Understanding Family Structures and Dynamics

Family Having A Meal Together At Home
©iStockphoto.com/Catherine Yeulet
There are different types of family structures, including the nuclear family above.

Despite the changing lifestyles and ever-increasing personal mobility that characterize modern society, the family remains the central element of contemporary life. Families offer companionship, security, and a measure of protection against an often uncaring world. But family structure, like society at large, has undergone significant changes in the years since World War II. While the nuclear family -- with Dad, Mom, and offspring happily coexisting beneath one roof-remains the ideal, variations in family structure are plentiful -- and often successful. Whatever your particular family situation, it will have tremendous influence upon your baby's happiness, development, and future. In this article, we will examine all of the many variations of the family structure and its inherent dynamics over the following sections:

  • The Nuclear Family

    The Nuclear Family is traditionally thought of the parents and the siblings. Though this is the most basic family arrangement, it also rife with complexities. One thing parents much consider is whether to have multiple children. This question raises a host of others, such as, the effect of being the oldest, youngest, and middle child. We will also discuss only children and children who are much older than their siblings. Finally we will talk about how to form strong family bonds.

  • The Extended Family

    The extended family refers to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. A strong relationship with your extended family can be just as rewarding as close ties inside the nuclear family. However, building those bonds inside the extended family can be a little more difficult because, obviously, everyone does not live under the same roof. In this section, we offer some suggestions for building a close extended family.

  • Working Parents

    The decision to go back to work can be a tough one to make for new parents. Naturally, the financial stability of a regular paycheck can take a lot of pressure of your household. Then again, missing your child's first encounters with the world cannot be replaced. Each family must learn how to make this difficult decision for themselves, but on this page you will find some advice for weighing the pros and cons. We will also talk about corporate benefits for new parents and how to make the time you have with your child count.

  • Single Parents

    Numerous extenuating circumstances can result in a single parent. Traditionally, single parents are thought to be a product of a divorce, but a widower or a mother who had never been married can also be a single parent. Regardless of the causes, single parents face an uphill battle. On this page, we will offer some advice for dealing with an ex-spouse and a child who misses their other parent. While being a single parent is difficult, it can be just as rewarding a traditional, nuclear family.

  • Older Parents

    Parents who have children later in life face several advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, they are most likely more financially stable, secure in their job and home, and clear about what they want. On the other hand, they probably have less energy than their younger counterparts and the situation will only be more pronounced as their child matures. On this page, we will lay out all of the positives and negatives to help you make the most informed decision possible.

  • Much Older Siblings

    If you have another child many years after your first born, your new baby may have three parents. A much older sibling can help watch, mentor, and care for your new baby. Of course, not every big brother or sister will want to embrace this role. On this page, we will examine the pros and cons of much older siblings.

  • Younger Parents

    Parents who have children in their teens face a variety of problems. First, there is the social stigma attached to have a child at such an early age. Without the support of your family and friends, the new parents will most likely not get the financial and emotional support they need to bring a child into the world. As a result, teen parents have difficulty going to college and finding satisfying careers. On this page, will explore all aspects of this difficult situation.

  • Stepfamilies

    In past generations, stepfamilies were uncommon and most people did not know how to relate to them. Now, as the stigmas against divorce and remarriage continue to dissolve, more and more stepfamilies are coming together. While it's never easy to merge two families together, stepfamilies can be an opportunity to forge new, lasting, loving bonds. On this page, we will offer some advice for relating to your new family, and for smoothing out the potential conflicts that will inevitably arise. We will also discuss the subject having children once you've remarried into a stepfamily. No one said it would be simple and easy.

  • Adoption

    Adopting a baby can be very difficult. There are long -- and sometimes embarrassing --probes into your life and home to judge your potential ability as a parent. There are also many different types of adoption to consider. You can adopt through an agency, chose private adoption, foreign adoptions, open adoptions, or independent adoptions. Don't worry -- we'll explain all of the options to you. Unfortunately, when you take your new baby home, your challenges are just beginning. On this page, we will explore all aspects of adoption and what to do as your adopted child grows.
More on Families
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

 

The Nuclear Family

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Deciding when to have a second child requires weighing many pros and cons.

The nuclear family is thought of as the "traditional family," with two parents and siblings. However, "traditional" does not mean "simple."

Spacing of Children

A majority of parents want more than one child, and once the first child is here or on the way, it's natural to wonder how long you should wait to have another. It's really a personal decision. On the one hand, many parents opt to wait a few years, until the first child is no longer in the demanding infant stage. These parents might tell you the thought of dealing with two infants at once was just too overwhelming for them. On the other hand, parents who had their children in quick succession might tell you they did not have time to lose their touch between children, and having two infants at a time is easier than having an infant and perhaps a toddler or even an older child, whose conflicting needs and demands involve a lot of gear-switching.

One factor to consider when you're exploring the question of how many years to leave between brothers and sisters is how you envision their roles with one another. When siblings are born several years apart, the older siblings often adopt a caretaking role with the younger siblings. Siblings born closer together are more likely to relate as peers and playmates. Of course, no matter how you envisioned their roles, all siblings fight from time to time. And whether they're of the same or opposite sex influences their relationships, too.

Birth Order Factor

If you've read any pop psychology, you've probably already come across the term "birth order factor." It refers to a child's place in the family. Certain traits seem to go hand in hand with birth order. The theory is that birth order affects not only how your child sees herself, but also how you parent your child. For instance, studies demonstrate that parents often have greater expectations of firstborn children.

