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Stepfamilies: Problem-Solving

Daily communication and family meetings are vital tools to keep your stepfamily running smoothly, but what do you do when there is…(cue the shark music)…conflict?!

Ah, conflict. As we all know, stepfamilies are full of it. In the following list, I'll lead you through a basic five-part approach to resolving interfamily struggles.

Before you begin your problem-solving, let's briefly explore a few general conflict-resolution approaches:

  • The unilateral adult as Big Boss, “because I say so” approach. Many of us are guilty of at least occasionally falling into this trap. It might work for a moment, but the problem isn't really resolved—it's just been overruled. Beware of the ugly overrule! Those overruled issues are gonna come back when you least expect them, and they'll bring along their aunts, uncles, and Big Uncle Bubba.
  • The “Anything you say, L'il Darlin'” approach, where the adults roll over and play dead while the kids run wild. If you let this happen, you're not exactly going to be filled with self-respect and happiness. (“Boys and girls, can you say re-sent-ment?”)
  • The “You give a little, I'll give a little, let's make a deal!” approach. This is otherwise known as compromising. `It ain't bad, but it's sort of like nonfat sour cream: It doesn't quite hit the spot.
  • The “win-win, come on, everybody, get happy” approach that involves collaboration and cooperation. When you problem-solve, you seek a solution that may not be initially obvious. Problem-solving has some real bonuses in terms of training people how to get along in the world. It teaches respect and empathy, it empowers a child by using her as a collaborator in solving her own problems, and it teaches her how to think through problems, apply logic, come up with solutions, and act respectfully and responsibly.

A Problem-Solving Approach

You can problem-solve in family meetings or one-on-one. Here's how to do it:

Stepping Stones

Kids are smart. If you listen hard enough, they may just give you the answers both you and they need.

Step 1: Define the Problem

“Wassup?” (In this example, the stepchild is having a problem with you, the stepparent. If you're having the problem with Sarah, you can try to have her do active listening, or you can skip to Step 3.)

Say the issue is Sarah's desire to hang out with her friends on weekends instead of coming to visit you. Use active listening. When you paraphrase what Sarah has said, state her feelings as well as her words. Give her room to correct you and amplify. Keep cool! Don't jump in with judgment (“I feel so rejected!”), criticism (“You teenagers are all alike!”), analysis (“This seems to be a case of misplaced hostility”), or advice (“You should…”).

Step 2: Empathize

Let Sarah understand that you “get” her problem and know how she feels. This step isn't about you, though, so keep it short: “I used to hate having to go visit my grandma in the nursing home every weekend, especially when my friends had regular Sunday lunches at the pizza parlor.”

Step 3: Say What You Think and Feel

Use “I” statements: “Sarah, when you don't come to visit us, I feel sad because I miss you, and I worry that our special time as a family is being compromised. I'm also concerned that you won't be participating in family responsibilities.” Whatever you do, don't blame Sarah: “You're destroying our family!” If you express yourself in a clear, respectful way, Sarah might begin to understand your perspective. As you begin to look for solutions, try not to compromise, give in, or exert your own mighty will.

Step 4: Brainstorm for Possible Solutions

Brainstorming is a way to produce lots of creative ideas in a short time. Your creative brainstorming session may very well provide a surprising—and pleasing—solution. Here are the brainstorming rules and procedures (these were inspired and adapted from William Sonnenschein's book, Workforce Diversity):

  • Have one person write down all the ideas generated. This works best if it's on a chalkboard or a white board so that everybody can see what's been written down.
  • You can start by taking turns, but don't stick to such formality for too long. Jump in! Get excited! Generate as many ideas as possible. Let the juices flow!
  • Try to stay away from the words and phrases “should,” “I would,” “I think,” and “If you ask me.”
  • No judgments or idea rejection is allowed. This is a free-for-all, sometimes silly time: “Sarah should be forced to come over, and be locked in her room!” “Sarah can use her allowance to hire a maid to do her chores!” “Let's have the whole crew of kids visit on weekends; they can sleep in my room, and I'll go to a motel!” “Sarah should drop out of school and visit on Tuesdays!” Often the silliest, most ridiculous, most unfeasible concept leads to brilliance.
  • Let one idea generate another. (“Maybe she can go to school here and stay with her mother on weekends!” “Yeah, and then we don't have to share a room anymore!”)
  • Stop. Read what you've got. Now get real—cross out the ones that don't work, and combine the similar ideas.
  • Here's the serious part: Evaluate, prioritize, and decide on the ideas you have left.
  • After you evaluate the brainstorming ideas, agree on a trial solution. Say you've decided: “Sarah can skip every other weekend and arrive early on the next Friday, but she's gotta do her Sunday chores on the Sundays she's here and trade with Lucy on dishwashing duty on the Fridays she's here.” Write it down.

You, the adults, may have arrived at the same conclusion or option without the brainstorming session, but including the whole family (or at least Sarah) assures that everybody understands the decision and is more likely to agree with it.

Step 5: Act On It

Once you've decided on a solution, put it into play. (“I'll call Sarah's mom to make sure this will work.” Then follow up. Check back in after a while, perhaps at the next family meeting, to see how it's working. If it isn't, maybe you need to do the problem-solving process again.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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