Category Archives: Blog

Communication In Relationships Part 2

Communication2

Last time we began a series on communication by looking at some unhealthy communication patterns. In reviewing that list, I must confess that I have, at one time or another, used every single one of those patterns. So, I am ready to look at some healthier ways to communicate.

Effective communication is about integrity—doing what you say and saying what you do. When we communicate honestly, the message we send clearly and accurately reflects the meaning we have in our heads. Honest communication is critical if you are going to connect with others in an accurate and meaningful way. Here are some suggestions for increasing the level of effectiveness in how you communicate.

Take responsibility for what you say. Good communicators are aware of their own ability to choose how they want to respond to another. They do not react to others, but rather express who they really are at the moment. Self-disclosure is their primary purpose for communicating. They know that their own thoughts, feelings and opinions are not controlled by someone else or by circumstances outside themselves.

Do not contradict. What the other person is saying is always valid for him/her. The primary purpose of communication is to mutually understand each other’s point of view. You may state your disagreement, but avoid the phrase, “Yes, but…” when you contradict another, you invite defensiveness or justification rather than clarification.

Keep your voice pitch and volume at a comfortable level. Screaming may help relieve you of anger, but it rarely invites others to listen to what you have to say. You generate more heat than light, and you invite others to defend themselves or tune you out.

Summarize and validate. Regularly take the time to summarize what you have heard, what you have said, and what you both have accomplished in the conversation. Be sure and include your own understanding of what the other has said. Validation means communicating, that given the other person’s perspective and beliefs, the way they feel makes perfect sense. Our willingness to consider the other person’s point of view as valid is what builds intimacy in relationships.

Listen to yourself and others. Do you like what you are saying and how you are saying it? Are you responding in ways that accurately reflect your true thoughts and feelings? Listening to others is half of the communication process. By listening to yourself, you might learn something about yourself as well as about the topic you are discussing.

Be direct. Speak your truth. Direct communication means you say what you mean and you mean what you say. We are not mind-readers. The more concise and direct the better.

Stay in the present. Talk about how you feel right now, not how you felt last week, last month, or last year. The past and future are too abstract and dependent on one’s own view.

Ask for what you want. Others cannot read your mind, your heart, or your stomach. No one can know what you are thinking, feeling, or when you are hungry…unless you let them know by making statements about yourself and asking directly for what you want. If you expect the other person to anticipate and guess about what you want, the likelihood is you won’t get it.

Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say before you start speaking. Planning ahead also means thinking about the other person. Is he or she more receptive to what you have to say before or after lunch? Is she or he having a good or bad day?

Avoid double messages. “I am not questioning your decision, I’m just wanting to know why you decided what you did” is an example of a double message. Double messages breed confusion, and create barriers to communication. Since there are always at least two messages sent, honesty is lost somewhere between them. Be clear and straight with messages.

Tell your truth. Even if the other person becomes angry or leaves the situation, tell the truth early in conversation. Refuse to let the other person’s attempt at manipulating you or denying the importance of what you are saying, detour you from speaking the truth. Choose to be honest. Don’t lie, even if you think it is going to get you what you want. It won’t. And the price of discovery is always too high.

Your verbal and nonverbal message should match. Do you ever say one thing and do another, insisting that what you are saying is the only message? Perhaps you say one thing and your body language is showing something different? Picture yourself saying, “I love you” with clenched jaws. Keep in mind that actions speak louder than words, and so does body language.

Next time, we will look at some practical ways to communicate effectively and explore the five levels of communication. In the meantime, speak your truth clearly and listen carefully to your children or partner. Communication is about building intimacy.

The Family That Eats Together Stays Together

EATS

Fact: Families spend less time together than they did twenty-five years ago. In an era of unprecedented time-saving devices, we are busier than ever and less connected to one another. This is particularly true in families. In Bowling Alone, researcher Robert Putman comments on 40 years of tracking the American family. Forty years of observing and noting the changes in the family. His conclusion—substantial declines in quality time among family members; dramatic declines in social and civic participation. In fact, the title of his book comes from data showing that while Americans are bowling more, league participation has dropped.

So why an article on eating together? Simple. Most families do not eat together. In fact, Putman has observed a one-third decline in family dinners; despite the fact that most of the families report that they place a high value on family meals. One study, looking at teen behavior, found a strong link between regular family meals and a number of positive outcomes: academic success, psychological adjustment, lower rate of drug and alcohol use, and risk of suicide.

Another study, of children ages 3-12, found that time spent eating at home was a better predictor of academic success and emotional adjustment than any of the following activities: school, homework, athletics, arts and religious participation.

Be honest, for how many of you do family meals involve fast food eaten in the van between activities? Or, for how many do family meals happen in front of the TV.