Research has shown consistent responses among children when they were asked for their perceptions and feelings about their rank in the birth order, so it's wise for parents to be aware of how birth order may affect each child and how it may cause you to overlook the needs of each child. What follows are some common traits ascribed to children depending on their birth order. You may agree or disagree strongly with some of these assertions; we present them just to make you aware of some findings in this area of study.

The firstborn child is the pioneer in the family and, unless a remarriage into a family with other children occurs, she always enjoys the position of the oldest. Firstborn children are often very dependable, responsible, loyal, and protective. They often assume a little-parent role in the family. Among adults, a high percentage of firstborns can be found in such demanding professions as medicine and politics. Firstborns often say their parents place too much responsibility on them in the family, and parental expectations for them are too high.

Since the firstborn child is an only child, at least for a while, she is the one child in the family who will ever know what it's like not to have to share her parents' attention with a sibling. For this reason, it's especially difficult for some firstborns to deal with the birth of the second child. The second child may always be seen as a threat by a firstborn, since if it were not for him, the firstborn would still have exclusive claim to parental attention and energy. It's not unusual for a firstborn child to plot ways to get rid of the second child. This may involve backbiting or actual physical attacks against the second child or attention-getting behaviors such as whining and crying.

The second child often experiences a much different world than his older brother or sister does. Second children often take the role of rebel, clown, entertainer, artist, troublemaker, peacemaker, or negotiator in families.

But second children often feel they don't get enough attention from their parents and, unlike firstborns, their parents don't expect much from them. They complain they are compared with their older siblings and often express the wish that they would just be appreciated for who they are. They may resent being bossed around by their older siblings.

Some middle children express relief about being in the middle. Their parents are accustomed to parenting by the time they arrive, so some of the pressure is off. But middle children often feel unappreciated by and uninvolved with the rest of the family. They usually end up with all the hand- me-downs from the older child, which doesn't help them feel very special either (unless they happen to be the first sister or brother born into the family, a situation that changes the family dynamics a great deal). Middle children often see themselves as dependable, self-reliant, diplomatic, and easygoing. Because they do tend to be very independent, they often end up in very independent sorts of jobs. As children, they often wish their parents would get more excited about their achievements, spend more time alone with them, and, for heaven's sake, buy them some thing new once in a while.

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
The order your children are born in may affect their personality.
The baby, or youngest child in a family, usually has special status. The parents' expectations of the youngest child may be lower, and this child doesn't have to do much to get all her needs met. By the time the baby of the family is born, the parents may have attained a healthy earning power, so the family's financial situation may be considerably easier than it was when the first child was born. The baby may be showered with material possessions and special attention. She knows she has a special place in the family and learns to charm and manipulate other family members to get what she wants. Nonetheless these youngest children don't like being called the baby; they want to be taken seriously just like other children. They often see themselves playing the role of the little one, the cute one, the spoiled one, or the one with the temper. Some babies don't ever really grow up or shed the role they played as a child often because their parents don't ever really allow them to grow up, wanting them to forever remain their cute, precious, final child.

Only Children

There are lots of reasons for having only one child-sometimes the parents plan it that way; sometimes stillbirths, miscarriages, deaths, medical problems, or other factors prevent parents from having other children. These factors affect how an only child views himself and how his parents view him.

Most only children relish their position, even if they occasionally wish they had the companionship of brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, as parents age, an only child often becomes the sole caretaker with no siblings to help out.

Only children may feel lonely for lack of peer interaction. Due to their exposure within the home to adults only, they might have difficulty being around other kids even when the opportunities for such interaction exist, or they may simply prefer to be around adults. They often feel incredible pressure from their parents, since they may be viewed as the first, last, and only hope for the future of the family. While parents of larger families may hope to fulfill their own dreams through several children, all such wishes may be focused on an only child.

Late-Born Only Children

A child born several years after other siblings shares some of the experiences of an only child, especially if the older children have already grown up and left home. But he is also the baby of the family, and his role reflects this dual situation. Parents aren't as likely to pressure this child as much as they might a true only child. He does not have to share attention with his siblings but can experience the loneliness and differentness the only child feels, particularly if his parents are much older. This latter situation comes into play with special clarity when the child reaches school age and meets other children's parents.

Advantages to having so-called late children are many. There is little sibling rivalry, and the older siblings may be able to help their parents with the baby. Many of the anxieties of first-time parenting are gone. For the older children, having a baby in the house may teach nurturing skills and increase their appreciation for what was once done for them. What often ensues is more open affection among everyone in the household.

Forging the Family Unit

What can family members do to enhance their bonding to each other in an age when isolation of people in general may inhibit bonding within the family unit?

Let's start at the beginning. Studies have shown that when a father is present for the birth of his child, his relationship with the child in the first months of life tends to be enhanced. If there are siblings, it's important they be involved, too. Many hospitals recognize this; many offer sibling programs to help prepare children for new brothers and sisters.

Families can maximize closeness and reap practical benefits by having regular family meetings to make plans and discuss problems. Even small children can take part in some family decision- making and problem-solving: where to go on vacation, how to paper-train the puppy, and so forth. When all family members feel they are valued and their voices are heard, they are more likely to cooperate with each other. When families plan activities and spend time together, they have more shared memories, which enhances their sense of family. Families can establish their own traditions and festive occasions when they enjoy particular activities, such as visiting Grandma and Grandpa on Sundays or having a picnic on the Fourth of July. When family members plan and interact together, each experiences a sense of belonging, wholeness, and dignity. The same is also true for your extended family -- grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so on. Learn about the special bonds and considerations when dealing with your extended family in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

The Extended Family

In days past, extended families played a big part in helping new parents. Grandparents were often present to help with the new baby. Extended-family members often lived under one roof or just down the road; children saw their relatives often enough to know who was who. Today, this is frequently not the case. Modern extended families can be quite different from extended families of years past.

