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Escape the Stepparent Trap

Written by Kathy Watson

Conflicts over parenting plague every stepfamily. Here's how to get past them.

Greg Netzer remembers a particular snowy night in Michigan with his 7-year-old stepdaughter Hannah. It was cold and there was a full moon. Hannah's mother, Sarah, was teaching late.

Make sure your adult needs are met. It's hard to parent well if you and your spouse have no time together.
Avoid no-win questions like "Who are you going to listen to, me or your ex-husband?"
Let your kids decide what they will call the stepparent. Don't push "Dad" or "Mom."

"We went sledding in the moonlight, and it was just hilariously fun," says Netzer. The experience stands out in his mind, he says, because it was free of the adult conflicts that so often characterize stepparenting.

James H. Bray, a clinical and family psychologist in Houston, Texas, says that while conflict between parents in nuclear families is normal, it is more intense and almost unavoidable in blended families.

Bray, who is co-author of Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage and Parenting in the First Decade, points out that people come into a stepfamily with different ideas about parenting. It's the blended family's task in the early years to figure out how to come together and forge agreements.

He concedes that conflicts don't disappear even after stepfamilies deal with the basics. "It can become a loyalty issue," he says. A stepfather, for instance, may think his wife is siding with the kids rather than him over discipline questions.

Bray's book, based on a 10-year study of 200 blended families in Texas, concludes that every stepfamily has to master four things to be successful:

-Parenting skills
-A strong marital bond
-Rolling with the constant changes of stepfamily life
-Developing a working relationship with the nonresidential parent

So how can these goals be accomplished?

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