What accounts for this decline in families eating together? Data seems to indicate that tow issues are involved. The first is increased working hours for parents. The second is even more insidious—overscheduled children and disconnected families. Frantic families have become the norm. Kids are involved in soccer, karate, piano, scouts, gymnastics, tutoring and religious youth activities. Family life now revolves around children’s activities. A University of Michigan study shows that, in the last few years, children have lost an average of twelve hours a week in free time. Outdoor activity time has dropped nearly 50% while structured sports time and passive leisure time (TV, video games) have both risen.

Not only are children busier, but families are spending less overall “quality” time together. Conversations between parents and children are all but non-existent.

What are the results: tired children who do not get enough sleep. Busy families who are driven more by activities than values. Disconnected families that do not talk enough or only in the van to and from events. Precious little unstructured time, like a family dinner, to catch up, breathe and share our lives.

So what? Take a hard look at your family routine. Is it overbooked? Are you tired and frantic? Do you believe that your child will actually be better off with more activities? Why not cut back on a few activities and spend some unstructured time with your children. Start by planning some stay at home dinners together. No agenda, just family talk. Just a thought.

If you would like more details on the studies I cited, call or email me: 520-721-0800 or info@instepministries.com.

Communication In Relationships Part 1

Communication

If you plan to have healthy relationships, you must possess some effective relationship tools. One of the most important tools is communication, because the communication process is how we share who we are and what we want from a relationship. Communication is how we establish boundaries, and share our values, needs and concerns. Communication is how we solve problems, make decisions and resolve conflicts. Communication is the vehicle through which nurturing relationships are developed and the message of love is given. Ineffective communication can leave us frustrated, with our needs unmet.

Relational communication is about sharing information with another person. Communication is almost anything you do or don’t do. At any given moment during an interaction, you are simultaneously sending, receiving and decoding messages. Anything that causes some form of change (spiritual, emotional, physical or mental) in another person is communication. Non-verbal cues such as facial expression, silence or touch, for example, can convey as much meaning as spoken words. Effective communication happens when your message is accurately received by the other party and has the effects you desired. It is impossible to “not” communicate; effective communication is another story.

Effective communication is intentional; if you really want to communicate, you will work hard to do so. You will genuinely care and make sure your partner fully understands what you are trying to say. Behaviors that damage healthy communication are often used as weapons to defend ourselves or to attack another. Ineffective communication tends to be self-centered and self-protective. Below are examples of unhealthy communication.

Stonewalling—people stop communicating either because they don’t know what to say, are too afraid to say anything, or they use silence is a punishment. In any case, saying nothing abruptly stops communication. Communication is a “twoway street,” not a monologue.

Grilling—the communication version of 20 questions. One person harasses and harangues the other into a “confession,” or in other words, seeing it their way.

Mind-reading—occurs when one person assumes what the other is thinking or feeling without asking; then acts on that information as if it were true.

Blaming—is unhealthy for both parties, the “blamer” and the “blamee.” The blamer merely feels weaker and more helpless because assigning power or responsibility to another through blame, undercuts one’s own power and ability to respond. The blamee feels guilty or inadequate and simply quits communicating. Everyone loses.

Kitchen-sinking—is a scenario whereby a discussion of one issue ultimately opens the floodgates to a host of issues, most having little to do with the original topic. This is a great way to control or dominate a person or to shame them.

Accusations, criticisms, and negative innuendo—tend to disrupt the communication process in a dramatic way. These are the tools of a frightened, defensive or angry person. When we feel attacked, we want to defend ourselves. When we feel criticized, we become fearful, hostile or ashamed. When we are accused or criticized by innuendo, we feel helpless (or crazy).

The common theme of all these examples is a focus on self. These responses block the channels of communication. Effective communication is more than just words; it is the mechanism for growth and intimacy. Everyone communicates. The question is, “What are you communicating?” If you use any of the above, your communication is not only ineffective; it is destructive. Next time we’ll look at some healthier ways to communicate.

What’s Next For Me?

WHAT

Dating, re-marriage and the kids

Statistically, 75% of single parents will re-marry. Another statistic is that 60% of these marriages will themselves fail within two years – 75% if it is a third marriage (includes long-term cohabitation) for either of you! The toll this takes on your kids is devastating to their ability to have successful marriages of their own.

Good news!: Once you know how this dynamic works, you will know how to avoid causing upset in your “Home of Honor” that not only keeps the kids from harm, but also gives you a real chance at a permanent and healthy relationship. There is a future out there for you if you seek it with your eyes wide open. Here are some tips that can help you understand this difficult issue.

The Kids

When will we be ready to “move on”? On average, you will be ready to have a meaningful relationship in about two years. The kids, however, usually take longer. Depending on their ages and the extent of the emotional damage they may have suffered during the breakup of “Mom n’ Dad”, it can take three to five years for them to be able to handle seeing you start dating.