The New Extended Family

While it's true that today's extended family is often spread out across the country, and children may be walking -- or even driving -- before they meet some of the extended family members, most families still have some extended family nearby. Geographical isolation is far more common among upper-middle- class families, who move for occupational opportunity, than it is among middle- and lower-class families, who tend to move to cities where they already have relatives.

But even when extended family members are relatively close by, there is no escaping the fact that families do live more privately than they once did. In some cases, extended families still give each other day-to-day assistance with shopping, child care, and household tasks. More often, though, each branch of the family retains its basic independence.

What does all this mean for kids? Essentially, with fewer significant adults in their lives, children become more emotionally dependent on their parents. Don't expect your child to consider a seldom-seen relative important. Unless you find a way to open up your family's network, your children will probably be isolated from the extended family.

Some families hold regular family get-togethers or large family reunions to reestablish a more integrated sense of family. Of course, holidays and the children's birthdays provide opportunities for any family members who live close by to get together. You can help your toddler begin to understand the idea of extended family by creating a special "My Family" photo album with pictures and names. When he is a little older, you can begin to illustrate the nature of the relationships with a family tree.

Other families experiment with alternate ways to open up the family. For instance, some form babysitting, food, and other kinds of cooperatives. This simply means several couples pool specific resources. This lessens the burden of couples having to do everything solo.

A family cluster is a way to create a surrogate extended family. Several families meet regularly and become emotionally close. They share values, attitudes, and tasks. Often, family clusters share possessions, such as vacation homes and cars. For children, this provides an enlarged number of significant adults and playmates.

One area where grandparents can be an enormous help is watching younger children while the parents are at work. For a complete discussion of working parents, turn to the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Working Parents

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Paternity leave is an option that many companies offer these days.

Even among people who prefer to work, many new parents return a lot sooner after childbirth than they may want to for financial reasons. Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, employers must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to eligible employees for certain family and medical reasons. This act secures your position, salary, and benefits. Most companies base the length of paid maternity leave on long-term disability time available. Paternity leave -- time off for the new father -- is a wonderful concept, and, fortunately, it is becoming increasingly popular among many companies.

Other options may also be available. One or both of you may be able to negotiate returning to work part-time at first, so you'll be a little less pressured until you and your baby have your routine down. Job sharing is another option gaining ground; it means you and someone else, possibly another parent, share a full-time position. Also, take another look at your budget if you must pay for child care. Is it really worthwhile to return to work when you consider the cost of child care? Or could you come out even by tightening up a little?

Child-Care Benefits

As more and more parents work full-time, corporations are becoming increasingly involved in the problems of working parents. Corporations are not altruistic; they provide benefits when it costs them more money not to. Companies are adversely affected by parental problems of finding and paying for adequate child care and sick-child care when they result in troubled and unproductive employees and in absenteeism.

Most child care benefits are provided in the form of resource and referral services and as optional child care financial assistance in employee benefits packages. (When employees pick and choose a package of benefits out of many options, the program is said to offer cafeteria-style benefits.) Some companies in larger cities also pay for sick-child care both in and out of the home, and a few firms actually run on-site child care centers or buy slots in nearby consortium centers; a consortium is formed when several organizations buy space in and support a child care center. In addition, companies of all sizes are beginning to respond by offering flex- time (flexible working hours), flexible benefits (which may include financial help with child care), and work-at-home options.

Assuming you have decided to return to work and you have some latitude about the timing, the next question is when. If you decide to return 6 to 12 weeks after your baby is born, make sure you properly introduce your baby to her caretaker, and make sure she gets used to being held and fed by that person while you're still present. Babies can tell the difference between one person and another almost as soon as they're born. In the first 6 to 12 weeks you already know some of your baby's idiosyncrasies, and you can relate these to her caretaker.

If you return to work when your child is about six months old, keep in mind your child already has a sense of who you are and a sense of her separateness. She may really fuss when you turn her over to the child care center, and she may cling to the teacher when you come to get her at the end of the day. It helps to find ways to make these daily transitions easier; a familiar toy or blanket or just a distraction may do the trick. But do not sneak off and leave your child without saying goodbye.

Waiting a year to return to work meets your need for time to get to know your child and share her first glimpses of the world. But returning to work at this point may actually be more of a problem than it would have been early on. Your one year old is extremely possessive of you and won't yet be able to understand why you must leave. You may need to phase her into child care gradually. It is important to see that the caretaker will give your child the same kinds of stimulation you've been providing; continuity is important to your child's emotional and developmental well-being.

Quality Time

As a working parent, you have many demands and little time at the end of the day. How can you get all the household chores done, have time to spend with your child, and maybe even have some time left over for yourself?

Creativity is the key. Small children don't necessarily know the difference between work and play, so any way you can find to incorporate the two may help. For instance, one parent may put his baby in a backpack, turn on rock music, and dance while he vacuums the house. Taking your baby along while you do errands can be fun; if it's a nice day, why not take the stroller and walk? You might (watchfully) allow a toddler to play with the bubbles in the sink as you do the dishes.

Toddlers can learn to set the table, and they take great pride in it. If your child begins to learn to pitch in with household responsibilities at an early age, there will be more time for everyone. The time you spend teaching him to perform these tasks can be quality time, and your child feels more valued and grown up.

