Military stepfamilies face unique stressors. These can include a rigid military lifestyle, frequent moves that lead to separation from friends, family members, children, and the other biological parent, and the ever-present concern over short or long-term deployments. Combine these stressors with the results of the study shown above and you have a challenging environment in which to try to blend a family. If you are a military stepfamily, try these tips for overcoming the stress and restoring peace to your blending household while living in the 3D’s (demands, distance, and deployments).
The rigid military lifestyle. Although you or your spouse is a part of a highly disciplined and rigid military unit, your stepfamily is not. As with any family, flexibility, laughter, compassion, and understanding will help your stepfamily to succeed. But none of these are taught in basic training! Try this when rigidity invades your home:
- Military structure is for just that, the military. Remember, it is the relationship that you are steadily building with your stepchildren that will allow you the authority to make rules and enforce consequences, not your choice of careers. Be careful not to force military grade structure on to your stepchildren if you haven’t yet earned the right to lead through relationship.
- Starting new traditions is a great way to help your family blend and to overcome rigidity. Be open to having family meetings and allowing everyone to have input into what new traditions they would like to start.
Frequent moves. The military is a transient lifestyle. Frequent moves cause noncustodial parents to face long separations from their children, and can produce an increased sense of shame and guilt over not being an active part of their children's lives. Custodial military parents, also face isolation from extended family relationships that might otherwise lend stability to their family. If you find yourself apart from your children or extended family keep these things in mind.
- If you are a custodial parent, be understanding of your children and stepchildren who are feeling a deep sense of loss over moving away from friends and other family members—including a biological parent. Allow them to speak openly and honestly about their feelings without minimizing their loss or reacting to their anger. And make sure to have open paths of communication for the children between your home and their other biological parent. Keep them in contact as much as possible.
- If you or your spouse is the non-custodial parent, help each other to overcome any feelings of anxiety or helplessness over moving away from children by working as a family on a long distance plan. Include things such as staying in touch through social media, making plans for live video messaging, and creating a calendar that highlights dates the children will have their next face-to-face visit with family members.
Deployments. Where there is confusion over family roles there will always be stress, so it follows that the deployment of a spouse creates high role confusion. Deployments can force stepparents to take on the added role of full-time parent before they or the children may be ready for them to assume that role. It may also force a stepparent into dealing with an ex-spouse on highly stressful co-parenting matters. Try the following to lower your families stress before, during and after the deployment.
Before the deployment
- Keep in mind that stepparents have no legal rights and require a notarized power of attorney from the biological parent in order to seek emergency medical treatment, to register stepchildren for school, or even to sign them up for extracurricular activities. Your base Judge Advocate General (JAG) can help you with this free of charge.
- Be proactive and create a deployment parenting plan with your new spouse and your ex that includes routine life and emergency contingencies and an agreed upon course of action for each. Make sure to include picking up and dropping off children or arranging travel if required for visitation, medical emergency notification, payment of any child support, and any other possible issues that could affect your family and your ex while you are away.
During the deployment
- Keep the deployed spouse updated on what is happening in the house with the understanding that they may not be able to respond to every issue you are facing given the stress they may be under at the time.
- Utilize all of the resources of your base Family Readiness Group and Family Advocacy Programs to help you while your spouse is away. The base chapel is also a great place to seek help when you do not know where to turn.
After the deployment
- Treat the re-integration stage of your deployment the same as you treated your first year as a new stepfamily. Take things slow and easy while gradually making changes back to the way you parented in both parent and stepparent roles before the deployment.
- If needed, seek help early for any problem situations that might arise after the deployment. Use Military OneSource which offers six free, confidential, family and individual counseling sessions to active duty, guard, and reservists.