Why do the kids seem to be so upset or hostile to my meeting someone new? You may meet the “right person” who will make your household a much better place for you and the children. He or she might be “the perfect choice” and you would be right in assuming this is a real gain for your family. But, looking at things through the kids’ eyes, it is another loss. Remember, they have already lost “Mom’n’Dad”. Now you want them to share you with someone else? Great.

How soon should I introduce someone I’m seeing to my kids? We often jump the gun in this area. It is a legitimate concern to want to know how the person you’re interested in interacts with your kids. You think they may be right for you, but how about the kids? The two most common problems that arise seem to be that you can best find out how someone will be with your kids by closely observing them with other kids – especially their own. Remember, during courtship we all put our best foot forward. You want to be sure that “Peter Pan” doesn’t turn into “Captain Hook” a year into your marriage. The other problem is that the kids have a “Mom’n’Dad” shaped hole in their hearts. They are likely try filling that void by attaching themselves to whomever you think enough of to bring into the home environment. “Mom’n’Dad” becomes “Mom’n’Bill”. They then have to detach themselves when that relationship doesn’t pan out. Then its “Mom’n’Danny”. Attach – detach. “Mom’n’Fred”. Attach – detach. And so it goes. Eventually, they become like Velcro that has been used a lot. They no longer have the ability to attach to anyone – even the person they eventually marry! This is the “divorce gene”, isn’t it?

Building A Stepfamily That Lasts, Part Five

Building5

We have been exploring six building blocks to creating a stepfamily that lasts. Stepfamilies are complex. Stepfamily members experience unparalleled levels of stress and relational overload.

Family members must learn to overcome numerous barriers, including grief and loss, guilt and shame, loyalty issues, poorly-defined rules and roles, differing parenting styles, relationships with former spouses, and the list goes on.

It takes courage to be a stepfamily; it takes hard-work and commitment to stay a stepfamily. One thing is certain, you will be stretched.

Below are the six building blocks we have been discussing.

  • Develop trust.
  • Develop clear goals.
  • Learn to do conflict well.
  • Get family members to “buy-in” to the family.
  • Create an atmosphere of mutual accountability.
  • Create a family identity.

The fourth building block is to encourage family commitment. Family members need to “buy-in” to the family and the family-making process.

This is no easy task and happens only when every family member feels that their concerns, issues and needs have been heard and acknowledged. This is difficult, because family members are not close, communication is awkward, rules and roles are ambiguous and at least some of the members are uncertain if they even want to be part of the new family. Teenagers are the most difficult to get on board.

Some ways to increase family member buy-in:

  • Emphasize family values.
  • Build new traditions (but honor old ones).
  • Become a “listening” family. Really hear the concerns and needs of others.
  • Model a healthy marriage.
  • Reduce ambiguity: make rules, roles, expectations etc. crystal clear.
  • Give everyone a chance to have input.
  • Be tolerant and patient.

The fifth building block is to create an atmosphere of mutual accountability. Clear expectations and buy-in by family members leads to accountability interactions.

Accountability is the willingness of family members to be respectfully confronted by one another. Accountability allows others to speak into our lives and our beliefs; creating the possibility of real change and real growth.

Members enter a stepfamily with closely-held unrealistic expectations that must be respectfully exposed if the family is going to survive and thrive. Again, this must be a top-down process. The adult couple must work to resolve interpersonal discomfort, but they must also model a willingness to have difficult conversations.

The stepcouple must continue to emphasize the value and benefits of family buy-in.

Suggestions for increasing accountability:

  • Be intentional: One person defined accountability as “allowing someone to take us, kicking and screaming, to a place we really want to go.”
  • Expose and re-define expectations
  • Modeling of “tough” conversations by the adult couple
  • Become more comfortable with conflict; see conflict as growth-producing vs. destructive.
  • Believe that accountability and mutual respect lead to healthier family relationships.
  • Continue to emphasize the value of family buy-in. Continue to make rules and roles crystal clear.

The final building block is creating a sense of family that acknowledges that individual members may be a part of several families.

Healthy stepfamilies actually exist across two or more households. Families that accept this reality seem to thrive; those that insist on loyalty to “one family only” do not. Again, this is no easy task; family identity can be confusing in a stepfamily—boundaries are not clear or distinct.

Family members need to be valued for who they are.

  • Family members are valued, even those who are part of more than one family.
  • Other households are respected and never demeaned.
  • Adults build “parenting coalitions” to effectively parent.
  • Individual and family needs are met.
  • Members draw value from being a part of the family.

Building a stepfamily that lasts takes about five to seven years. . . so be patient. Let me suggest that you consider joining a stepfamily support group — a safe place to share ideas and receive encouragement.

