Stepgrandparenting &mdash the delights and the dilemmas of changes in the family

Barbara Wall was a stepmother for 14 years. It was the hardest job she’s had.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to admit how hard it is,” she said.

That’s why she became a stepfamily coach as part of her business, Halcyon Transitions, in Springfield, Ill. Wall helps people resolve or avoid conflict as they move through various phases of life. She specifically trained with the Stepfamily Foundation to become a coach.

The Stepfamily Foun-dation — a New York-based agency established to provide practical help to those who are co-parenting, in second marriages or have nontraditional families — reported that stepfamilies are growing by about 50,000 people a month. Every day 1,300 couples with children under 18 remarry. One out of six children lives in a stepfamily. It’s an issue that involves the entire family — even grandparents — as values, rituals and rules collide. The remarriage of parents can potentially involve the addition of four stepgrandparents for a child.

A recent study noted that one-third of grandparents have at least one stepgrandchild. Most acquire them when their own children remarry, although they may also gain stepgrandchildren if they themselves remarry.

Most of the challenges with stepchildren involve the parents, though grandparents are not immune, Wall said.

“It’s not going to be instant love. Talk to the parents and the new spouse about their expectations and what they’re comfortable with,” she said. “[Grandparents] need to be understanding of what their natural grandchildren might be feeling if they try to bond too quickly with those new kids.”

Wall suggested trying not to compete with the child’s natural grandparents and asking the parents whether it’s acceptable to send cards or gifts to the child. Grandparents should also be careful not to shower their grandchildren with gifts in front of stepchildren, who aren’t given the same tokens. Whether any of these issues come into play, however, depends largely on how close the stepchildren live to you, whether they live with your adult child and how old they are.

Often, younger children will bond more easily to their stepgrandparents. That was the case for Jack and Violet Carncross, who have eight stepchildren and eight stepgreat-grandchildren.

“We’ve always been close, just as close as with the grandkids,” Jack Carncross said.

Several of his stepgreat-grandchildren visited him during a hospital stay this year and while he recovered in a nursing home. They recently stopped by to show off their Halloween costumes.

“Enjoy them. That’s what kids are for,” he said. “Take advantage of them, because they’re only little once.”

Wall said if the children seem to be dealing with divided loyalties, stepgrandparents should take it slow and let the children establish the relationship. Above all, she said grandparents should realize that with the high number of divorces, their stepchildren might even come and go. She said two out of three remarried couples end up getting a divorce.

“You might be a little reluctant to form a relationship with these kids and have them taken away,” Wall said. “Remember the kids didn’t ask to be put in this situation.”

Good stepgrandparents are patient, supportive, caring and noncompetitive, she added. “Respect them and give them as much support as you can,” Wall said. “Give it time, and let it grow naturally.”