Bracing for the bomb when families collide

By Donna McIntyre

Christmas can be a potential minefield for step-families.

Michael Carr-Gregg says step-parenting is one of the toughest gigs around. He says blended families shouldn't expect to click instantly, there are natural stages to progress through which can lead to a happy resolution. Photo / Thinkstock
Michael Carr-Gregg says step-parenting is one of the toughest gigs around. He says blended families shouldn't expect to click instantly, there are natural stages to progress through which can lead to a happy resolution. Photo / Thinkstock

If you are new to step-parenting, buckle up your seat belt for the summer holidays. The festive season is always a difficult time of the year and even more so for blended families trying to keep everyone happy ...including children, new and ex-partners and multiple sets of grandparents.

That means it's best not to entertain any thoughts of one big happy blended family under one roof, like that Brady Bunch in the 1970s American TV series, or it may all end in tears.

Instead, focus on keeping things normal, communication lines open and arrangements as simple as possible for Christmas Day and the rest of the holidays. Above all, be realistic - you are unlikely to please everybody.

Michael Carr-Gregg, Australian parenting expert, psychologist, and also a step-dad, talks about the "Brady delusion" in which a new couple imagines that because they love each other so much, their kids will also love having their new step-parent and any new step-brothers and sisters.

In real life, it just doesn't happen that way, especially when it's coming up to Christmas, emotions are heightened and budgets are stretched.

Blended families now outnumber first families in both the US and the UK and Carr-Gregg reckons New Zealand and Australia are following suit.

So, with blended families now the norm, how do parents make sure they are doing things right? Are there support groups and parenting courses to guide them? And should couples consider marriage guidance and counselling when they get together rather than only as a last resort when relationships start to show cracks?

Perhaps the answer is in one of Carr-Gregg's comments. He remembers TV's Dr Phil saying that if you are a psychologist with an area of specialty and you don't write self-help books, then you're crazy ... because the vast majority of people won't darken psychologists' doors. There is still a stigma about going and getting help.

He reckons step-parenting is one of the toughest gigs around. "It is not fun. The desperation, the depth and breadth of misery that doing it wrong can cause really does take away, for many people, a quality of life and they can become desperate.

"Given that we have so many parents separating and divorcing, why isn't there mandatory free marriage guidance counselling beforehand? The Catholic Church, I believe, offers that to couples about to wed. Certainly, there is a bit of a movement in Australia to put those services on the public purse."

Carr-Gregg says step-parenting is different from biological parenting. It is less spontaneous, requires more patience, effort, resilience and stamina. But he also reminds step-parents having problems not to blame it all on being a step-family as all families experience stressful times.

"The most important thing to understand is that, universally, the first two years are purgatory. There is no getting around it," he says, "and you have to basically gird your psychological loins for that. Don't expect things to be perfect. There will be arguments, there will be some fairly robust exchanges, particularly with teenagers. You have to prepare yourself, have the answers for the questions like: "You're not my father, you can't tell me what to do" (Michael's favourite answer: "I'm the only one you've got here at the moment and we have to make do"). Another important piece of advice is for parents to invest in their own relationship, based on good communication, trust and respect.

"The tendency is to cater for everybody else's needs and that doesn't work."

Recognise that this not going to be an instant family, Carr-Gregg says. This will take time. Research has shown step-families have their own natural stages: fantasy (similar to a honeymoon period), then confusion followed by conflict, before moving on to resolution and comfort.

But there are also many examples of happy step-families. And there is help at hand. He suggests joining step-parent associations and chatting to people who have been down this path. "The difficulty is many people are time poor. That is why I wrote the book, Surviving Step-Families. It is little, it's readable and it's distilled in plain English without psychobabble."

Perhaps his book should be in every step-family's stocking this Christmas.

Tips:

* Keep things simple; stay within your budget

* Plan ahead and communicate well

* Holidaying and travelling together strengthens bonds

* Remember - you are not the parent

* Don't personalise things

* Don't neglect your marriage

"Step-parents should not try to be the parent - this is the death knell. The step-parent needs to take a position of one down. They need to support the biological parent in the disciplinary role, they need to allow the relationship to develop over time. You will never take over the role of the child's biological parent, nor should you." - Michael Carr-Gregg

* Surviving Step-Families, by Michael Carr-Gregg ($26, Penguin).

- Herald on Sunday

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