Discovering and Building Stepfamily Strengths

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Strong stepfamilies don't just happen. It takes time and effort to build and maintain a strong stepfamily. Members of stepfamilies must be committed and determined to make it so.

Many stepfamilies were asked what they felt were the most important strengths in their family. They listed various aspects of love or intimacy (caring, affection, acceptance, understanding, closeness), family unity (working together, sharing goals, values, activities, flexibility), and positive patterns of communication (honesty, openness, receptiveness, sense of humor) as strengths. In addition, those who had the strongest families had strong ties with their extended family, friends, and the community. These families had developed their own family style and were proud of it.

In addition to identifying the challenges of stepfamily living, it's also important to identify your strengths and build upon them. This article was written to help you do just that. Below are listed five strengths that have been identified through research and clinical practice. Think about how well your family is doing in each area and ways you might be stronger.

Caring and Appreciation

Strong stepfamilies strive to be sensitive to members' needs and affirm, support, and trust one another. Affection is shared in ways family members find mutually acceptable and is not dependent on the successes or failures of individuals. Family members seek to achieve the level of emotional closeness that is comfortable for them. Family members are able to see the positive aspects of their stepfamily, such as the opportunity to care about and be cared for by more people and have new experiences with them. At the same time, members recognize the futility of expecting "instant love" or expecting to care about their steprelatives as much as they do their biological relatives. Leading the family is a strong, unified couple who plan adequate time to be alone together.

Communication

Strong stepfamilies adopt a style of communication that is satisfying to their members. Family members can communicate frequently, openly, clearly, and directly. They share important personal feelings, daily experiences, goals, dreams, joys, and sorrows. They take the time to listen to what others have to say. They practice a style of communication that is clear and open and encourages people to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Family members regularly discuss values and beliefs important to them. Because remarried parents are often more mature, experienced, and motivated to be successful, they are likely to strive to be good communicators. Thus, they may play an important role in modeling effective communication for their children and stepchildren. They recognize that negotiation and compromise through communication is necessary to help the stepfamily function most effectively. Strong stepfamilies also realize that the goal of mutual understanding may take more time, because family members coming from different family environments may assign different meanings to different things.

Stepfamily Pride

Members of strong stepfamilies are committed to one another and value the traits that make their family unique. They have the realistic expectation that their family will be different from first-marriage families, but they are proud to be a member of their new family. They avoid negative comparisons of themselves with first-marriage families and undue wishing that they were a "real" family. These family members are less vulnerable to negative stereotypes and myths about stepfamilies and are able to see real strength in their family's structural characteristics and style. They integrate the rituals and traditions important in previous family experiences or combine separate traditions in some way to form new traditions.

Stepfamily Unity

Strong stepfamilies spend time together in shared activities. The amount and kind of activities are determined by how much closeness a stepfamily wants. They often share a commitment to something greater then themselves and the recognition of religion or spirituality in their lives. They have developed or are developing shared values and goals. Parents and children agree on how disciplinary matters will be handled. The parents are able to reach a general consensus about decisions affecting the family and use techniques for making decisions that encourage everyone to participate. Unified stepfamilies adapt to stress and change. They are able to see positive outcomes arising out of stressful, change-producing events. Although challenges to unity may occur (such as how to rear the children, how to handle finances, and who gets which bedroom), a strong stepfamily sees these problems as opportunities to learn negotiation skills, adaptability, and flexibility. Residential and nonresidential parents have developed a "parenting coalition" and cooperate in a way that benefits their children and themselves.

Community and Family Ties

Strong stepfamilies are connected to other individuals and institutions that support them emotionally and practically. Clear boundaries separate family and outside helpers. These families, like other strong families, tend to be closely involved with community institutions such as the school, church, and local organizations that promote the well-being of the community and individual. Stepfamily members are open to and have a positive attitude toward developing new relationships with the widened extended-kin network made possible by the remarriage.

ACTIVITY: Discovering Your Stepfamily's Strengths

Before you decide on what strengths to work on, you need to find out how each stepfamily member sees the family. This activity lets family members compare their views of the stepfamily.

What do we need?

  • Pencils or pens
  • One "Discovering Our Stepfamily Strengths" questionnaire (below) or a blank sheet of paper for each member.
  • A mathematician (or, a nonmathematician with a calculator).

