Dr. Keith Ablow is the founder of Living the Truth and is a New York Times bestselling author, Fox News psychiatry correspondent, contributing editor for Good Housekeeping and Men's Fitness, and repeat Oprah guest. In addition to his appearances on Oprah, he has appeared frequently on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, The O'Reilly Factor with Bill O'Reilly, Tyra, Montel, Maury and a host of other television programs. He has earned the title, "America's Psychiatrist". His strategies are the founding principles for Living the Truth.com and are presented in Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty.
Please tell us about yourself and your expertise on step-parenting.
As a psychiatrist who has treated thousands of individuals and families during the past 16 years, I have counseled hundreds of step-parents and sons and daughters of step-parents. I also made blended families one focus of my daily talk show, The Dr. Keith Ablow Show. Many of the principles presented in my book, Living the Truth, can be applied to understanding the psychological dynamics at play in families that include a step-parent.
What are some typical problems that step-parents face?
I think the most typical problem step-parents face is not knowing to what extent they have license to "parent". Biological fathers and mothers take that role as a given, but a step-parent is often uncertain to what extent he or she can express affection, discipline or offer advice to children who are not his or her biological offspring. I also think that step-parents wonder how to show or not show their affection for their spouses in front of their step-children. They often wonder whether they will be perceived as "outsiders" without a proper claim, for example, on physical affection.
What can parents and step-parents do to make the transition to a new family easier?
It's so important to make children co-authors of the evolving stories of their lives. I think it's helpful to express one's own uncertainties about boundaries and feelings and to invite children to voice theirs, too. I also think that, at heart, kids want to heal rifts and conflicts. It's worth letting them know you value their openness to a new living situation and new people in their lives. Having them focus on the feelings of those around them (e.g. their step-siblings) can help them put their own anxieties in context. Don't rush to make everything okay. Pay homage to the fact that creating a new family structure is difficult for adults and harder for children.
How should parents handle a child's rejection of a step-parent?
Overtures to spend time together are fine, but don't force it. Let the child see that he or she can set the pace in terms of the relationship. Giving a child control when he or she fears having none is a good antidote for anger. It's okay for a step-parent who is rejected to make it clear that the rejection hurts and is disappointing. But I would also lean in the direction of acknowledging that if he or she is feeling hurt as an adult, then the step-child might well be hurting even more.
What role should the step-parent have in regards to handling discipline, making decisions, etc. of their step-children?
For the first year of the relationship, at least, I would say the step-parent should see himself or herself as an extension of the biological parent. The role shouldn't be very different than that of a very committed nanny-helping his or her spouse to parent, not usurping that role.
How can a step-parent and his/her spouse maintain their own relationship in the midst of adjusting to step-parenting?
Talk and more talk. Say what each of you is feeling-earlier and more often than you even think necessary. It will help sustain your bond that made creating a new family structure worth it to begin with. Also, it's okay to acknowledge how substantial the challenge of fostering harmony in a new architecture really is.
What other tips and advice do you have for helping step-families succeed?
Talk to other step-families. Have your kids talk to their kids. Interacting with other families that have faced similar challenges will give you and your children the outlet to ask questions that might seem "beyond" many of your friends who are not step-parents. I also think the value of family counseling cannot be overestimated. I'd go so far as to say that the vast majority of step-families could benefit from counseling and should avail themselves of it.
For more information on Dr. Keith Ablow, visit his site Living the Truth.