In a previous article, we introduced licensed marriage and family therapist Ron Deal, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a resource website for blended families and the churches who serve them (FamilyLife.com/blended). We interviewed him about the unique needs of stepfamilies and how churches can reach out to them. Here he explains how pastors can help stepfamilies deal with relationship difficulties.
Why do pastors need to consider stepfamilies when preaching about marriage and family issues?
Pastors need to remember that the same message may not always equally apply to every family in the room. Here are three examples:
- You may have heard that “the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Although in a blended family home that’s eventually a true statement, in the beginning, it can be more complicated. Children may perceive their stepfather as taking their mother away from them, at first. That creates a competing relationship.
- Similarly, pastors often encourage couples to preserve their marriages by dating on a regular basis. However, you should qualify that for stepfamily couples by reminding them that in those early years as a stepfamily, dating might actually create some tension in the home. The kids may feel left behind while mom is out with their stepdad, for example.
- Nearly every parenting book most pastors would recommend is written for biological parents. The authors of these books assume parents have a relationship with their children that allows them to become a disciplinarian and an authority in the child’s life. But that can backfire on a stepparent, because he or she doesn’t yet have a foundation of trust with the stepchildren.
The point is this: stepfamilies are different from biological families. Without a working knowledge of blended family dynamics, you can’t discern what is good advice; you may be setting stepfamilies up for conflict.
What can pastors help biological parents understand about their new spouse’s relationship with their children?
Often the first person to complain about what’s happening in a stepfamily home is the stepparent. They’re the ones who feel the dynamics differently than the biological parent does. They’ll complain about Johnny’s behavior, and the biological parent will say, “What are you talking about? Johnny’s always been that way,” or, “Susie always talks to me that way. The fact that she talks to you that way is no big deal.”
You can remind biological parents that stepparents are outsiders who are trying to become insiders. The biological parents are already insiders with their kids, always have been and always will be. They have unconditional love, acceptance, and a deep emotional attachment with their children. However, stepparents have none of these things in the beginning. They are often powerless and pursuing acceptance, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes time to exercise discipline. A biological parent can say, “I don’t care that you’re mad at me. This is still the rule, and this is the way it’s going to be.” But stepparents are trying to get the child to like them, which means it’s harder and more risky to exercise discipline.
A stepmother once told me, “You know, it’s taken me four years to learn that I live in a stepfamily, but my husband does not.” She meant that she was an outsider to his kids. She was the new person, living in their house with their stuff. She didn’t know the rules or understand the traditions. But her husband was the native, related and connected to everybody, not understanding how his wife could feel like a foreigner.
Encourage biological parents to have compassion for what it feels like for their spouse to be an outsider, and to support them. Remind them that if they don’t create that environment where the children can embrace the outsider, it may not happen at all.
How can pastors help a stepparent have a realistic expectation for the stepparent/stepchild relationship?
Pastors should encourage stepparents to keep pace with the children and meet them where they are. The more pressure there is for stepparents to have a certain ideal relationship, then they and the biological parents start trying to force the children and the stepparents into a love relationship. You can’t force love. You can create an expectation of courteous behavior, of decency, of basic respect toward an authority, but you cannot dictate love. That has to develop on its own.
Imagine, for example, being in your mid-fifties and marrying someone with adult children in their twenties and thirties. You’re trying to create an adult/adult relationship with them. There’s no authority necessary. That’s a very different scenario from being a stepparent to children who are three and five. And that will be very different from becoming a stepparent to a sixteen-year-old who is focused on friends and preparing to leave home.
What are some of the greatest needs of stepparents?
Stepparents need perspective about what their role is and how to approach it. They need pastors to give them a model or paradigm to help them understand what they’re trying to accomplish and how it will evolve over time.
