They Spur Members To Grow Emotionally
Tatiana Tannenbaum grappled with a classic stepfamily struggle when she moved from Moscow, Russia to Portland, Ore. and married Leb Tannenbaum: Her three new stepsons weren't very happy to have her in their lives.
To earn her stepsons' acceptance, she cooked Russian meals, which the boys rejected. At times, she spoke English and felt as if no one understood her. It seemed all her efforts to win them over failed, she says.
Finally, she realized she had to love herself and accept the fact that her stepsons might never connect with her, she says. Once she embraced this philosophy, she began to empathize with her stepsons' point of view, she says. "I was able to see what it was like having me in their life. I realized they didn't always have it easy," she says.
Everyday, people in stepfamilies, like Tannenbaum, learn to grow in ways they never thought possible, experts say.
Adults learn to empathize with their stepchildren, keep their anger in check, communicate well with their partners and spend time with ex-spouses they don't really want in their lives. "Nothing will force growth and maturity like stepcoupling and stepparenting as you go through the adjustment pains and come out the other end," says Susan Wisdom, co-author of the book Stepcoupling and a licensed professional counselor in Portland.
Bill Hays, a stepfather in Corvallis, Ore., experienced some adjustment pains once he became part of a stepfamily. "Early on, I tried to use "sergeant/major" stuff on my two boys and my wife's kids. My stepson would fall to the floor in tears. I realized I had to slow down and change," he says. "Men want to be understood and want people to do things their way. I had to learn to back off on that. I told my wife, 'I have to follow your lead on disciplining and motivating your kids.' I had to make some big changes," he says.
The desire to change in order to create a successful stepfamily often prompts adults to stretch and find ways to communicate better with each other, adds Joyce Hays, Bill Hays's wife.
"Our marriage is much stronger because my husband and I have to be a united front," says Mrs. Hays. "My husband and I have to do a lot of talking about issues before we can talk with the kids," she says. "In a stepfamily, the adults really have to figure out how to be a much stronger team than in a nuclear family. You learn emotional skills you thought you'd never learn."
Kids Grow, Too
Adults aren't the only ones in stepfamilies who stretch emotionally. Children in stepfamilies must learn to relate to divorced parents, stepsiblings and stepparents, a challenge that often teaches them important interpersonal skills, says Dr. Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America. "Children in stepfamilies learn a lot of interpersonal skills, like fighting fair and reading people's faces and interpreting their tones of voice," she says.
And they often grow up living in two cultures: Mom's house and Dad's house, where there may be very different expectations about TV-watching, nutrition and staying up late. Those two cultures often teach children tolerance for people's differences, says Engel.
At the Haley house in Portland, Ore., Shauna Haley's stepdaughter, Madison, has learned to follow a different set of rules than when she's at her mom's house, says Haley. Rather than staying up late to watch TV, she turns it off and gets to bed early.
"It's good for kids to grow up knowing there's more than one way of doing things," says Haley.
In addition to learning about multiple ways of doing things, children in stepfamilies are exposed to a broader definition of family and a place to work on their social skills, says Mr. Hays.
By addressing troublesome topics during their monthly family meetings, the Hays children hone their interpersonal skills by working out issues at home. A few years ago, Mr. Hays's son, Sam, took advantage of the family meeting to practice an important social skill: asking a girl - in this case his 13-year-old stepsister, Megan - to stop giving him a hard time at school.