country” (Sweeney, 2010, p. 671). According to U.S. Census in 2012, 12 million children under age 18 live within a blended family or stepfamily (Higginbotham & Skogrand, 2010). Family units are being reshaped across the United States as many family’s experience changing arrangements in parenthood and romantic partners. When one or more partners, that are parents, bring a child from a previous relationship, they are considered a stepfamily. When these partners decide to add to their family and have their own children together, they have a “yours, mine, and ours” situation which is known as a blended family. With these arrangements bring a different set of challenges than what contemporary families typically deal with.
The Challenges Faced by Blended Families and Stepfamilies
There are few cultural rules or guidelines for helping stepfamilies or blended families navigate the difficult issues involved with sharing children’s relationships with more than two biological parents. This leads to uncertainty in the stepfamily or blended family relationship about sensitive subjects “such as proper use of kinship terms, the appropriate role of stepparents in children’s lives, and the rights and obligations associated with stepfamily membership” (Sweeney, 2010, p. 667). Those aren’t the only considerations though as both partners also bring their own parenting styles, an existing foundation of partnership, and extended family ties. There are many choices and decisions to be negotiated during family formation, as well as maintaining a family and its functioning (Sweeney, 2010).
Relationship stressors such as time, money, and intimacy are common issues affecting all families. However, stepfamilies have additional stressors such as a stepparent’s role and what it will include, financial arrangements between different households, involvement of nonresidential parents and scheduling of visitation (Higginbotham & Skogrand, 2010). “A stress and instability
perspective suggests that changes in family structure may disrupt the equilibrium of family environments, with resulting stress leading to conflict within families” (Sweeney, 2010, p. 674). These stepfamily issues can distract the family from enhancing and building on their relationships due to increased conflict and sensitivity of the subjects (Higginbotham & Skogrand, 2010). It has been noted that for about 5-7 years after the stepfamily forms, the family may experience elevated stress and an adjustment to the new family structure. However, this time frame may be shorter if parents marry/remarry when their children are younger (Sweeney, 2010).
Meta-analyses have shown prevention and interventions such as relationship education classes do improve family communication and conflict management in stepfamilies (Higginbotham & Skogrand, 2010). Programs designed for stepfamilies and/or blended families are most effective in the format of a group session with families of similar circumstances due to gaining a sense of social support, sharing similar family experiences, and the ability to gain feedback from others (Skogrand, Torres, & Higginbotham, 2010). By having classes in group format, it enhances and facilitates learning. This also lets the participants realize they are not the only ones to go through some of the unique experiences associated with creating a new family structure through the concept of normalization (Skogrand, Torres, & Higginbotham, 2010).
When it comes to stepfamily education, it has been suggested that the most effective person to teach and facilitate a class on stepfamily and/or blended family education is an individual that is part of a stepfamily themselves. Clinical research does support “it has long been purported that ‘‘receivers’’ tend to perceive ‘‘sources’’ similar to themselves as more credible” (Higginbotham & Myler, 2010, p. 74). This concept is supported through a humanistic theory approach that is “person-centered” (Higginbotham & Myler, 2010).
The Importance of Building Relationship Skills in Blended Families and Stepfamilies
Education classes for these families should include content on building the couple’s relationship as essential to reducing marital stress and vulnerability of the couple’s relationship within the stepfamily. “The couple relationship creates the family, yet it’s the newest relationship in the family and therefore the most vulnerable” (Adler-Baeder, Higginbotham, Schramm, & Paulk, 2007, p. 34). Content to include in the program are general relationship building skills such as communication, conflict management, and friendship building (Adler-Baeder & Higginbotham, 2004). The Sound Marital House Theory can be used help teach the foundation of principles for deep marital friendship (Duncan & Goddard, 2017). This theory focuses on three components known as enhancing love maps, nurturing fondness and admiration for your spouse, and turning toward each other rather than away (Duncan & Goddard, 2017).
Another area that should be included during sessions with participants should focus on the stepparent-stepchild relationship. “Factors related to stepparent-stepchild relationship quality include parenting behaviors, stepchild characteristics, and stepchild behaviors” (Adler-Baeder & Higginbotham, 2004, p. 450). A stepparent may find it beneficial to learn more about child development, especially if they do not have much experience with children, so there are realistic expectations when it comes to typical versus atypical behaviors (Adler-Baeder, Higginbotham, Schramm, & Paulk, 2007). Program content in this area should include “strategies to build positive stepparent-stepchild relationships” such as “easing into a parenting role over time, not expecting a parent-child type bond if the stepchild is older” (Adler-Baeder & Higginbotham, 2004, p. 451).
Studies have shown that including content in the program for relationships with former partners and positive co-parenting is invaluable. When one or both partners in a new relationship continue to deal with an exspouse or expartner, it often becomes challenging. It has been noted that a highly negative or very involved relationship with a former spouse/partner can be detrimental to new relationship quality. “Emotionally divorcing and establishing appropriate boundaries with a former spouse are essential for healthy remarriages” (Adler-Baeder & Higginbotham, 2004, p. 452). Program content should discuss healthy communication and conflict management skills. Also, encourage a cooperative, businesslike approach with former spouse/partner rather than an intimate relationship (Adler-Baeder, Higginbotham, Schramm, & Paulk, 2007).
