To encourage relationships in an extended stepfamily, it may be best not to push

July 07, 1993|By Heather Miller | Heather Miller,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

You don't just marry the mate, you marry the whole family, the old saying goes. But in this era of divorces and remarriages, "family" may include a dizzying array of people -- stepgrandparents, former in-laws, cousins by marriage -- all suddenly thrown together in a variety of relationships.

And unless the parent-stepparent couple makes a concerted effort to build rapport between their family members, the results aren't always pretty.

Consider the case of one Los Angeles stepfather. His mother refused to accept his new wife's daughter as a granddaughter. She consistently ignored the child, overlooked her birthday, and gave her small trinkets at Christmas while lavishing extravagant gifts on her other grandchildren.

"Things got so tense," says Arthur Kovacs, the psychologist who counseled the stepdad's immediate family, "that he threatened to stop visiting his mother if she continued to reject his stepdaughter."

Not all rifts involving steprelatives end in such ultimatums, but therapists say that a good portion of the stepfamilies they counsel complain of similar problems. Some of the tensions seem inevitable because the ties that bind extended steprelatives are by nature tenuous and often a little confusing.

What's more, the motivation to make these relationships work isn't always there. But with some forethought and frank communication, parents in this situation can help bridge the gap between stepchildren and their new kin.

For starters, make an effort to see your current family constellation from the vantage point of the extended relatives. Finding out that you're "related" to someone new can bewilder anybody.

"Clients who have just gained relatives through marriage sometimes come into my office and complain, 'I'm about to become a mother-in-law and stepgrandmother at the same time and I don't know how to handle it,' " says Florence Kaslow, a family therapist in West Palm Beach, Fla. "They don't have a sense of being emotionally and physically attached to these people; they may even have problems with the divorce and remarriage to begin with."

In other words, it's unrealistic to expect various people who don't share any history to feel an immediate attachment to one another.

First contact

Often those initial introductions between steprelatives take place at big family gatherings, where first-time acquaintances have little chance to get to know each other. If there's a particular stepfamily relationship you'd like to see flourish -- such as the one between a stepchild and his new grandparent or his new young cousin -- make sure that their first contact takes place in a less crowded setting. The mere act of arranging a special meeting should send the clear message that you hope this new relationship will be a positive one.

Within nuclear stepfamilies, adults commonly insist that children display good manners and consideration toward others. Sometimes, though, the adult relatives in extended families need to be reminded of common courtesy, too. As unlikely as it may sound, some stepaunts, stepuncles, and stepgrandparents have to be warned against unfavorably comparing their young steprelative with their own bloodline.

And while you can't really ask grown-ups to love all the children equally, you are within your rights to request that they treat them equally, especially when it comes to giving them presents.

Try to feed both the stepchildren and their steprelatives as much information about one another as possible -- especially when it comes to touchy or important matters such as stubborn personality traits or health problems. If you don't, a simple failure to communicate may unintentionally offend someone.

Taboo topics

Kids need to know, for instance, whether certain expressions or topics of conversation will make a stepuncle furious, or whether jumping up from the dinner table is verboten in their new cousin's house.

One Houston family planned a holiday gathering at the home of a relative who owned cats. Little did they know that one of their kin's new stepchildren had asthma and an allergy to felines. When the child went into a wheezing fit, an argument ensued. "The mother assumed that these new relatives were willfully insensitive to her youngster's asthma when, in fact, they just didn't know about it," says James Bray, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.

There is, however, one caveat to the full-disclosure rule: Avoid giving your own extended family a blow-by-blow description of all the arguments you and your stepchild have ever had. Otherwise, members of your family may hold these stories against him, long after you and your young charge have made amends.

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