Marriage and parenting both have their challenges. Marriage to someone who has children from a previous relationship offers its own unique set of challenges as you have suddenly become a stepparent.
Don’t get us wrong: becoming a stepparent carries its own unique blessings. Your family has grown; you have been given the opportunity to love and nurture another child; and you witness first hand how your spouse chooses to parent, giving you insight as to your potential future. But unlike a relationship with a child you gave birth to or adopted in which your role is clear, you need to be thoughtful in building a relationship with your stepchildren. If you start out on the right foot, you and your new family will have a wonderful future ahead of you. These tips for successful stepparenting can help.
Remember You’re the Adult in the Relationship.
Navigating a new family relationship is tricky for everyone. It’s even harder when you’re a child of divorce grieving the loss of your parents’ marriage, and when the new stepparent relationship puts an end to your hopes of your parents reuniting. Try to have compassion for your stepchildren’s emotions. If they act out, don’t take it personally, and don’t lash out in return. They may need time to come around; you need to make sure you’re a person who’s worth it.
Respect is Important.
While you should be understanding and respectful of your stepchildren’s feelings, that doesn’t mean you should accept abuse or disrespect from them. You can’t force them or bribe them to like you; genuine affection may take some time. But they should be expected to treat you with respect, and that expectation should be made clear by their other parent (your spouse), whom they presumably already value and respect. In general, your stepkids will follow your spouse’s lead for how to treat you. If he or she tolerates disrespect, they will pick up on that. Have a conversation with your spouse about your role in his or her children’s lives. If you two are a united front, and the children know that their feelings are heard and validated, respect will flow that much more easily.
This tip covers a lot of territory. Be patient with your stepkids; don’t expect them to adore you immediately. Be patient with yourself: you may feel like you ought to immediately love them as you love your new spouse, but it may very well take time for those feelings to develop. Be patient about entering into the new marriage, because blended families tend to be more successful when the second marriage doesn’t follow the first too closely. Children need time to adjust to changes (and so do adults).
Be Prepared for Pushback.
Every stepparent hears it at some point: “You’re not my real mom/dad!” Sometimes it’s in the context of children asserting that you can’t tell them what to do. Sometimes it even happens when you’re trying to do something loving for them, like comfort them after a disappointment. This exclamation may be a child’s effort to diminish your power. Another possibility is that the child is growing closer to you, and feels the need to push away out of fear that he or she is being disloyal to the biological parent. Whatever the reason, don’t take it personally, and be prepared with a response like, “I know I’m not. You already have a mom/dad, and I could never take her/his place. But I am an adult who loves you.”
Stay in Your Lane (After You Figure Out What it Is).
When you are a parent, your role is undeniable. When you are a stepparent, it’s a little harder to figure out, especially where discipline is concerned. The first step is to talk with your spouse, because you will want to be united on how you approach things. It is typically best to let your spouse take the lead on discipline, at least for the first several months to a year, until the kids get used to you as an adult who cares about them.
Support One-on-One Time Between Your Spouse and His or Her Kids.
As a newlywed, especially if you don’t have children of your own, it can be easy to resent your spouse’s kids’ perceived intrusion on your honeymoon bliss. You may feel cheated: after all, most newlyweds get to spend time forming a bubble of new couplehood around them. As a stepparent, that’s a luxury you just don’t have. You married a person with children, and their needs are important. Trying to limit your spouse’s time with the kids will make you seem like an evil stepparent to the children, and put your spouse in the impossible position of choosing between you and them. Just don’t do it.
Encourage your stepkids to have one-on-one time with not only your spouse, but their other parent. This sends a clear message that not only are you not trying to take their parent away (or take their parent’s place), but that no one needs to compete for anyone else’s time or affection in the family.
Don’t Try to Make Life Fun.
We’re not trying to say you shouldn’t have fun with your new family—you absolutely should! But especially if your stepchildren don’t live with you most of the time, you should resist the urge to feel like you have to make their time with you an entertainment event. They are family, not visiting guests from out of town. While you should try to do some special things together, you should also make sure they feel like a part of daily family life—which includes chores, errands, homework, meals at home, and downtime, as well as trips to amusement parks and dinners out. If your time with your stepkids looks too different from your “real life,” it could give them the impression that they are visitors to (rather than an essential part of) your everyday life.
Don’t Badmouth The Other Parent.
This last one probably goes without saying, but it’s so important that we’ll say it anyway. No matter how objectively “bad” their other parent is, no matter how much your spouse privately (or, inadvisably, publicly) badmouths him or her, and no matter how often the kids themselves complain about their other parent, do not badmouth the other parent. A child knows he or she is inherently half your spouse and half the other parent. If you claim to be an important, loving person in the children’s lives, love is recognizing ALL that makes a child who he is. Badmouthing the other parent (therefore badmouthing half of the child, too) or comparing the other parent to your spouse in order to bring up perceived or actual shortcomings leads to nothing but hardship and a tumultuous relationship. There is nothing to be gained for you, as a stepparent, to initiate or join in this negative talk. It will come back to haunt you.
Being a stepparent may not be easy, but few truly rewarding things are. If you have questions about being a stepparent, supporting your spouse as a stepparent, or stepparent adoption, we invite you to contact Graham-Hurd Law to schedule a consultation.