Remember: Quality time does not have to be a major scheduled event. It might be the time you spend reading to your child right before bedtime, or the time you spend helping him build something with his blocks. Every task you must do with your child can be quality time: putting him to bed, getting him dressed, feeding him. The trip to and from the child care center can be a good time for you to hear about your child's day. You can use these moments to share feelings, laugh, and even argue. Yes, you will argue because your and your child's wishes and intentions will conflict at times. When you aren't able to spend much time with your child, any conflict is painful for both of you, so it's important to sit down and talk about the conflict.

Try to save some of your sick time so you are available to be home with your child when he is ill. If the illness is not major, this time can be special for both of you. Your child cherishes being cuddled, read to, and listened to.

Make your vacations family events, but don't schedule them so heavily that they are as stressful as everyday life! Establish weekend family routines or plans. Let your child contribute to those plans as early as possible.

Trying to be a Supermom or Superdad while your children are very young can be draining. You can alleviate some of the stress by accepting that these years will be over sooner than you think. Focusing now on trying to have a perfectly kept house robs you of time you could be reserving for yourself and your children. Make the most of this special time of early childhood. You'll miss it when it's gone.

And keep in mind that "quality" time involves a reasonable "quantity" of time. Young children don't respond well to having experiences tightly scheduled into specific time slots. Flexibility and spontaneity are essential ingredients in pleasant and productive parent/child activities, so make sure you have sufficient time to include these elements.

As challenging as it is to be a working parent, the obstacles facing a single parent are sometimes even more intimidating. We will explore single parents in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Single Parents

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
It's important for you to try to maintain a relationship with your ex-spouse for the sake of your children.

If you've just experienced a divorce, a separation, or the death of your spouse, you may be totally overwhelmed with your loss and with the new responsibilities that go with being a single parent. There you are, totally in charge of decision-making, finances, breadwinning, and nurturing. It's no wonder newly single parents often feel fatigue and depression.

Most single parents today are women, who may face a somewhat lower income than their male counterparts. They often must rely on child support and government subsidies. Often, they must move to smaller, less expensive quarters to make ends meet. Coupled with the financial problems they may already have is the hard truth that many employers are biased against single parents because they think they're less reliable.

The newly divorced or widowed parent doesn't face these changes alone; children also experience loss and a disruption of routine. Toddlers may be affected more by how the parent copes and by changes in routine than by the fact of the divorce or the death.

When a parent dies or leaves, children need attention, affection, and reassurance; they need to be told how important they are. Without such assurance, your child may fear losing you, as well. Do your best to maintain schedules and routines as much as possible, and don't be lax about rules because you think the situation is hard enough on your child. Children need limits to feel secure; dispensing with rules is like dispensing with routine -- it's unsettling.

Separated or Divorced Parents

After a divorce, try to make sure your child sees her other parent regularly. It's important for you to try to maintain a relationship with your ex-spouse for the sake of coordinating visitation. Cooperation and flexibility are essential, no matter what your personal feelings may be. It's also important that you don't say anything negative about your ex-spouse to your child. You need to support your child's contact with her other parent and with your former in-laws as well.

If you can, seek support for yourself from relatives, your church, and social groups. If you have no support, the stress of being a single parent is especially high. Parents Without Partners, Inc., is a support group for single parents, with chapters in most communities and on the Internet.

If you are what is referred to as the noncustodial parent (you don't have custody), you must also be willing to maintain contact with your ex-spouse, despite your personal feelings. You must support your child in her relationship with the custodial parent. If you are not allowed visitation, you must continue to let your child know you are there for her. This may seem futile, but at some point, when she is old enough, she will know how to contact you-and she will. If you have been granted visitation, you must find ways to continue having a parenting relationship with your child. Don't structure every moment spent with her as fun time; if you do, time spent won't be very real, and you and your child will never really know each other. The two of you need to talk quietly and be reflective and honest. An unending succession of amusement parks and zoos will make this difficult.

The concept of coparenting, or joint custody, works best when both parents live in the same community and they are able to maintain a very cooperative relationship, with high levels of communication. Joint custody is emotionally easier on fathers, who traditionally have not been granted custody. It allows them to remain involved in decision-making about their children. (Noncustodial fathers may back out of visitation and child support payments because they feel uninvolved with and unable to affect their children's lives.)

Sometimes the noncustodial parent lives in another state; this parent may still be involved with the child, but contact is limited to infrequent visits, telephone calls, and letters or e-mails. For this contact to have much of an impact, the parent must master the arts of letter writing and phone calling. Writing creative, entertaining notes the child can easily read and providing stamped return envelopes if using regular mail can keep communication going. Phone calls should be made at times convenient for everyone.

When an ex-spouse is completely uninvolved, the single parent often doesn't know what to tell the child. It's important to allow a child to continue trying to contact a parent until she realizes the parent isn't going to respond. Often, the inclination is to prevent this to protect the child from being hurt; this backfires because the child interprets this to mean one parent is trying to keep her away from the other. Once your child realizes that Mommy or Daddy is gone and isn't coming back, you can help by allowing her to talk about the parent as a way of working through her grief.

Never-Married Mothers

Many of today's single mothers have never been married. An increasing number of women spend their 20s establishing themselves in their careers and do not seriously desire children until they reach their 30s. By then they may feel that if they wait until they meet a suitable marriage partner, it may be too late for childbearing. The idea of having a child outside of marriage is also becoming more widely accepted by younger women.

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More women outside of their 20s are becoming first-time mothers.

Some women who opt for motherhood without marriage choose to become pregnant by means of artificial insemination. But many discover that some doctors are unwilling to artificially inseminate an unmarried woman. Some who choose artificial insemination genuinely do not want to become emotionally involved with the father of the child and feel this would be inevitable if they knew him. Others, predominantly lesbian women, choose artificial insemination simply because it does not require a personal relationship with a male partner. Still others want to raise the child alone and fear that if they knew the father, he might later make claims on the child.

