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Risk factors then include elements such as socioeconomic disadvantage and parental distress. When stepparents however work to establish a close rapport with their children, these can be minimized by encouraging the child to talk about whatever his or her feelings are about the transformative events within the family, and also outside of the family. This will also be helpful in coping with the above-mentioned social stigma that is related to the stepfamily in society.
In creating a safe and warm atmosphere for children to talk about their feelings and experiences, dysfunctional elements such as conflict, negativity, lack of support and authority (Hetherington et al. 1998) can be overcome to create a better and warmer environment. This environment will then help to curb the negativity that has been observed in children from stepfamilies. However, because adequate knowledge and research lack in this area, it is often left to stepparents and their newly acquired children to attempt the adjustment themselves. The result is too often that emotional distress leads to resentment and anger on the part of both parents and children, thus causing the dysfunctional elements mentioned above. This is also often the cause of the frequently negative perception of stepfamilies harbored by society. It becomes a vicious cycle:
The Role of Society
Wilcox Doyle et al. (2002) cite several cases of evidence where stereotypes and bias are associated with stepfamilies. Of course this in many ways is part of the "evil" stepmother and stepsister syndrome with which children are frequently fed by fairy tales such as Cinderella. Furthermore this paradigm is part of the social dichotomy between "normal" and not normal. Families with two biological parents are perceived as normal and therefore "right." Divorce, death, or single parenthood are seen to be outside of this norm, whereas entering a new family to become a stepfamily is yet further removed from the perception of normal and right. This perception is frequently another reason for the lack of adjustment in children with stepfamilies.
Once again, it is a cycle: stepparents experience the stress of being perceived negatively in society, and communicate this feeling to their children. Children from these families are then further burdened by the societies in which they move. Neither parent nor child then finds an outlet for the stress so accumulated, nor do they find support within the family structure, because of the accumulated negativity. All of these things lead to maladjustment, dysfunction, and consequent problematic behavior in children.
Cooperation: The Perception of the Family from within Banker and Gaertner (1998) corroborate the finding that there appears to be more conflict within stepfamilies than first-married families. This is accompanied with feelings of dissatisfaction in both parents and children from these families with their lives in general. The authors suggest as the reason for this that there is a lack of unity, or the perception of unity and cooperativeness within such families. The premise of Banker and Gaertner's study is that biological families have an inherent perception of unity by means of bloodline. The parents are united by marriage, and children are part of the group by birth. There is therefore a single bond among all the individuals within this family. Once again, the perception that this is good and right impacts heavily on stepfamilies, where this biological unity is non-existent.
A lack of biological unity then leads to a lack of psychological unity within the stepfamily, which accounts for the general satisfaction experienced so often within these families. In Banker and Gaertner's work then, the aim of harmony within stepfamilies can most easily be accomplished by what is termed the "contact hypothesis." This means that the family group interacts by means of cooperative strategies and rules, such as egalitarian paradigms, mutual respect, and cooperation among the group members.
One of the basic problems occurring within stepfamilies is that "us" and "them" groups are formed and posed against each other (Banker and Gaertner, 1998). This results in a predetermined bias against family members entering the group of the original family. Banker and Gaertner suggest that, if these barriers are lowered with an attitude of in-group and out-group members being included in a less rigid group of "we," the group interaction will be less hostile and could even become friendly and cooperative, according to the requirements for successful intergroup interaction. Family harmony in stepfamilies are thus increased by imposing the perception of the family as one group of persons, rather than two separate families.
Once the interfamily perception changes, a more positive paradigm of interaction is easy to create. Children from the different families can then learn to relate in a positive way, while stepparents are also viewed in a more positive light. This can then begin to be the basis for the family to see each other as part of the same group, and so to begin cooperating for the harmony and well-being of the group. Experiencing harmony within the stepfamily setting will then also result in individual satisfaction for each family member.
In this regard it is interesting that Banker and Gaertner (1998) also found that even without conscious cooperation, the psychological effect of the one-group paradigm reduced bias among the group members, and created a generally friendlier atmosphere. Such a single-group paradigm within the stepfamily then can much reduce natural barriers created by biases of two different families adjusting to each other.
Factors that can increase the perception of unity and thus the perception of harmony within the stepfamily then include a conscious effort to foster relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. These relationships are then conducive to a feeling of harmony for both parents and children, thus creating harmony within the home. When this is achieved, the family can cooperate to continue creating such harmony.
Harmony within stepfamilies created by the perception of being one group rather than two leads to other factors of healing, such as allowing a child the space to mourn the loss of the original family setting. A warm and comforting atmosphere is created for all, since the interest of the group is also the interest of the individual. In this way, counseling for stepfamilies can focus on the goal of harmony and cooperation, as well as steps to change perceptions towards the single rather than two-group paradigm.
The Role of the Parent
Parents, as caretakers and leaders of the family unit, play a significant role in creating harmony within the stepfamily. However, it has been seen above that often, stressors affecting parents who remarry challenge them to a point where it is difficult to follow strategies that would result in family unity. The role of stepparents as cooperative partners within the family has however not been studied often, and thus once again little information is available on how to accomplish this more effectively. Further complicating the issue is the fact that stepfamilies might range from a fairly simple structure, with two parents with one previous relationship each co-raise children from both relationships, to extremely complex situations, where one or both partners had more than one previous relationship.
Braithwaite et al. (2003) have found that communication between parents occur for a variety of reasons, many of which revolve around practical matters surrounding the children. This is however inadequate to truly form a family unit. In order to form unity and harmony for stepfamilies, the parents, having married as partners, should be conducive to creating the above-mentioned atmosphere. Braithewaite et al. use the term "co-parenting" to describe the unity that should exist between the parents of the stepfamily. In this way unity is demonstrated to the children, who will benefit positively from it.
Communication is of the utmost importance in creating harmony within the stepfamily. Parents, especially within stepfamilies, should therefore be aware of the possible pitfalls of miscommunication, especially with the stepchild. The example is to be set by the co-parents, creating a warm and loving atmosphere for children to raise their concerns and possible trouble in adjusting to the new family.
Many strategies have been suggested to help stepfamilies cope with the stress that inevitably comes from a remarriage. However, it is clear that much is still to be desired not only in the academic study of the subject, but also in the area of counseling for stepfamilies. Having found that stepfamilies often feature more problematic children than biological families, the problem should be directly addressed not only by means of study, but also by means of counseling.
The basic problem factors identified above include maladjustment problems for children, a lack of adequate communication, a lack of a sense of unity within the stepfamily, and negative cultural paradigms regarding the stepfamily. Negative cultural paradigms can only be remedied by education. The Cinderella syndrome appears to be embedded in the cultural consciousness to the extent that it is harmful to the well-being of stepfamilies, and especially for children within these stepfamilies.
In terms of communication, it could be used to remedy almost all of the other problems mentioned. It can for…[continue]
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