Stepparents also need understanding and perspective about the “ex-wife-in-law” (or “ex-husband-in-law”). Here’s what I mean: If you’re a stepmom, then your husband’s ex-wife is your “ex-wife-in-law,” and she is very much a part of your life and a member of your family. She can dictate your finances. She can dictate the emotional climate of your house. All she has to do is pick up the phone and call a child or call your husband (her ex), and all of a sudden, everybody’s in a bad mood. And now you have to deal with that, as the stepmom. In addition, what she says to your stepchildren dictates whether or not they embrace you, are open to you, or are closed to you.
So pastors can help stepparents and biological parents understand these dynamics, make sense of them, and know how to cope so their marriage stays strong.
What can a pastor say to the stepparent whose stepchild says, “You’re not my mom or dad. I don’t have to listen to you”?
First of all, you should encourage the stepparent to have deep compassion for this child, because a child who gets angry is often telling you more than just they don’t want to clean their room. They’re also telling you they’re sad about their circumstances. Have compassion for the sadness.
Then, follow through with the necessary behavioral response. For example, to a child who says, “You’re not my mom. I don’t have to do what you say,” the stepparent can respond with, “You’re right. I’m not your mom. My bet is, you wish your mom were here, because you wouldn’t have to be dealing with me and how things are right now. I get it. That’s hard for you. I’m sorry. However, everybody has to clean his or her own room, and you’re no exception. So you can clean your room, or your dad and I will use your allowance and pay your brother to do it for you. That’s up to you. Let us know when you figure it out.” Then the stepparent should turn and walk away. See, you can be an authority without having all the “rights” of a parent. But this is a tough tightrope for stepparents to walk; they need support, and they need to be unified with the biological parent. Fundamentally, a stepparent’s strength comes from being in agreement with the biological parent.
You can also encourage the stepparent not to take the child’s anger personally. Even though the attitude from the child can get old really fast, the attitude is about the child’s past and how that past is making it difficult for him or her to receive the stepparent in the present. Remind the stepparent that balancing compassion and behavioral limits wins the respect of a stepchild in the end. The child sees the stepparent acting maturely and caring about what hurts the child. That earns respect from the child.
How can pastors help a stepparent who’s gotten off on the wrong foot with the stepchildren?
There are four things a pastor can encourage the stepparent to do:
- Downshift. Perhaps you, the stepparent, tried to be too much of an authority figure, and that backfired. Turn situations when you have to set limits back over to the biological parent so the stepparent and child can heal.
- Regroup with the biological parent. Make sure the biological parent is doing the hard work of discipline and authority.
- You will likely need to heal your relationship with the child. This may take some time and perhaps apology. In one example, a stepfather went to the kids and humbled himself by admitting that he had overstepped his bounds. Though he thought he was being helpful, he had come to realize that he expected too much of himself and inadvertently made things tougher for the family.
- Then, “start over,” trying to build trust and respect with the children. How long this process takes depends on how much hurt there’s been. It is a very noble thing when a stepparent recognizes that he or she has gotten off on the wrong foot and is willing to start over.
How is ministry to stepfamilies an outreach opportunity?
There are so many spiritually marginalized stepfamily members who are afraid they are unworthy of being at church and with religious people, afraid that because of their past they can’t draw near to the Savior. Far too many people feel like they have to get their life in order before they can walk in the church door.
When Christians get serious about grace, we’ll stop trying to make people get well before they show up at the hospital. We’ll be the people who say, “You belong here. Come join us. We’ll help you.” There are a lot of people in stepfamilies who are drowning in their own shame, because they don’t know it’s okay to come.
Pastors need to have an open, receiving attitude, like Jesus did with the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus did not ignore her past. (A likely blended-family story, by the way.) In fact, He used it to get her attention so that He could talk to her about living water. Then, He gave her hope for the future and redeemed her story.
Being aware of the unique relationship difficulties stepfamilies face will help pastors reach out to blended family members with wise advice that is applicable to their situations. For more on this issue, you can read part 1 of our interview with Ron Deal and visit his ministry website.