How long will it take?

  • At least an hour, or as long as the family enjoys the activity.

What will we do?

  1. All family members eight years of age and older who live together in the same household all, or part of the time, complete the "Discovering Our Stepfamily Strengths" questionnaire.
  2. Family members should tally their scores on the "Individual Strengths" score sheet on the bottom of the questionnaire. (It lists stepfamily strengths in five areas: caring and appreciation, communication, stepfamily unity, stepfamily pride, and community and family ties.)
  3. Add up the scores in each strength area. Then put your scores on the "Stepfamily Strength Score Sheet" and graph your scores.
  4. Select a discussion leader. (Note: This doesn't have to be a parent or stepparent.) This person will make sure everyone participates as you review and compare your responses. No one should try to influence others to change their answers. It's OK to disagree. These questions will help guide your discussion:
    1. Why were views on some questions different?
    2. Did kids react differently than parents to some questions? Why?
    3. What did each family member learn about another's viewpoint that was a surprise?
    4. On which items are family members most likely to disagree?
    5. Which strength areas had the lowest/highest scores?
    6. What does the family want to do differently as a result of taking this questionnaire? Choose one or two areas to work on and complete the Goal Setting Worksheet.

Goal Setting Worksheet

  Our Goals Activities To Do When

Caring and Appreciation

     

Communication

     

Stepfamily Pride

     

Stepfamily Unity

     

Community and Family Ties

     

 

Discovering Our Family Strengths Questionnaire 

1
Almost Never

2
Once In A While

3
Sometimes

4
Frequently

5
Almost Always

 

1. We do nice things for each other.
2. We can say what we really feel.
3. We are proud of our stepfamily.
4. When there is a problem, children's suggestions are encouraged.
5. We have friends and relatives we can count on.
6. We show that we care about one another.
7. We really listen to each other.
8. We stick together as a family.
9. We have similar values and beliefs.
10. Our stepfamily participates in community or religious groups and activities.
11. I'm happy with how close we are as a stepfamily.
12. We try to understand one another's feelings.
13. We have family traditions that we carry on.
14. Children have a say in the rules and discipline.
15. We think it's important to get involved in the community.
16. We care about how others in the stepfamily feel.
17. We can talk about things without arguing.
18. We are proud of our stepfamily's history.
19. Chores are divided up fairly in our stepfamily.
20. When we can't solve a problem on our own, our stepfamily seeks help from others.
21. We compliment each other.
22. We enjoy talking about things together.
23. We stick together as a stepfamily.
24. We all help make decisions in our stepfamily.
25. We keep in touch with family and stepfamily members living away from us.
26. We believe it's OK to care for step-relatives in a different way than our other relatives. 
27. We know it may not be as easy to talk with step-relatives as other relatives.
28. We accept the fact that our family is different from the first-married families we know. 
29. Our stepfamily often does fun things together.
30. We want to get to know our step-relatives.
31. We realize it takes time to really care about step-relatives.
32. Understanding step-relatives takes time.
33. We enjoy having a family style all our own.
34. Our stepfamily discusses problems until we find a solution that is good for everyone.
35. Our stepfamily gives us even more family members to care about and enjoy.

Stepfamily Strengths Score Sheet

Write the totals that each family member had for the five strength areas on the Individual Strengths Score Sheet. Mark each family member's total score in a different color on the graph. Add up the family members' scores for each area and divide by the number who took the questionnaire. This is your overall family score in each of the five strength areas. Mark these scores on the graph in a different color also. Connect the different colored dots with lines of the same color. This shows the pattern for each person in your stepfamily and for the stepfamily as a whole.

INDIVIDUAL STRENGTHS SCORE SHEET

Caring and Appreciation

Communication

Stepfamily Pride

Stepfamily Unity

Community and Family Ties

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

18.

19.

20.

21.

22.

23.

24.

25.

26.

27.

28.

29.

30.

31.

32.

33.

34.

35.

Totals:

       

 Take time to identify your stepfamily strengths, then celebrate them. Be patient with yourselves as you grow and develop.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Duncan, S. F., & Brown, G. (1992). RENEW for remarried families. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.