“They Ganged Up On Me.”

Ganged2

A friend told me of yet another failed marriage last week. The husband is a friend of many in my Bible study group who, to a man, thought his marriage would work. Jim is a good man. He is successful without being a workaholic. He is gentle and caring. He planned to use the biblical model of family headship. With God’s help, he hoped to be the husband and dad Robin and her son and daughter by previous marriage seemed to so desperately need. He and Robin loved each other, had a shared faith, and went through premarital counseling with their pastor. The marriage lasted just over six months.

So far, all anyone has been able to get out of Jim is, “They ganged up on me”. What he and Robin had failed to accomplish was the understanding and mastery of issues surrounding his role in this new “instant family”.

There seem to be authority issues involved in stepfamily relations that differ greatly from the nuclear family context that, if not dealt with properly, will prevent you from achieving the New Normal you hope for in this marriage. Healthy environments have a nurturing structure, based on established boundaries for everyone in your household. This sets the stage for a realistic sense of self-worth and achievement that everyone in this new family needs in order to be part of a forward moving team.

“OK. Sounds great. I thought that’s what I was doing. But I keep getting ambushed! What’s up with that?” These are the questions I faced as a new stepparent. The hard lessons I learned underlined my lack of understanding of how remarkably different stepfamilies function as opposed to traditional nuclear families. If we are able to separate and define authority issues, however, success can be achieved. Much has been written about dealing with external problems. For now, let’s see what can be done to bring order in the face of the internal issues so we can eliminate them as eternal obstacles.

The word authority seems inadequate in describing the complexities surrounding stepfamily dynamics. All too often we find ourselves lost in the maze of “Just who’s in charge here?” Our role in this new family seems to become increasingly cloudy. What’s worse, we often feel cornered when we can’t get the word authority to fit the task at hand. If not resolved, this issue can rob a stepparent of the ability to make a positive contribution to the way the family functions. Resulting feelings of futility and personal irrelevance can be a marriage killer if not successfully addressed. If we don’t feel we’re allowed to perform our function as a part of the husband/wife team, we’ve lost the reason for joining the team in the first place, haven’t we? A healthy and nurturing marriage relationship cannot limit the function of one partner to that of breadwinner, cook, housemaid or sex partner alone. This is hardly a functioning partnership. No wonder so many stepparents come to the conclusion that “this isn’t what I signed up for” and decide the whole thing was a mistake.

There is hope. And it comes when we first realize that the issue of “authority” isn’t really the issue that defeats us. It is actually that one or more of the components of the concept of authority are not being properly understood. Authority means one thing in a work environment. It can be a very different thing at home. At work, we have the employer/employee relationship, which includes issues of management, supervision, standards of workmanship/productivity, punctuality and all of the things we face in the workplace on a daily basis. In your new household, the collection of issues that comprise authority in the head-of-family context are different and must be understood and mastered individually. Here are three major sub-issues that I encountered; the handling of which helped me reduce the stress, anarchy and chaos in my stepfamily. Authority in any variation of “yours, mine and ours” families involves issues of credibility, respect and governance. Let’s look at them separately.

Credibility: Credibility is something that can only be achieved over time. The key word is achieved. Having “your yes be yes and your no be no” consistently is a good way for the kids to be able to tell if you are a person of integrity. It is to be hoped that you and your new spouse were sure of each other in this regard before you re-married. As Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily and founder of Successful Stepfamilies has so ably illustrated, it takes time and patience when it comes to the kids. As Ron points out, the process of integration into a workable stepfamily usually takes anywhere from three to seven years, depending on the ages of the children. I believe the issue of credibility plays a significant role in just how long this process can take. The younger the children – the shorter the time. Generally. It can be more difficult and prolonged due to prior trauma or abuse issues. The task is to focus on being consistent and patient. Your goal in life is to be seen by the children as the most reliably stable factor in their lives.

When all is said and done, having your “yes be yes and your no be no” can add an area of peace in their lives that they may come to value in the face of the uncertainty they have been through. There is a joker in the deck you must be ready for. Establishment of credibility relies, to a great degree, on how the children perceive you. A big factor in how we receive, process and react to people and situations is our own internal perception system. It is the lens through which we view the world and those with whom we interact. That lens has been shaped, colored and sometimes fractured by our own experiences. Right or wrong, perceptions have the effect of reality in all of us. Consistency and patience can eventually overcome the wrong perceptions or even open hostility, which is often normal in kids who may view you initially as a usurper. Isn’t this a vital part of the mechanics of mentoring – the daily acts of doing what is right (even when it hurts) in a way that children can witness and imitate? Notice I didn’t say, “Tell them what is right”. The operative words are do and witness. These are wonderful lens cleaning tools.

