Thursday, May 15, 2008

Predictable Role Confusion in Step

This article comes from Stepfamily Foundation and was written by Jeannette Lofas and Trisha O'Shea. Both have been in steprelationships and are very involved in making a difference in stepfamily living.

Dr. Lofas is the founder of Stepfamily Foundation. For more information on her and her organization, go to

Roles – What Works and What Doesn’t Work

by Jeannette Lofas and Trisha O’Shea

1) Biological Father


The greatest curse that awaits the biological father after divorce and/or in a re-coupled situation is that he puts aside his job of being a father/guide/leader to his children. Instead he tends to not discipline his children, instead trying to win their favor by overindulging, becoming a “Disneyland Dad.” He doesn’t heed the complaints about his parenting from his current partner. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon for those parents who have divorced and/or remarried.
“I feel so bad, so guilty for leaving those children with her.
I see the kids so little. Sure, sometimes they’re fresh to me…
but I don’t want to use our time together to discipline them.
I want to be their friend. Their mom poisons their minds against me and my partner.
Sure, I let them stay up late….
They watch TV while my partner and I cook and clean up.
I don’t make them do anything that they don’t want to do.
When they come to visit, my partner and I go over the house rules we have created with them.”


“It’s my job as a father to teach them what a father should teach, such as the rules of sports, how to win and loose in good spirit, how to treat women with respect, and certainly to treat me with respect. I intend to be a role model they will look up to.
We have created rituals with them, like a bedtime ritual and the forms and norms of our family meals together. These rituals allow for us to bond in the short time we have together. They have duties and responsibilities which I enforce.”

2) Biological Mother


Remember there are no ex-parents, there are only ex-spouses. The mother teaches the child how to get along in the world; manners, responsibility, etc.


Too many divorced mothers focus their attentions towards becoming “friends” with their child. Many times the mother will do all the chores and take on all the responsibility, while little is expected of the child(ren), again the phenomenon of diminished parenting post-divorce. Often the mother is otherwise directed to working on her career and seeking a new man in her life, so her attention is directed away from her child.

Tip: Biological parents are often moved to a dysfunctional role due to the shame and guilt that occurs naturally after divorce. They must grapple with this phenomenon and still work to continue their job as parent. An additionally accepted phenomenon in our society is to bad-mouth your ex, the other parent of your child. Don’t do it! In so doing, you divide the child’s loyalties and cause diminishment or the lessening of self esteem in a child. Parents must never stop parenting.

3) Stepmother


She may come on with caring, wanting the house to run well, and giving the children responsibilities; but if she has no agreement with the father, her efforts may propel her into the role of “stepmother monster.”


A stepmother is never the “mother,” she knows that the words mother and father are sacred words for a child, and must be regarded as such. She holds her urge to discipline and take charge. She knows that is the clear route to becoming the “cruel” stepmother. She knows she must work out rules and responsibilities together with the biological father. The stepmother knows that her primary role in this family is as partner, and female head of the household. To achieve this, she works hard to draw up an agreement with her partner, the father, and together the house rules, chores, and expected manners. This takes work! She knows that this takes work, and without this work, the stepfamily is seldom successful.

4) Stepfather


The stepfather to see a mother and child in need of a man, and a man’s sense of order and the way things “should be.” Sometimes he comes on way too strong, or he withdraws when the children or his partner does not agree with him.


The stepfather learns to go slow! He learns the dynamics of step; that predictable behavior in this new family not so easy”. He knows that building couple strength and communication is vital to achieving success. He knows he must learn all he can about building good couple strength and communication to achieve it. Like the stepmother, he must come to an agreement with his partner on boundaries, rules of behavior and responsibilities are expected by children and of each other.