Some women who want a child without getting married select a partner who is willing to father the child with no strings attached. Others agree the acknowledged father will be involved in the child's life although the parents will not marry.

Whatever their choice, however, these mothers are free to raise their children according to their own ideas and values, and they reap many of the rewards of parenting. On the other hand, they undertake heavy responsibilities and risk the loneliness of parenting without a partner with whom to share both the burdens and the good times. For this reason, support groups for such single mothers have begun to spring up-at least in several major cities (and also on the Internet).

Widowed Parents

How well a family adjusts to the death of a parent depends a lot on how the parent died. When a parent dies after a short-term illness, the family may adjust more quickly than it would if the death were sudden or from a long-term illness. Other families may find that dealing with a long-term illness has given them time to work through some of their grief before the family member dies.

Children go through essentially the same stages of grief as adults: shock and numbness, followed by grief and depression; then an emotional distancing from the loss; and finally creative adaptation to the loss. It's important to remember that children display these feelings differently than adults do. Even children younger than three years of age feel the loss, although they may not understand the finality of death. Children may deny the death, they may act angry toward the deceased parent, and they may feel guilty, thinking they did something to make the parent go away.

To help children cope, explain the death to them in language they can understand. Don't use euphemisms; they add to confusion and lead to questions like, "If we lost Daddy, why aren't we looking for him?" Explanations that are too gentle can confuse and even frighten a child; your child could fear that if he ever gets sick again, he will die, too.

When children become depressed, they often develop minor illnesses such as colds and intestinal upsets, or they play less, or they become more clinging and dependent. Understand that your child feels the loss and needs to feel more secure. Be open and willing to talk to your child about his fears.

You will undoubtedly need to find support for yourself, as well. You may get some from the children, depending on their ages, but you also need adult support. If you can't rely on family-who may tell you to get over your grief and carry on with your life-we urge you to contact your local Widowed to Widowed group, where you can open up and find support in dealing with the changes you are experiencing. It's not uncommon to need two to three years to adjust to the loss of a spouse.

There are other concerns for parents who decide to have children later in life. We will consider this situation in our next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Older Parents

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
There are positives and negatives to have a first child in midlife.

Although it is not uncommon for women to bear additional children in their middle years, it was once quite uncommon for a woman to have her first child after the age of 35. Today, many women choose not to have a child until they are in their 30s. The reasons for this are many. Many couples choose to become established in their lives and careers before turning their thoughts to childbearing. Many see their 20s as a time to experiment and experience freedom. At that age, some men and women don't feel psychologically ready for the commitment of having children. Some single women may have such high expectations for themselves-and others-that they're unable to find mates who meet their qualifications for fatherhood. Though these women might opt to have children sooner, they often don't find a suitable situation for doing so until they're older. And then there are the couples who, for some reason, appear to be biologically unable to conceive until, just when they have about given up, they finally conceive.

There are a number of positive aspects to having a first child in midlife. There are also some drawbacks. First, the positives:
  • A new parent who is between 35 and 40 years of age has about 15 to 20 years of adult life experence and so has more inner resources to draw on in times of stress than does a younger parent.

  • Middle-aged parents are usually at the height of their earning power, so they have more financial stability to support a child.

  • Having had many experiences, many middle-aged adults are ready to be parents. They have a sense of identity -- the child will not have to provide them with it.

  • Having a first child in midlife provides a real sense of renewal.

  • Adults in midlife may have a deeper sense of the value of life itself, and so tend to place high value on the time they can spend with their children.

While many of the positive things about having a baby in midlife involve the joys of raising a small child, the drawbacks have mostly to do with the future and with the parents' concerns about aging:

  • Older parents may have lower energy levels. They may wonder if they will have the energy to be as active as their child needs them to be.

  • They wonder if they will live to see their child become an adult. Will they ever see their grandchildren? Will they very quickly become a burden to a child just as he is trying to get on his feet as a young adult?

  • When the age difference is 40 or more years, quite a schism is created; parents worry whether their values will be at all relevant to their child. The age difference may be particularly apparent when a child becomes a teenager -- a difficult period for even young parents to deal with.

Another consideration when having children later in life is the possibility of having siblings with large age differences. We'll cover this topic in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Much Older Siblings

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A much older sibling can almost take on a semi-parental role for a new child.

Parents who have late babies -- babies born ten or more years after their siblings -- have a few advantages over parents whose children are all born within a few years of each other.

Often, the older children in these families can be relied on to take semi-parental roles with their new brothers and sisters, making it easier for the parents to maintain their routines with less disruption -- as long as they don't take advantage of their built-in babysitters.

Having a late baby is usually less stressful than having a firstborn. Parents of late babies have plenty of experience in parenting and lots of confidence. They find they can enjoy their late-born children even more than their firstborns.

A late child is a good lesson in sex education for the other children. Pregnancy forces adolescents to acknowledge their parents' sexuality. This may be uncomfortable for them and may cause them to become distant and even hostile. However, these feelings usually disappear when the baby comes along and everyone is pampering the new baby. When all the children in the family are involved in preparing and caring for the baby, a late baby can provide a splendid lesson in parenting. In fact, parents often notice that their teens become more gentle, and the family closer, as a result. The new baby becomes a unifying influence, a point of common pleasure and concern.

