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Understanding your role in the family
 

What is a 'normal' stepfamily?

 

Unlike first families, stepfamilies have very few role models or social expectations to live up to. In daily life we’re surrounded by models of families with two adults and their children and we’re even used to often seeing single parent families portrayed in the media. But there are few examples of stepfamilies and even fewer 'successful' or 'happy' stepfamilies. Consequently, it can be very difficult for stepfamilies to know how they are expected to behave.

 

Role Ambiguity

 

Role ambiguity is something which most adults in stepfamilies face at some point. There are no rules for stepfamilies. There are no social norms or endorsement of stepparenting as there are with biological parenting. Psychologist have for may years believed that the stress experienced by stepmothers in particular was in part caused by the absence of so called 'social norms' or role models to help them define their role within the stepfamily.    

 

Am I doing OK?

 

As the roles are so vague, it’s difficult for stepparents to work out whether they are succeeding or failing in their roles, leading to ever increasing confusion and anxiety. This issue of role ambiguity is a well recognised issue within stepfamilies with researchers suggesting that the stepparent often lacks a role model and whatever expectations they do have of themselves, tend to be unrealistic. As a consequence some stepparents feel frustrated in trying to fill a largely undefined role for which they have no training. Often the situation can be worse for stepmothers than stepfathers as they are more often the part time stepparent and as such have fewer socially accepted role prescriptions than stepfathers.

 

Define your own role

 

Given that there are no prescribed roles for stepparents it’s therefore left up to them to carve out their own role in the stepfamily. Some happily take on board a strong parental role, becoming an extra parent to their stepchildren. They set and impose household rules for their stepchildren, they discipline them, care for them when their partners are absent, are included in school activities and major milestones such as weddings and graduations. Others are happy to take more of a backseat. They support their partners but are less involved in their stepchildren’s day to day activities.

 

Which role is the best?

 

There are many reasons for taking a different stance on your role within the stepfamily. For stepparents who care for their stepchildren for the majority of the time, it makes sense for them to take on board a parental like role, whereas for stepparents who rarely see their stepchildren it’s clearly harder to take a more active role. However, neither approach is right or wrong and depends to a large extent on your individual family circumstances. Issues only arise when there is a discrepancy between family members on the role the stepparent should play. Stepparents have to find their own way, work out what seems to work for them, their partner and their stepchildren.

 

Tips for defining your role
 
1. Work out what it is you want to be and what type of role you want in your family (eg. an extra parent, a friend, take more of a backseat and be led by your partner).
 
2. Understand your partner's perspective. What do they expect of you?
 
3. Are your views similar or do they differ wildly? If they differ, try and understand why.
 
4. Work out the major differences and try and compromise, It's important that both of you consider each other and the children involved.
 
5. Once you've reached agreement, try and stick to it. You can always review things over time. Nothing is fixed forever but for now, work together on establishing the roles you've agreed on for the family.