The issue of sexuality in the stepfamily recalls the childhood story of The Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor chose to ignore the reality that he was clad only in his underwear. Adults who remarry often ignore the reality of sexual attraction between stepsiblings and even between stepparents and stepchildren. The thoughts in this article are gleaned from Positive Discipline for Your Stepfamily.
Couples who remarry lack the privacy afforded by first marriages. They don't have the option of openly expressing intimate affection absent an inquisitive audience. One precocious three year old grabbed his dad's hand and dragged him towards the bathroom saying, "Come on Dad, Meg (his new stepmother) 's taking a shower! Sexual energy may be pervasive in the stepfamily and little folks will be very aware, but will need assistance in discussing such a sensitive subject. The rule of thumb is that affectionate touching and hugging are great around the children and sexual contact is saved for behind closed doors.
Nelsen, Erwin and Glenn offer five common sense suggestions:
- Address the issue directly. If you get a hint that your children might be attracted to each other or to one of you, don't discount your perception. Invite your children to ask you questions and notice their responses. Let your kids know that it's okay to ask questions.
Be aware of touch. From the time they are very young, children should be taught that they control their bodies and have the right to refuse uncomfortable touch. They need to practice saying, "Stop! I don't like that." It is probably wise for the stepparent to let the child know that they are open to hugs, but allow the child to initiate the contact. It is helpful when family members agree to honor anyone's request to "Please stop!"
Demonstrate firm boundaries with children. If children behave in ways that feel uncomfortable to you or if they display inappropriate touch, it is important that you let them know in a manner that is both firm and kind. If you don't you will be building distance and discomfort into your relationship. Speak to them gently and specifically so they are assured that you appreciate their affection and they know how to show it in an acceptable manner.
Use the family meeting format to openly discuss comfort zones so everyone can feel safe and respected. It is important to begin by communicating as a couple to understand your individual preferences and beliefs. When you're ready to include your children you may explore topics such as bathroom behavior, entering rooms and appropriate attire. A useful guideline is that everyone has the right to feel respected and ask for what they need.
If you need help, consult a professional. If the family doesn't know how to talk about sexual behavior calmly, that's okay, too. There are lots of things that people don't know. When you invest in getting what you need, you are investing in the future of your entire family.
"Physical closeness and affection can be among the best parts of being a family---when they happen in the right way. It's normal to feel a little uncomfortable with new family members, especially at the beginning. Remember that respect and sensitivity now will pave the way for warmth and closeness as you grow together."
Nelsen, Jane, Erwin, Cheryl, and Glenn, H. Positive Discipline for Your Stepfamily. Roseville, CA: Prima, 2000. 220-221.