In Defense of “Broken Families”
By Ron Huxley, LMFT
I have been noticing this term “broken families” pop up a lot recently in various professional writings and parent blogs. Each time I read it, I shudder. The underlying connotation is that a family that has undergone a divorce, death, adoption, abuse, etc. is somehow broken and unrepairable. It is a fatal diagnosis that leaves families without hope. I know, I know, it’s just language but words do have power. They percolate in the brain and become belief systems and self identifying references. The more we hear the word, the more we start to belive them and then we start to give up.
When someone witnesses a teenager with substance abuse issues, for example, people will comment: “You know they come from a broken family”. Everyone who goes through foster care, adoption, or experiences a divorce is going to have mental issues, right? Wrong. Many families deal with teenage substance abuse, not just nontraditional families. While it is possible that children of divorce may act out in antisocial ways, this doesn’t mean that all children of divorce will have issues in life that impair them. The same is true for adopted children or someone in a foster home or raised by a grandparent.
I am not denying that families do suffer from going through experiences like divorce or death or adoption. Loss is central to each of these things but that should not be a life-sentence resulting in mental and relational problems. Life is full of suffering. The focus here needs to be on how to help others cope. How can we learn from those who survive and thrive and teach it to everyone. I take affront at these comments and attitudes because they assume a dark, gloomy fate just because they have undergone a loss. That is just one path.
A recent national study on foster care and adoption in the child welfare system listed that 48% of children, in the system, have significant behavior problems. At first glance, that feels devastating but what about the other 52% that don’t? Who studies them? What makes them more of a survivor, better able to cope, more reselient? Let’s see those studies. Perhaps we could learn some useful tools to help us build strong families.
My challenge is too guard our language. This means we have to closely guard the thoughts that produce them too. We have to start looking at loss for what it is, a painful experience and not as destiny. To counter these negative connotations, try identifying the strengths of families and individuals in them. What have they done well that we can build upon? What new words can we use to describe them and assume their inevitable success in life?
Stepparenting can be tough. Stepparents frequently report feeling confused about their role, displaced from their spouse when the stepchild is around, helpless to change the situation, and guilty because they know that God is expecting them to love their stepchildren, even though they sometimes don’t.
Finding an effective stepparent role is a challenge—you must persevere to find success. Here are some practical tips for the journey.
Relationship Building Tips for Stepparents
Play! Having fun is a great way to connect.
Track with them. Know what activities a child is engaged in and enter that world. Take them to practice, ask about an activity, and take interest in their interests.
Share your talents, skills, and hobbies.
Communicate your commitment. Let the child know you value and want a relationship with them.Share the Lord and your walk. Shared spirituality can facilitate connection and a sense of family identity, but don’t be preachy. Instead share with humility your faith journey so they will experience you as a safe person.
The cardinal rule for stepparent-stepchild relationships is this: Let the children set the pace for their relationship with you. For example, if your stepchildren are open to physical affection from you, don’t leave them disappointed. If they remain aloof and cautious, respect their boundaries. As time brings you together, slowly increase your personal involvement and affections.
It’s important that stepparents not consider themselves failures if they do not form deep emotional bonds with every child.
The length of time required to move into this role depends on multiple factors, most of which are beyond the stepparent’s control. Enjoy the relationship you have now and trust that investments made over time will increase affection and respect.
Do’s and Don’s for Stepparents
Early on biological parents must pass power to stepparents so that children understand that stepparents are not acting on their own authority
Parents and stepparents negotiate rulestogether behind closed doors and seek unity in leading the family. The biological parent then communicates the rules to the children with the stepparent’s support.
Stepfamilies, where both parents bring children to the stepfamily, still negotiate rules together, but each takes the lead role with their own children.
Over time as emotional bonds with stepchildren deepen, stepparents can become more authoritative and shows of affection can become more common.
Don’t be harsh or punish in a way inconsistent with the biological parent. This tends to polarize parents and create marital discord.
Do focus on relationship building with each child. This is your long-term strength as a parent-figure.