Tip: Unlike the biological family, the stepfamily is not born, it is created. Disputes over discipline, manners and expectations of children are high ranking in cause of break up. These issues must be addressed ASAP. To succeed, the rules of the house must be carefully defined by the couple in a positive voice and then written and posted for all to see. Then the stepmother/father is able to say, “Your father/mother and I have decided that in this house we…”
Whenever possible, the biological parent disciplines, and the stepparent says “in this house we…”

5) In-House Biological Child


Often the child says…“You are there, where my mom or dad should be…I don’t want you there, I want to disappear you… (I want my family back).” The child may also act out against the stepparent, by trying to dominate and move in on the space of the new couple, demanding the attention of the biological parent. “My dad left me and now my mom is with him…and I have no one. Mom/Dad pays more attention to him/her than to me.” The child may not do well at school or with friends, “I was here with my parent way before you were, and you are taking my parent away from me.” Often, the child isn’t even consciously aware of his or her actions. (I’m 10, I like to sit on my daddy’s lap and cuddle…and She doesn’t like it. I feel left out.” These words and actions are classic for the child living with a parent and a parent’s new partner.


Parents acknowledge that the new situation is hard on the child, and refrain from allowing the child to dominate the home and relationship. Parents explain with words the child understands, and in positives of why mom and dad will not be together again. They are told by the parent “I need a grownup in my life. I love you, and I expect you to abide by the new rules that we will set up for this family as it is now.”

6) Biological Child who Visits


“I don’t even know her, but I just don’t like her (him)…she bosses my dad around.” Often parents don’t make rules for the visiting child. As a result, the child doesn’t know what is expected or what their role is. Most parents don’t explain to the child what their expectations are, leaving the child even more confused about his position in the new stepfamily.


Parents carefully explain the rules of this home, and what is expected of the child. Parents must avoid the natural tendency to make the child the center of attention, by overindulge them since they see them only four days a month. forget to catch the child doing something “good,” remember there are positive and negative consequences to the visiting child’s behavior! Parents are always parents, not just playmates, and they are certainly not peers.

Tip: Realize that children of divorce have a tendency to bring the absent biological parent (the prior spouse), into the household by talking about her/him. Parent and stepparent need to graciously accept this behavior; the more you accept it, the less it will become. These are classic dynamics, and normal feelings. Remember, as a nation of divorce and as adults we must accept the child’s natural desire to want to include their missing biological parent. It is important for them to understand the confusing and often complex dynamics of stepfamilies. Parents must explain these dynamics to them. Also, no matter what their age, children must be respectful to the adults in their life

7) Biological Child of the Nuclear Family


Parents must be careful to keep expectations, manners and gifts on par with the stepchildren in the home and those who visit. Also, watch over what grandma and grandpa does when favoring the biological child.

I’m so lucky! I live here and don’t have to go back and forth like the other kids. My parents are together and I think they love me best.”

8) Female Ex-Spouse

Usually the custodial parent, she must be recognized as the main influence in the children’s lives. Often, her standard of living decreases dramatically after divorce, taking her into a place of fear and anger. She may be feeling alone, other-directed with a new job, and/or looking for a partner. Often, no matter how hard her ex-husband tries, she finds she is angry with him. She never thought being divorced would be this difficult.

9) Male Ex-Spouse

Very often he is in a household with a new partner and her children, doing for them what he is too limited to do for his own children. Often he withdraws from his partners children, feeling resentment towards them, as he’s only able to see his own every other weekend.

N.B. Regarding ex’s, nothing would make us happier than parents being civil, conversing about the child and showing respect for each other, especially upon pick-up and delivery. Sadly this is not the case in over 70% of divorces. It is the child who suffers when his parents don’t treat each other with respect and good manners.

10) Grandparents

Grandparents must be careful to treat all children the same way. Once a guiding force in the lives of their children and grandchildren, in our society of divorce today, they seemed to have pulled back, feeling as if they shouldn’t interfere in the tenuous and fragile new relationships post-divorce.
We urge grandparents to take their rightful place in the family and to mark for their sons and daughters and grandchildren the greater decades of experience they possess, and with that wisdom they have to share. Grandparents are to be respected.

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