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Coping Well Begins With Counseling

December 10, 1999|SPECIAL TO WASHINGTON POST

Psychologist Sonya Stagnoli says stepfamily counseling works best if it begins before any resentment and anger erupt--and preferably before the wedding.

"Often in the very beginning of a stepfamily, things feel very wacky and very foreign. Perhaps you have a woman who has gone from living alone to suddenly facing a house full of kids," she says. "The earlier you get in [to a therapist] the better. At the end of the sessions, the family should have developed competence to deal with issues as they arise."

Other experts on stepfamilies offer various survival tips, nearly all of which jibe with a basic rule for living a sane life: Compassion, empathy and communication go a long way.

* Level with your child. Don't sugarcoat potential traumas and don't lie. For example, suppose your child says he's afraid he's losing you. "The reality is that, yes, you and your child probably won't have as much one-on-one time together," says Lawrence Ganong, a University of Missouri professor of human development and family studies.

* Tap gently below the surface. "Continually observe, check out and communicate with your children about their comfort level," says Washington psychologist Richard Mikesell. "Approach it this way," advises Marjorie Engel of the Stepfamily Assn. of America: " 'I imagine you're wondering about . . .' Direct questions will just put them on the spot."

* Keep the kids posted but don't give them veto power. Explain what will change, what won't, and try to incorporate those changes into the existing household as slowly as possible. "Perhaps you will paint all of the children's rooms but let everyone keep their existing space," says Engel. "Let them know you are considering them and their issues in the whole process, but do not allow the kids to make final decisions."

* Include the children in the wedding, a gesture that boosts the child's self-worth in the new family. "Even if a child is in the ceremony, you should arrange to have an adult friend or relative oversee the care of the child while you are so busy," says Engel. "That person can at least give the kid a hug a few times throughout the day."

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