The drawbacks of having a firstborn in your middle years, however, also apply to babies born several years after their siblings. When that lastborn child hits her teens, it's likely the other kids will have grown up and moved out, and it's even more likely that after so many years of parenting, the parents will be anxious for an empty nest. Another, more initial drawback to having a late baby is that a working parent may be kept from her job at a time when her income is especially needed for other children who may be approaching college age.

Younger parents have an entirely different set of complications to face than older parents, but they are no less intimidating. We'll explore some of these challenges on the next page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Younger Parents

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Poor prenatal care can results in a high incidence of illness among children born to teen parents.

You have probably read how dismal the picture is for teenagers who choose to raise children in our society. We can't paint a pretty picture, either. If you're going to have a child and you're younger than 20 years of age, you can take steps to enhance the picture, but you may still face lots of difficulties.

Make sure you seek medical advice as soon as you know you're pregnant. It's unfortunate that most teens don't; often, they are embarrassed, don't know where to go to find advice, or just want to deny the pregnancy. Age, nutrition, and quality of care are all factors in maternal and baby health. Poor diet and lack of prenatal care can lead to complications such as anemia, premature birth, and low birth weight.

There can be long-term effects on the child when teens have and raise children. The prevalence of poor prenatal care often results in a high incidence of illness and mortality among children born to teen parents. Children often have educational and emotional problems later on. Research has shown that the younger the mother, the more likely it is her child will have a lower IQ score. Children of teens may become victims of child abuse or neglect simply because their parents are too immature to understand infant and child behaviors and may get frustrated very easily. Or the parents simply tire of having a child around and want to go out and have some fun-because they're still kids themselves. They may resent having to grow up in a hurry.

Financially, teens who have children are more likely to end up living below the poverty level. Research shows teen mothers tend to have additional children more rapidly, which means they're even less likely to be able to offset child care costs with income. This is compounded by the fact that teen mothers often terminate their education prematurely and qualify only for poorly paying jobs. Because they are often financially better off on welfare, welfare dependency is widespread among single teen mothers. Unable to achieve financial independence, teens who have children also often end up living with one or both of their parents.

Statistics show that when teen fathers remain with their mates and children, their educational attainment is also reduced, and their long-term earning power is less than that of their peers. Most often, teen fathers are not involved, and it has been assumed they don't want to be. Yet studies have found this to be a myth. Teen fathers often want to help the mother and child, but they themselves need assistance and support. Unfortunately, until recently, little or no attention has been paid to the problems of the teen father. Many of these young men have never had father figures themselves, and they just don't know how to father. Some pilot programs that provide counseling and job training for teen fathers have been very successful in encouraging young fathers to stay involved with their children and provide the necessary financial support. These programs are growing in number.

We can tell you about all the perils of having a child as a teen, but if you have already made the choice, you need to seek help for yourself. Call a hospital, family planning center, or your local health department to find out about teen pregnancy classes in your area. Such classes prepare you for labor and provide support. Some classes help you develop life skills and decision-making skills so you are better able to cope with the challenges of parenthood. If no teen pregnancy classes are available, check your local YMCA or YWCA for other kinds of parenting classes and support groups.

One program is the Minnesota Early Learning Design (MELD) for Young Moms (MYM). This program provides self-help groups led by former teen mothers. The groups meet one evening a week; teens are welcome to bring their babies. The evening includes a free meal, education, and time for sharing. The exact focus is determined by the needs of each group, but the objectives are to:

 

  1. enhance understanding of child development

  2. heighten self-awareness and involvement in the outside world to help establish future goals

  3. develop assertiveness and information-seeking skills

  4. improve the physical well-being of mother and child.
If your community does not have a MYM group, you can contact Parents as Teachers National Center, Inc. Attn: Public Information Specialist 2228 Ball Drive St. Louis, Mo. 63146; calling 314-432-4330; or vist www.parentsasteachers.org/.

The best way to ensure you do not have the problems of a teenage parent or to prevent having more children is to learn about and use contraceptives. The capacity to reproduce is fully functional between the ages of 14 and 18 (and sometimes even earlier), so it's no wonder many teens who may think it's safe not to use contraception all the time, or to use it just once in a while, end up getting pregnant.

For contraception to work, you must anticipate when sexual activity will occur and recognize the risk of pregnancy. Then you must obtain a contraceptive, learn how to use it properly, and talk to your partner about your intention to use it. And you must use it, and use it every time you have sexual intercourse for it to work.

If you need more information about contraceptives, ask your doctor. If that's not comfortable, find your local family planning center. Family planning centers generally have counselors who are patient and understanding and very willing to help; they won't think you're stupid for asking questions. On the contrary, they recognize that your questions are a reflection of your concern and your need to be informed, so you can make responsible, mature decisions. Many family planning centers provide contraceptives if you don't have the money to buy them, or they sell them at a reduced rate. Take advantage of the opportunity.

Stepfamilies can create a great deal of tension and uncertainty. Learn more about this family structure on the next page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Stepfamilies

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A remarried family is a more open system than a nuclear family.

While we still tend to think of families as consisting of a mother, a father, and their children, the reality is that with all the divorces and remarriages that occur in our society, a large number of families are actually stepfamilies, or blended families. Unfortunately, in our society, the word "step" has gained a lot of negative connotations.

When parents remarry, they have hopes for the success of their new family. But if they hope their new family will be like their old one, they will likely be disappointed. That's not to say it can't be a happy family, but it's important to understand some of the wrinkles you must deal with.

In a remarried family, parenting is no longer solely the domain of the married couple; there will be at least one biological parent and possibly other stepparents in different households, not to mention both grandparents and stepgrandparents. In this way, the remarried family is a more open system than a nuclear family. Typically, children are moving in and out of the household for visitation, so the question of who's actually in the family is not always crystal clear.