Respect: There is a difference between respect and respectfulness. They may (and hopefully will) be integrated eventually, but are not reliant on each other. Respectfulness has to do with courtesy and communication. These factors are  important components in the establishment of boundaries. More about respectfulness in a moment.

Respect is a hoped for result of the consistent and patient practice of leadership skills. Respect is earned through a combination of personal integrity and mentoring. It is also dependent, to some degree, on whether or not the children are willing to grant that you are a person worthy of respect – and their standards will be high. Sometimes impossibly so. They may have difficulty in achieving an evolving concept of who you are due to things you have no responsibility for or control over (previous emotional trauma, for example). Always remember that this family is born out of loss. Be that as it may be, you are the adult. Nurturing and trying to mentor severely damaged children must be undertaken with realistic expectations on the part of both spouses and usually requires outside professional help.

I’m speaking here of acting in the face of the more typical defense mechanisms that children of divorce have had to establish. They want to know if you are their mom’s protector (and, therefore, theirs). They want to see if you put your new family’s welfare ahead of your own. Is this a difficult road to travel? You bet. And, again, it takes time. It may be helpful at this point to remind yourself that your true worthiness resides in you, through Christ, and depends on how realistically high a standard you’ve set for yourself. You want to be able to look back, in the end, and be able to say you consistently did your best in doing the right thing for your family.

Governance: This is the area in which your new marriage team has the ability to influence your family dynamics the most. And it can only be successful if you really are a team! Here are a few tips:

1. You cannot start out, in the vast majority of situations, as the family’s new Dad or Mom. The goal, instead, is to establish leadership authority as a new Marital Unit – not a new parenthood structure that the children (and ‘ex-es’), for a variety of reasons, often reject out of hand. This rejection can begin to be taken personally. And the rejection often has nothing to do with your personal worth as a parent or your ability, qualifications or loving concern for the kids. It can then develop into a root cause of frustration that can destroy stepfamilies from within if not dealt with through the mutual efforts of both spouses. It is the responsibility of each parent to make it clear to their own children that this new adult in the home is a co-leader of the family organization and has been invited to accept this job only after much prayerful consideration. Great care has been taken to ensure that this new marriage will be better for the family and will make the household a better and safer place in which to live – a household in which everyone will be valued and have a sense of belonging. Everyone will be able to contribute and everyone has the responsibility to do their best in working toward this goal. Make it gently (but firmly) clear that this was an adult decision – made by the adults – in the best interests of the entire family.

2. Be careful to avoid viewing governance issues and disciplinary issues as one subject. Here is an opportunity for couples to clearly establish a model of joint governance authority. I disagree with the current thought that only a bio-parent can discipline a child. This, in my experience, causes a divisive line that can only result in double standards that kids will resent. You end up trying to maintain two families under one roof and a house divided against itself. Response to infractions should be decided in private by both adults. The sentence is delivered by the bioparent. Use terms such as, “we have decided”, and, “when I’m not here, he/she has the same authority as I do” to reinforce that your new spouse wears the mantle of joint governance authority. This not only eliminates the “You’re not my dad/mom” rejection of authority for which we have very few comfortable and non-escalating responses, it also gives the child access to an automatic court of appeals through their bio-parent. Remember also that it is normal for kids to approach their bio-parent first for decisions. A good governance model will hopefully lead to one of those “hallelujah!” days when your stepchild comes to you first for advice. But this has to come from within them. If you have this as an immediate expectation, you will likely produce opposition and rebellion – which will actually delay the process.

3. Make it clear that you know it will take some time for everyone to become comfortable with the new structure. There will be stress – and not everyone will grow into the new family structure at the same rate of speed. The leadership structure, however, starts today and will not rely on everyone’s consensus. Both adults should be careful to reinforce each other’s status as a leader whenever it is questioned. It is hoped that over time affection, trust and genuine closeness will develop. But children must know from the outset that failure to recognize the authority of a family leader because “you’re not my dad/mom”, will be as productive as being pulled over for going 100mph on the Interstate and ignoring the cop who stops you because you haven’t opted to recognize his authority. Respect for you as an individual involves the establishment of trust, which takes time and is an earned commodity. Respect for your authority as a leader, however, must be insisted upon and reinforced by both adults at all times. The idea that your new spouse and your children need to “just work it out” by themselves places him or her in an unfair, unsupported and often unworkable situation that creates warfare rather than unity. The rule for building family unity must be: “In this household, even if you don’t particularly know or like someone very well, politeness and respectfulness are a requirement.” And respect for leadership authority is a constant expectation. From everyone. No exceptions.

