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Step by Step Parenting - Take the Hostage out of Family Negotiations

Stepparenting is a challenge as unique as your new nuclear family. Make some sense out of it by taking it one day at a time and stop trying to be everything to everybody. Everybody has a role now, and establishing some semblance of sanity is numero uno in maintaining civil family relationships. Read on for tips on how to take the trials out of the tribulations.

Michael McMillan just wants everybody to get along. Taking his 10 year old twins, Samantha and Samuel, to the local park, the Boston accountant decides to call a sitter for the evening so he and his bride, Stephanie, can spend some quality time together. The twist? Michael and Stephanie are on their honeymoon. And they brought Michael's kids.

A disaster? Not in the least, says Michael. Before the honeymoon, Michael's kids weren't well acquainted with Stephanie. "But then we spent nights on the beach and took long walks together, and in the end, my kids really bonded with Stephanie. She's a special kind of stepmother". Something new? "Not necessarily," says Rose Cohen, a family law specialist in Woodland Hills, Calif., and an expert in family negotiations. "What you're seeing here is a relatively civilized component of an old method: the way to the family relationship through the heart. What they're trying to do is connect the cord at the inception."

Did it work?

"Yes!" they chant in unison.

Take Charge Without Barge

In 1990, statistics showed a 50% failure rate for second marriages, with the majority of these relationships disintegrating because of children from the previous union. Marriage counseling is at an all time high, with 40% of couples polled admitting they had tried some form of therapy to assuage feeling of despair, anger, or just plain inadequacy. Mediation is considered the best form of negotiating divorce settlements and custody battles.

Mental health professionals tend to agree that time is absolutely of the essence when it comes to dealing with parent-child estrangement. According to Family Law News, the official publication of the State Bar of California Family Law Section, if such contact is halted between a parent and child, a maladaptive pattern known as Parental Alienation Syndrome can be developed that may seem unalterable. Coined by Richard A. Gardner, the term generally implies that one parent is consciously or unconsciously attempting to sabotage the parental relationship, while assuming there is no real reason to do so. The huge dilemma regarding these cases is that extreme accusations are made without due cause or any substantiation, and courts are inundated with accusations of abuse from angry parents, to the point where the courts have recognized yet another phenomenon: Sexual Assault in Divorce. SAID is used so frequently that the accuser will almost immediately lose custody if this accusation is utilized without tangible evidence. The Bridget marks case illustrates the saddest: although the former model became pregnant with twins unwanted by her married lover, her unmerited allegations of sexual abuse resulted in her losing custody. "Notably, there are plenty of abuse situations, but to interject them at the last minute is what's known as 'priming the kids,' and is a quick way to lose custody. Calm down and think: will this hurt my kids or help them?" says Rose.

The Power of Proactive Stepparenting

The national statistics for divorcing couples as of 2004:

  • Nearly 50 % of second marriages end because of the other person's kids
  • More than 60% of divorced parents polled said they left the second marriage because of "lack of emotional support" from their new spouse.
  • 44% said they did not want to have children with their new spouse.

The twin tormentors? Each brings their kids - not to mention the ex, the former in laws, and practically everybody and their brother into the melee with unreasonable expectations. "In this case, there's no boundaries," says Mary Lynn Rapier, M.A., a therapist in Santa Monica, Calif., and a child of her parents multi marriages. Her story for success ? "Easy," she says. "Flexibility - and BOUNDARIES!"

Atilla the Fun

As a new stepparent, you need to know what you're up against. Everyone is waiting in the wings. "What's important here is to keep your sense of humor," says Mary Lynn. "You must be able to take things in stride and laugh at yourself. Everything just cannot be a great big deal!" Teach them that you're there to help them, talk to them, be open and to communicate with them. "If you can get them to open up," says Rae, "you're miles ahead of the game. It's almost unbelievable how little families communicate, then come to counseling hopping mad!"

Make it Convivial. "You are now known as a step someone, so remember: you are not their parent, and you should not try to take the place of the parent," she says. "Listen to your stepchildren when they scream from the rooftops: 'You're not my real parent!' And they're right: You are not their real parent!"

Be a Class Act

Never, ever lie, not for a moment, regardless of how trivial. Lying seriously jeopardizes your credibility. "Resist the temptation altogether by just saying, 'I don't wish to answer that.' You'll save face and you won't be sorry – where on the other hand, you'll have the entire family against you if you fabricate one single detail," says Eva.

Enforce strict boundaries. See Step 2: Your step-children are right: you are not their parent. You will hear this chanted like a mantra for all of your stepparenting life. A step-parent is indeed different from a "real" parent, so maintaining rigid functions will actually allow you more flexibility in your role. For example, it's easy to pretend it's Christmas every day, "but by doing this you're setting yourself up for trouble," says Rose. "You may feel compelled to buy, spend, and over compensate for the kids for whatever reason, but you must refrain from doing this."

For example, you could make it clear to your stepkids that it is perfectly appropriate to give gifts on holidays and birthdays. By contrast, it is not your role to provide them with clothes, schoolbooks, tuition, etc., because indeed: they are not your children. "This is the role of the parent," says attorney J. Michael Batallion, a family law specialist in Belton, Missouri. "It doesn't matter if you're a millionaire and the natural parent is a pauper: If it doesn't seem right to give it, if you believe you're overstepping your boundaries, then don't do it." And remember to make it okay to respect each other. "You are not the natural parent, but that parent deserves your loyalty, too," says Rose. "This is a real 'do unto others' situation." And finally, understand that someday your step kids will grow up and hopefully appreciate you and all your endeavors. "Try not to become a statistic," says Michael. "You want to help your step kids become a work of art, not a piece of work."

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