Not all the members of a remarried family have always been together, so it's likely they have different ways of doing just about everything. In a nuclear family, kids don't question that their parents are indeed the parents. In a remarried family, the parents may not have been together long enough to reach a consensus about parenting issues; the kids may not accept parenting from the stepparents. This can be hard on adults as well as children.

In a nuclear family, relatives and friends usually recognize all family members as a family. When you remarry, they may see you and your children as family, but not fully accept your new spouse and your spouse's children. It's also important to know that the law doesn't recognize stepparent relationships. You can grow close to a stepchild over a number of years, but if you divorce the stepchild's biological parent, the law gives you no rights to visitation.

Strong themes of loss recur in remarried families. Both parents and children come from other families that are no longer intact. If family members have not worked through these losses, continued fears of loss and abandonment and emotional scars may exist. If the parents are still at odds with their ex-spouses, the children suffer from conflicting loyalties, and the new marriage can suffer as well. What often happens is the children end up in the middle, used as spies between one household and the other. It's extremely important for all adults involved -- the married couple and their ex-spouses -- to cooperate with each other in a fair and frank manner with regard to the children.

When children enter a remarried family with other children, their rank in the family often changes. For instance, the oldest child may become the second child. Suddenly, the role of each child is unclear. It's also important to note that because stepsiblings are not blood relatives, the incest taboo is not as clear.

These are just a few of the dynamics that can make a remarried family very different from a nuclear family. We aren't trying to scare you away from entering into a remarried family, but we are trying to help you see that some of the intense feelings and complications that will come up are entirely normal. You can take steps to minimize the difficulties.

Before entering into a remarried family, it's important that all members have recovered from past losses. Your children may need to talk about your ex-spouse, and you may need to let them, regardless of how you feel about him or her.

Before you all move in together, take steps to ease the transition:

  • All individuals who make up the new family need to be open about their fears. You all need to listen to each other. Know that it will take time for all of you to adjust to new roles and a different household.

  • Maintain coparenting relationships in a cooperative way with ex-spouses. This is important to prevent loyalty conflicts. Kids need to hear that even though Mommy and Daddy don't want to be together anymore, they both love and care about their children.

  • Plan space for children in all households where they will stay; it's very disconcerting for them not to have a space of their own.

  • Make sure all sides of the family (your family, your ex-spouse's family, and your new spouse's family) understand your new situation.

  • Make emotional room for all the new relationships and roles.

To complete a healthy transition once you have all moved in together, you need to accept that this is a different sort of family, one where roles will shift as different family members (for example, ex-spouses, and children who may not live with you all the time) come in and out of your life. Allow and encourage your new family to share memories and histories together. This helps all of you to integrate and become a family. It's important for children to know that the past has not been forgotten or negated by this new family. Don't overreact and become defensive if your stepchild compares you with his biological parent. Take time to establish a friendly relationship with stepchildren; don't jump into a disciplinary role too quickly, especially with older children. It's also important that you and your spouse support each other in parenting roles; if you don't, the children sense it and play each of you against the other.

The Development of Love

It's not uncommon to enter into remarriage with the expectation that if you love your spouse, you will, of course, love his or her children. But, for many reasons, instant love between parent and stepchild doesn't necessarily happen.

Very often, instant love is an unrealistic expectation that causes us to try to be Superparents. It's not uncommon to feel guilty about loving your own children more than your stepchildren. If you find yourself in this situation, consider talking to a counselor or other supportive professional who can help you clarify the discrepancies that may exist between your beliefs and expectations and what is realistic. It may also help for your spouse to consider whether his or her expectations may inhibit you from establishing a genuine relationship with your spouse's children. A stepparent is not a parent, but ultimately you and your stepchildren will build bonds that reflect the unique relationship you have with them.

Yours, Mine, Ours, and Theirs

The decision of a remarried couple to have children of their own often helps harmonize relationships between stepsiblings, probably because the blood relationship all the siblings now have in common with the new child strengthens bonds. However, sometimes the stepsiblings feel unimportant or left out. Complicating the situation further, about the same time you and your new spouse are having children, your ex- spouses may have remarried and may also be having children. So your biological child now has a half-sibling by your remarriage, a half-sibling by your ex-spouse's remarriage, and stepsiblings by your spouse's ex-spouse's remarriage. If this is confusing for you, imagine what it's like for the children, especially if they're young! It may be helpful to sit down and map out a family tree. This helps the children better understand who's who and also helps clear up some of your own confusion.

Remarried families are very complex. Each additional member of the family system allows for another relationship or another role with every other member in the system. There can be biological parents and grandparents, stepparents and stepgrandparents, siblings, half-siblings, and stepsiblings. With so many different kinds of relationships between so many people, the potential for stress is enormous. But there's also an increased potential for a large support network if everyone communicates and cooperates. The rewards can be tremendous.

Another family structure that can be complex but potentially rewarding is adoption. Learn about this tricky process in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Adoption

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©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Adoption can be very challenging and complicated.

At one time, hundreds of abandoned infants needed parents. Due to more widespread use of birth control, decreased stigma for unwed mothers, and legalized abortion, this is no longer the case. If you want to take the traditional route of adopting a child through an agency, you may have to wait several years -- if you qualify. There are other avenues -- private adoption, foreign adoption, open adoption, and independent adoption -- but none is without perils. You'll need to ask yourself how much money you're willing to spend and what you're willing to endure.

Before you begin, contact someone you know who has already adopted. If you don't know any adoptive parents, contact your local library or human services agency for information on a local adoption support group. You will get lots of timesaving information from others who have been through the process. They'll tell you which agencies to avoid and which agencies can best serve your set of circumstances.