4. It is a valid assumption that, in order for you to be in a stepfamily, at least one of you spent some time in the challenging life of single-parenthood. A by-product of single-parenthood is often the reflexive drive to shelter your children from further strife and hurt. All of us recognize the trauma they have been through. Unfortunately, many of us are too quick to come to our children’s defense and do not allow or even encourage them to fight the battles they must learn to fight (nomatter how unfair they seem). The goal is to equip them with the coping skills they need in order to become healthy adults. Their growth into successful adulthood is the primary goal of parenthood, isn’t it?. It is vital to your new marriage that you work hard to let your single-parenthood fade into a memory of something you survived or even triumphed over.

Excessive or reflexive defensiveness in the face of your new mate’s exercise of governance authority can torpedo the whole stepfamily dynamic in that it marginalizes their authority over at least some of the children now in their care. Real issues will probably arise as each one of you works toward management styles that suit your abilities as a new team. But teamwork is the ultimate goal. Momma Bear lunging out of her cave too quickly to defend her cubs who “have been through a lot and don’t need you hounding them” can derail this. Sound familiar? Get thee (BOTH of you) to a professional counselor. If you’ve reached this point, there is probably stuff both of you need to get a handle on and these issues must be dealt with away from the kids. It is an unfortunately common experience for us to be unaware of the extent to which this mindset is at work in us. It is also common for us to be more able to see it in someone else. This is the They Ganged Up On Me Syndrome. In the absence of abusive intent, work hard to “let it go”. Fine-tune the process in private with your mate (and not until your nostrils quit flaring). Work in the belief that your prayerful judgment in selecting this new co-leader was good. Be willing to trust your new mate – especially if you are a mother of boys. Boys grow into manhood by striking sparks with other males; preferably functional men rather than women and other boys.

Being a stepparent is, in a lot of ways, more like starting a new job as an executive manager than as a new mom or dad. Good management technique can be more useful than the traditional family model most of us carry in our minds. The nuclear family is simply not the appropriate model upon which to base the stepfamily adventure. The relational dynamics are quite often “outside of the box” of traditional parenting. Boundaries often need to be a bit wider. Governance authority, exercised in an encouraging way, can achieve the result you are seeking.

© 2003 Thomas B. Wheeler, Changing Families, PO Box 1470, Mt Pleasant, SC 29465-1470

Non-Traditional Family Continuum Of Care

continuumofcareStepfamily ministry is a rather new phenomenon. With an increase in the number of non-traditional families (e.g. stepfamilies, single-parent families), the need to learn how to dialogue with these new family forms has risen. These families face challenges that can be very different from those of traditional nuclear families. Stepfamilies, for example, have unique dynamics and characteristics, yielding a variety of different needs.

The role of the church, however, is not different. We are to encounter these families at whatever stage we find them. Our task is to help them heal, strengthen and affirm their marriages, assist them in the faith formation of their children, fold them into our faith community and equip them for service. How does the church connect with and effectively minister to these families? Critical to effective ministry is an understanding of the important events in the life of a single-parent or stepfamily. These events become touch points for the church to connect and walk with these families. Each event calls for a different level of response. The Non-traditional Family Continuum of Care© is built around these events, and provides an overview of the scope of ministry and the sequence of how a stepfamily forms and develops.

 

graphic

What is the Non-traditional Family Continuum of Care?

The Continuum of Care is a developmental model for understanding the scope and sequence of stepfamily ministry. The model provides a panoramic view of the key events and processes that are involved in the development and ongoing life of stepfamilies. At a deeper level, it is represents a philosophy of ministry; one that sees as its goal the integrating of various diverse family groups into the community of the church. The purpose of stepfamily ministry is not to segregate stepfamilies, but to affirm and recognize their unique needs and challenges and integrate them into the body of believers.

What purpose does this model serve?

First, the Continuum of Care serves as a model for understanding the developmental nature of stepfamily life and the various touch points for ministry. Second, it serves as a tool for choosing specific ministries that a ministry team could implement based on the mission, needs and resources of their local congregation. Finally, it helps to identify resources for specific ministry components.

How does it work?

Non-traditional families are formed through life events such as death, divorce or adoption. How does the Church provide care and stay connected with individuals and families who experience these events? The model answers this question by providing three distinct levels of interaction. First, it identifies life events (e.g., divorce, engagement, remarriage) and how individuals and families process through them. Second, it defines various family formations (e.g. divorced singles, children of divorce, single parents, stepfamilies). Third, it identifies critical opportunities for intervention and ministry.

Let’s look at the various components of the model (refer to the picture above). Not every church will have all these components. Each church will choose the ones that best fit their needs, resources and mission.

