Healthy Stepparenting #2: Recognize the Impact of Loyalty Conflict

Loyalty conflict is a foreign term to a nuclear family. But for stepfamilies, it can be an unfortunate reality, resulting in crippling emotions for stepchildren and unseen barriers toward relationship building with stepparents.

Loyalty conflict occurs when a stepchild experiences conflicting feelings between his biological parent and his stepparent. It can also occur when a child feels emotionally torn between two biological parents and is forced to take sides.

Children naturally have strong loyalties toward their biological parents. As they build a relationship with a stepparent, they may experience guilt and confusion because they worry about the impact on their non-residential biological parent. When stepchildren struggle with conflicting emotions, they will remain loyal to their biological parent, shutting out their stepparent and any emotional ties to him/her.

If a stepparent tries to compete with the biological parent or win the child over, the loyalty conflict will increase. The stepchild may feel that enjoying a relationship with his stepparent is hurtful to his biological parent. These feelings are compounded when an insecure biological parent discourages a relationship with the stepparent.

In order to help combat these feelings for stepchildren, stepparents must never criticize the biological parent or appear in competition with them. The stepchildren should be allowed continued contact and communication with the other biological parent without a threat of anyone hindering that relationship.

In time, stepchildren learn it’s okay to love a stepparent in addition to their biological parent. It takes longer in homes where the step-relationship is discouraged by the other parent but the stepparent has no control over that. Once again, stepparents will find that time and patience are on their side.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

Live by Faith, and Not by Explanation

Do you ever think if you could simply understand why certain things happen, it would be easier to get on with life? I have begged God for explanations at times, wanting a logical answer as to what was happening and why. But instead, I find God saying, “You can trust what I’m doing through faith, even if you don’t understand it right now.”

I was thinking about the relationships between my two daughters and their father this morning. They have had very little contact with him for years as he lingered in and out of addiction, homelessness, and general dysfunction. They’ve bonded with my husband, referring to him as Dad, and allowing him to be a father to them. His stepparenting has provided unending love and nurturing for them during critical years.

But their birth father has re-entered the picture, wanting to be a part of their lives. I want to say, “It’s too late. Go away. We don’t need you around.” I don’t trust him or see how anything good can come of his intrusion in our lives. But I’m trying to allow my girls to determine the relationship they want to have with him.

It’s not easy. I want to detail the sacrifices I made to put him through medical school, only to watch him lose his medical license to addiction. I want to outline the expensive rehab centers he attended again and again, only to choose the bottle every time upon leaving. I want to complain about his disregard for financial help during the girls’ upbringing, only giving excuses and lies of when he’ll start helping.

But that’s not what my girls need. They know he’s been an absent figure during their childhood years and they know why. It’s now their choice to determine whether they will allow him to be part of their lives.

I wish I understood why he suddenly determined he deserves a significant role in their lives. I wish I understood why my girls have to go through yet another emotional entanglement as they sort through their feelings toward him.

But despite what I understand, I am confident God is in control and will work out the details of their relationships, without my help.

Setting Goals and Your Stepfamily

I love a new year. It’s a great time to consider changes we want to make, successes we’ve had and challenges we’ve dealt with.

Goal setting plays an important role in making changes or setting new priorities for our family relationships. If we want positive action to take place, we need to be intentional in setting goals toward changes we desire.

Goal setting can start small and develop further when change begins to occur. It’s helpful to start with areas that need the most attention in your family and form goals surrounding the most urgent needs. Some goals may need everyday attention while other goals require sporadic but concentrated involvement.

Goals change as stepfamilies grow and mature. When our children were younger our goals focused more on forming strong relationships with each other and creating unity in our family. We also focused on keeping the lines of communication open between all parties involved in the parenting process. As our children have grown older, our goals now center more individually, focusing on specific needs of each child. There is less communication with others in the parenting process and we are comfortable with and thankful for the unity achieved in our family.

The two girls pictured above are my stepdaughter, Adrianne(24), and daughter, Jamie (19). Ten years ago the two girls could hardly stay in the same room together for over an hour without an argument. Today they easily enjoy each other’s company while shopping together, playing games together, and exchanging constant conversation about boyfriends, school, work, or life in general. Years ago it would have been easy to quit trying for a friendly relationship to ever form between the two of them. But we never gave up on our goal of unity within our family relationships.