Adoption Agencies

If you plan to go through an adoption agency, know that each agency has its own profile of what it considers the "perfect parents." If you don't fit that profile -- and an interviewer can tell with a few pointed questions -- you won't even receive an application. The agency's profile weighs factors pertaining to your age, stability, and parenting ability. If your application is satisfactory, you are interviewed extensively. A social worker is sent to your home, perhaps for several visits, to do a home study, which involves a great deal of questioning about personal information.

Although agencies generally won't arrange for nontraditional parents (older couples, single individuals, gay men or lesbians) to adopt a child, if you're interested in a special-needs child (defined as a child who is older or a child who has a disability), an agency may be willing to work with you.

Agency fees range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Private Adoptions

Private adoptions are usually arranged by lawyers who bring together parents who want to adopt and mothers who plan to give up their babies after birth. Before considering this route, be sure you know the law. In some states, it is illegal to have an intermediate party search for the child, even though it may be legal for you to search for the child yourself.

A private adoption is sometimes the fastest way to locate an infant, and it often gives the biological mother a way to learn something about the adoptive parents. However, some agencies say private adoption does not allow for a good home study since this is usually not the chief concern of the lawyers involved. In many cases, the lawyer represents both the adoptive parents and the birth mother, which usually means the birth mother doesn't get proper counseling or legal representation.

Private adoption fees generally range from $5,000 to $10,000 or possibly much more. Additionally, you typically have to pay the birth mother's medical expenses.

Foreign Adoptions

Foreign adoptions are arranged through traditional as well as specialized agencies. You can also arrange them by dealing directly with foreign agencies or intermediaries. Most recent foreign adoptions were from Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, South Korea, and China.

Because there are more layers of bureaucracy to cut through-lawyers in both countries, both governments, and, most likely, an orphanage-there's a greater potential for delays and problems in foreign adoption. And foreign adoptions can be quite costly -- up to $15,000 or more. Worse, fraud occurs occasionally in the foreign adoption business, and you could lose your money. However, if all goes well, a foreign adoption can be arranged in as little as nine months.

The best route to take for a foreign adoption is to work through well-established organizations. If you're a single or otherwise nontraditional parent, foreign adoption will be more open to you in some countries than in others.

Open Adoptions

Open adoption means something different to every agency. For instance, the birth mother and the adoptive parents can conceivably have an ongoing relationship after the adoption. In most instances, though, open adoption means the birth mother is allowed to write a letter to her child that the adoptive parents will present to the child at a certain time, or an agreement is made to exchange pictures without names and addresses.

Open adoption is easier on the birth mother since her existence is acknowledged. This may help reduce her grief after the adoption because she knows at least a little bit about her baby's situation. When birth mothers have less apprehension, they may be less likely to try to find their children later on.

Independent Adoptions

Independent adoption means you pay the medical and legal expenses for a pregnant woman who wishes to give up her child. While this type of adoption can be fast, allowing you to bypass agency red tape and restrictions, it can be emotionally devastating if the biological mother changes her mind at the last minute. Also, the adoption is not final until a judge signs the adoption papers when the baby is between six months and one year old. Keep in mind, each state has different laws about how long birth parents have the right to change their minds.

Independent adoption can be tremendously joyous if all works out well. You may get to take the baby home right from the hospital, whereas with most other adoption methods you may not see the child before she's one month old. You also have greater intimacy and control since you know the birth mother during her pregnancy. Some adopting couples have actually assisted in the delivery!

The first step in an independent adoption is to find a birth mother. This is easier said than done, but you can start by notifying relatives and friends. Other connections might be social workers, members of the clergy, and doctors. The National Adoption Center can put you in touch with local independent adoption groups. For more information, write to 1500 Walnut St., Suite 701, Philadelphia, PA 19102; call 800-TO-ADOPT; or vist thier website at: www.adopt.org.

Know your state law. This can't be stressed enough. An oversight with regard to the law can overturn an adoption. How long do birth parents have a right to change their minds in your state? Is it permissible to bring a baby into your state from another? With interstate adoptions, you'll probably need to be in compliance with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. Does the law allow you to have an intermediary (someone to help you connect with the birth mother) in your state? Consult a lawyer to advise you about the law and to do the paperwork.

Costs for independent adoptions can be less than those for private agency adoptions. Usually, you pay the birth mother's medical and legal expenses. Some state laws allow you to pay her living expenses. Whatever you do pay, make sure you document it, because things like new cars for the biological mother may suggest baby-buying to a judge, and that's illegal.

Explaining Adoption

An adopted toddler-like any toddler-will inquire about her origins. Direct answers to the queries of adopted children are always best, but remember that a child younger than three years of age hasn't the comprehension of an older child. Simple, truthful answers to your toddler's questions will satisfy her. "You grew inside your mother, and now you're our little girl," is one example. As your child grows older, your answers to her questions will become progressively more complex.

Other family members -- especially an adopted child's siblings -- should be included in your plan of simple truthfulness. Never try to hide facts about adoption from any of your children. To do so invites misunderstanding and painful future revelations.

By the way, it is critical to obtain and keep as much information as you can about the medical history of your adopted child's biological family. This information is key in predicting, diagnosing, and dealing with any health problems she may have in the future, as well as those of her children and grandchildren.

Families are like the people that comprise them. Each one is distinct and individual. As the definition of what constitutes a family grows, people find new loved-ones to take into their home. Your family, however it appears, will have that mix of joy and difficulties that forges unbreakable bonds.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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