The continuum of care flows bi-directionally from the remarriage event. To the left of this event, is the sequence leading to remarriage. This sequence typically begins with a death or divorce. Divorced or widowed individuals will filter into Single or Single Parent groups and ministries. When singles and/or single parents meet and begin dating, they will need relationship and pre-remarriage counsel and education. It is critical that these individuals learn healthy relationship and divorce prevention skills because approximately 80% of them will remarry. At the decision to remarry, the couple (and family) will need mentoring as well as pre-remarital counseling and preparation.

It is critical that these individuals learn healthy relationship and divorce prevention skills because approximately 80% of them will remarry.

When a remarriage occurs, the event should be acknowledged and celebrated by the congregation and the new marriage and family affirmed. There are approximately 1,300 remarriages every day, and currently, most do not occur in churches.

Stepfamily life begins at the remarriage event. On the continuum, to the right of this event, are various ministry interventions designed to support and maintain the health of the new stepfamily. These include stepfamily education, mentoring and support—to create stability for the new family. Later, as the family is fully integrated into the life of the church, they will join other couples and families and participate in a wide range of marriage enrichment and parenting groups, events and classes.

A useful tool to assist the local church

The Continuum of Care can be a useful tool to assist the local church in ministering effectively to the non-traditional families in their congregations and communities. At its heart, it is about building relationships; relationships that affirm, include and ultimately transform. Few churches can or will choose to create programs to minister to all the groups listed; however, the model demonstrates how these ministries interconnect and can facilitate the healing and equipping of individuals and families as it integrates them into the life of the local church.

Building A Stepfamily that Lasts, Part Four

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We have been exploring six building blocks to creating a stepfamily that lasts. Stepfamilies are the most complex family form. They experience unparalleled levels of stress and relational overload. Virtual strangers, armed with baggage from past disappointments and a great deal of courage, are asked to embark on a perilous journey into the vast unknown called “stepfamily.” If you are in a stepfamily, you know I am not being overly-dramatic. So the task is to survive, knowing that over 60% of those who start this journey never reach their destination. To review, below are the six building blocks to stepfamily success.

  1. Develop trust.
  2. Develop clear goals.
  3. Learn how to do conflict well.
  4. Get family members to “buy-in” to the family.
  5. Create an atmosphere of mutual accountability.
  6. Create a family identity.

We have already discussed the first two. The third step is to create an atmosphere conducive to healthy conflict. All relationships require productive conflict to grow. Many stepfamily members, however, view conflict as “bad” and something to be avoided. The truth is, most of us do not do conflict well.

We take one of two extremes—we either hide or attack.

We take one of two extremes—we either hide or attack. Healthy conflict is tough in stepfamilies because most family members bring a great deal of emotional woundedness into the family. These wounds limit their ability to listen, communicate, express needs, and in particular, to solve problems. While there are no easy solutions, families can begin by “blaming” the situation (we are a group of strangers trying to become a family) rather than one another.

Healthy Conflict Vs. Destructive Fighting

How do you create a safe atmosphere that encourages healthy conflict? It is critical to distinguish between healthy conflict and destructive fighting. Violence, name-calling, yelling, etc. will not promote family growth; neither will apathy, stuffing feelings, or passive-aggressive behavior. Healthy conflict is solutionfocused; it avoids attacking the character of others. Healthy conflict does not avoid an issue for fear of “hurting” someone’s feelings. Unless issues are addressed and resolved, we are doomed to re-visit them—over and over.

OK, how do we start? First, send the message that conflict is productive and that your family is committed to finding “good-enough” solutions. Conflict must be viewed as an opportunity to grow, not to attack one another’s character. Next, family members must be encouraged to address issues. Healthy conflict happens in a atmosphere that encourages family members to respectfully address (vs. stuff, ignore, pretend) issues. Parents must model being comfortable with conflict, and then allow other family members to engage in productive, but possibly uncomfortable, discussions. This poses a tremendous challenge for biological parents in stepfamilies, who tend to rush to the aid of their children, thus short-circuiting growth-producing dialog.

Focus on Finding Solutions

Healthy conflict plays vital role in stepfamily development—it helps us focus on finding solutions. It enhances communication, encourages family growth and sets a tone for safety and respect in the family. Become a stepfamily that will deal with issues as they arise; dare to experience the discomfort of healthy conflict. Resist the tendency to avoid issues or overprotect. Model healthy conflict in your family. Next time we will look at family buy-in. Embrace the journey.

A Few Thoughts about Stepfamilies

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My wife Judi and I were recently interviewed by Natalie Gillespie about what it takes to be s successful stepfamily. The first thing we learned (the hard way) was that the first few years are very tough as family members try to adjust to one another and “blend” different rules and roles and routines. Stepfamily life is not for the weak of heart. If you are considering remarriage, please take the time to get prepared. Good News has a list of websites that provide stepfamily resources. So here is our list of Do’s and Don’ts for stepfamilies.