Stepfamilies and blended families will benefit from a program whose goal is to: (1) eliminate myths about stepfamilies and negativity portrayed through media of stepparent/stepchild roles and, (2) enhance communication skills and conflict management for not only the step-couple but the stepfamily as a whole so they may have the tools to thrive in their new family structure.
Prevention and Intervention for Improved Family Communication and Conflict Management
Using the Family Systems theory for design of Family Life Education programs, the goal of this program is to emphasize inputs (communication, interpersonal relationship skills, conflict management) to enhance predictable outputs (marital quality, relationship quality between stepparent-stepchild, enhanced family relationships). This program will consist of a six-session workshop held over the course of six weeks with a two-hour session meeting weekly. This time frame allows the participants to take in any new information presented, think about how to apply it to their lives at home, and practice new skills in a non-stressful setting and situation. This program will include parallel sessions for parents and children. There will be childcare available for couples with children below age six. Below are guidelines for the first session to be handled by a Certified Family Life Educator’s(CFLE). The first session will utilize a personal narrative adaptation of the group discussion (Duncan & Goddard, 2017). This allows participants to relate to the educator, as well as each other, and fosters learning as participants find similarities in experiences within the new family structures or stepfamilies.
Goal of Session One: to eliminate myths associated with stepfamilies and/or stepparent/stepchild roles while building on realities
Learning Objective-Participants will:
o Take a short quiz on myths versus realities of remarriages and stepfamilies to identify each participants own feelings on subject
o Compare and contrast statements from the quiz to correctly identify myth versus realities of remarriages and stepfamilies
o Discuss any further discrepancies not covered and allow time for group discussion through personal narratives
o Identify three positive characteristics of stepfamilies
Preparation: Classroom and/or meeting space secured with at least three available rooms. Two rooms to serve as classrooms and one room as a place for childcare. Meeting space should have a place for an overhead or computer projector.
o Handout and pencils
Suggested script for opening of first session:
“Welcome. I am glad to have you here this evening. Over the next month and a half, we will work through this program to identify emotions and areas of stress and conflict that you and your family may be experiencing. We will learn ways to improve communication and handle conflict between each family member to enhance the relationship quality and happiness of your family.
Let’s begin by thinking about myths associated with stepfamilies and the stepparent/stepchild relationship. I am going to pass out a handout with a short quiz to complete on myths versus realities of remarriages and stepfamilies. After the quiz, we will discuss the statements and whether they are true or false. We will then have time for a discussion where you can share a personal experience, if you would like, that relates to any of the myths versus realities from the quiz.”
The Most Effective Person to Teach and Facilitate a Class on Blended Family Education
o After the opening, give participants a handout (see Appendix C) and pencil to complete a short quiz (Adler-Baeder, Higginbotham, Schramm, & Paulk, 2007), which is expected to take approximately 20 minutes. Following the quiz, each statement will be discussed and why the statement is true or false in relation to remarriages and stepfamilies. This part of the class is expected to take about 25 minutes. After that, a 15-minute refreshment break will be offered. After the break, a group discussion will be facilitated through personal narrative that allows participants to share their experiences, relate to one another, and build
support for one another. This discussion is expected to last for approximately 30 minutes. The educator will then talk about where some of the myths about remarriages and stepfamilies come from such as media that will last about 10 minutes. In closing, the last 15 minutes will be spent by encouraging all participants to collaborate about three positive characteristics of stepfamilies.
Brief Outline of Session Two:
Learning Objectives-Participants will:
o Learn about child development stages
o Analyze and address issues between the stepparent and stepchild
o Find strategies for building and enhancing the stepparent/stepchild relationship
o Begin by using a cartoon clip for an icebreaker for the group session.
o Talk about child developmental stages to make participants more aware of age appropriate behaviors. Some behaviors may not be a stepfamily issue but more of something the child is going through developmentally.
o Discuss and address issues faced between stepparent and stepchild relationships and give feedback on ways to work through these issues.
o Further develop skills by separating the participants into buzz groups and present a problem scenario for the group to come up with a solution. The scenario should be placed on an overhead or computer projector to keep the group stay on focus (Duncan & Goddard, 2017).
Marketing and Partnership Plan
Families that will benefit from stepfamily and blended family education classes to enhance family relationship skills and communication will include remarried parents, unmarried cohabitating parents, and single parents (whose next marriage will create a stepfamily). The age range of parents in stepfamilies will range from early 20s to mid-60s. These parents will be from a wide range of ethnicities, race, and socioeconomic status. The majority of participants will fall between a conservative and liberal attitude range. Some participants will bring opinions and beliefs that are more conservative that will serve as a barrier to their learning experience. Media habits and internet use may also hinder growth due to how the media portrays stepfamilies.