Goal setting allows us to identify our strengths and weaknesses in our family and work toward desired changes. It also allows us to affirm ourselves for setting goals and reaching them.

It’s a brand new year with 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,600 minutes.
Our goals this year will be reached only if we take time to set them first.

Holiday Tips for Stepfamilies – Part Ten

Holiday Tip # 10 – Do the Right Thing

I worked for a dynamic leader in the corporate world years ago whose motto in business was “Do the Right Thing.” He grew his business by treating others with respect, making decisions with customers and vendors based on doing what was right.

That same motto can make a difference in stepfamilies. Doing the right thing may require sacrifices on our part and doesn’t always come naturally, but can positively affect those around us.

My girls’ dad is in town right now for a few days. It has been over five years since they’ve seen him and there was alot of anxiety and mixed feelings about his coming. Because of his struggle with addiction, their relationship with him has been unstable and full of turmoil much of the time. But as he approaches his mid-50’s and tries to get his life in order, he wants to reconcile his relationships. Although I know it’s the right thing to allow the girls a relationship with him, we have done fine without him for years. So I’ve had to work hard at being positive toward him and his desire to interact with us.

Doing the right thing today means I get out of the way and let go of control in their relationships. My girls are young adults, mature enough to make wise choices. Because I’m well acquainted with his unpredictable behavior I want to rescue them from the heartache that may come their way. But instead I will pray for healthy interaction and give them the freedom to determine what kind of relationship they want to have with him.

It’s not always easy to do the right thing. It may require difficult choices. But it can make a positive difference in our stepfamily relationships.

Merry Christmas Eve!

Holiday Tips for Stepfamilies #9 – Tame Your Tongue

With Christmas Day upon us, it may be inevitable that we see people we don’t like or want to spend time with over the next few days. If we are exchanging our children with the other household, we may see ex-in-laws or grandparents we don’t see often. Healthy exchange gives us the opportunity to show our children how mature adults interact and get along, even in stressful situations.

Stepchildren often have fragile egos and sensitive spirits from losses they have endured. When we talk to other members of their family with kind words, it gives our children the freedom to love their other family without guilt. Healing can occur as they watch their parents in healthy conversation with each other.

Taming our tongue requires us to exercise self-control with our speech. It means we think about what we’re going to say first and then decide if it’s helpful and necessary to be said. We choose our words carefully so we don’t offend those we’re talking to. It requires a conscious effort on our part as we communicate with those around us.

When my children were younger and could never seem to get along, I made them memorize a Scripture verse that can be applied to each of us as we seek to tame our tongue:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29

Holiday Tips for Stepfamilies – Part Seven

Holiday Tip #7 – Change what you can, accept what you cannot

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the

I can list dozens of circumstances within our stepfamily I wish I could change. Instead I strive to accept difficult situations, looking for positive nuggets among the challenges.

I wish I could change that my ex-husband is an alcoholic, resulting in homelessness some years, negligence in his relationship with our girls, and disregard for child support payments. Instead I choose to accept his instability, including lack of financial help, despite escalating expenses with one daughter in college and the other one close behind. I choose to accept that the girls need extra love and guidance from me to sort through their feelings and disappointments.

I wish I could change that my stepchildren lost their mother to cancer five years ago, resulting in painful emotions, particularly during the holiday season. I wish I could rescue them from their loss. Instead I choose to stand beside them on good days and bad, listening to heart-wrenching feelings that children should not have to experience. I choose to allow them the freedom to make good choices and not-so-good choices, praying for healing and maturity through the process.

I wish I could change that our eight-year-old son sees evidence of divorce in his immediate family everyday. I wish I could change the circumstances when he asks why his older brother and sisters have more than one mom or dad. Instead I choose to answer his questions honestly, hoping to give him the tools he needs to engage in healthy relationships as he matures.

We make choices everyday that allow for peace and serenity or anger and anxiety. During this holiday season, I choose to seek serenity as I change what I can and accept what I cannot.