  1. Do find others to walk with you. It helps to have someone rooting from the sidelines. Too often stepfamilies isolate themselves. A great solution is to find a stepfamily support group near you.
  2. Don’t only talk about your troubles to family and friends who are not in a stepfamily situation. They may react with sympathy and agree, “You’re right” or “That’s horrible” which only reinforces yourtrauma. Other stepcouples will respond, “Yeah, I remember that; we got through that.”
  3. Do keep in mind that there may always be a certain amount of tension at stepfamily gatherings. Some children may never bond. Do the best you can, and accept whatever they can receive.
  4. Don’t take it personally, especially all you stepmoms. You are nurturers by nature, and it is hard not to love freely. However, the kids’ rejection is not a personal reflection on you. The best advice we can give stepparents is to allow relationships to build slowly. Don’t take on the “parental” or ‘disciplinarian” role too soon.
  5. Do leave a legacy of love. One of the best things you can do is aim to show all your kids what healthy love looks like. Love them as unconditionally as you can, and show them what a loving marriage relationship is. It may be the only one they see.
  6. Don’t measure your success by how well the kids relate or how much they are willing to have a relationship with you. Let your standard be that you are doing what God wants you to do for them.
  7. Do the right thing, without expectation of payment. Revel in the satisfaction of knowing you are right with Him.
  8. Don’t get into emotional “tit for tats” with your husband or wife’s former spouse. The kids get caught in the middle, and the spouse starts pulling away. Everybody loses. Learn to let go of what you cannot control and don’t allow yourself to be motivated by bitterness or revenge.
  9. Do let God work on you and your spouse. Let Him do the job of changing things. Then, share the wonderful things He has done with others! Model love, grace and forgiveness to your children.
  10. Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight. Have patience in the perfecting. God often takes His time. You have to be okay with the dynamic of waiting. Well, these are some of the lessons we learned. Perhaps you have learned others. I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, live and love well.

Building a Stepfamily that lasts, Part Three

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We are continuing in our series Building a Stepfamily that lasts. We recommend you reading Part One & Part Two before reading this one.

We have been exploring six building blocks to creating a stepfamily that lasts. We know that stepfamilies begin as a group of virtual strangers with little in common. Actually, stepfamilies are the combination of several “mini-families” such as a mom and her children or a dad and his children (even if they do not live with him). Ways of doing things in one mini-family may seem foreign (or weird) to another. So, the task is to combine these families into one. In my experience, this takes about four to seven years to accomplish. Below are the six building blocks to stepfamily success.

  1. Develop trust among family members by creating an atmosphere where it
  2. is safe to disclose and be vulnerable.
  3. Develop clear family goals and identify obstacles to growth.
  4. Address the inability to have healthy conflict.
  5. Increase buy-in and commitment by family members.
  6. Create an atmosphere of mutual accountability.
  7. Create a family identity.

Last time, in part two, we learned that the foundation of a great stepfamily is trust. Why is trust so important? Without trust we cannot truly experience love. Without trust, relationships become shallow and self-serving. Without trust there is no hope or joy.

Clear Family Goals

The next building block is the development of clear family goals and the identification of obstacles to growth. The obstacles are easiest to identify. For example, few families have or even talk about goals. In stepfamilies, the biggest obstacles are unrealistic expectations and competing family systems (the mini-families we mentioned earlier). Expectations create a picture of how the family should look and act. It is unlikely that the various family “pictures” match up. Few stepfamily couples know how to move their family to a place of healthy connection. Many assume that a “nuclear-like family” will some how emerge and everyone will instantly get along and act like family. Instant family is a myth and stepfamilies never look or act exactly like nuclear families.

Few stepfamily couples know how to move their family to a place of healthy connection.

What we can do is get everyone talking. Start by asking what each member wants and needs. Listen to their stories. Give permission for frank (not disrespectful) talk. Don’t be frustrated if some members are reluctant or resistant. People open up and develop trust in their own time. Ultimately, as family members feel free to share their needs, fears and gripes, and have a sense that these things matter, discussions about family goals will become much easier. Below are a few examples of healthy goals for your family.

  • • Individual personalities are valued (vs. being clones)
  • • Mistakes and failures are handled with tolerance and compassion—as growth and teaching opportunities
  • • There are clear family roles and rules and non-shaming fair consequences
  • • Personal faith is shared and lived out
  • • Family is a safe place to share emotions and work out issues
  • • Care and respect for others is modeled and encouraged
  • • There are no family secrets
  • • Members take responsibility for their own choices and actions without blaming, mind-reading, denying or feeling victimized.

The biggest obstacle to developing family goals is the unrealistic expectations of each family member. Take the time to understand and gently confront these expectations. This is a bumpy process, but don’t be discouraged. Next time we will tackle how in part four.