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Both adults had tears in their eyes as they explained, “We love each other, but the parenting problems are tearing us apart.” In our practice we see many different combinations of stepfamilies. Each member of a stepfamily has his or her own unique perspective, experiences and challenges. The number of children living with both biological parents has declined in recent years; however, the number of children living in a stepfamily has increased. This means many adults find themselves in the position of raising children who are not biologically their own. This article is a look at the challenges from the stepparent’s point of view.
When you marry someone with children, that person is a package deal: They come with their children and a previous family history. Among the biggest challenges for the stepparent are: finding a place in a pre-existing family; establishing a role; and expressing your own ideas.
Communication is critical. Good communication between spouses is key to success. The ability to truly listen and try to understand your partner’s perspective is important. You also want your partner to have a clear handle on the challenges you are confronting, from your viewpoint. You will need a lot of support and this is a process, not a simple one-time fix.
Many stepparents feel unappreciated by their stepchildren at one time or another. On the other hand, hearing your own children criticized can be hard to take. Being able to express your thoughts and feelings to your spouse and have them accepted is important.
Build a separate relationship with your stepchildren. Focus first on establishing a relationship with the children. The kids need time to get to know you and you them. Make a point of finding out about their interests and spending time with them doing something of their choice.
It can be difficult to forge a relationship if the only time you spend with your stepchildren is in the presence of their mother or father. Take them to a movie or out to eat, just you and them. Make a point to do this with each child. You will both be nervous, but the potential payoff is worth enduring the anxiety.
Resist jumping in and disciplining. Most kids feel a new adult should “earn” the right to discipline them. This does not mean that you should not be treated respectfully, but defer the disciplining to your partner until you feel connected with the kids. One of the biggest mistakes made by stepparents is moving into an authoritative position too soon.
Take time to nurture your marriage. As in all marriages, it is necessary to find ways to work on your own relationship and stay connected. Remember to take time for the marriage away from the house and kids. Keeping a strong emotional connection and open communication is essential.
Patience, patience, patience. Your timetable may be very different from the kids’ timetable. Children living in blended families report struggling with feelings of resentment, guilt, anger and confusion about the new living arrangements. Kids may feel angry or resentful that they are forced to live with a new adult and perhaps other children once their parent remarries. If the kids like their new stepmom or stepdad, they may feel disloyal to the biological parent. This can result in feelings of guilt and confusion. It can shock adults to hear from older or adult children that it took years for them to fully accept and appreciate their stepparent. Taking the long view can help stepparents deal with the day-to-day challenges.
Work on self-acceptance. Practice self-acceptance about your developing feelings regarding these new children in your family. It takes time to feel emotionally close and connected with the kids.
Anticipate the trials of family celebrations. Sometimes it’s the little things that trip you up. Different ways of celebrating birthdays and holidays can lead to problems if not anticipated and discussed ahead of time. Children may be reluctant to give up “how it’s always done.” Joining an established tradition instead of attempting a change may be the better choice for the stepparent initially. It conveys a message of respect for the stepchild’s family history prior to the arrival of the stepparent.
Traditions for a blended family develop over time and may surround other events such as vacations or family visits. Allow them to develop naturally and around enjoyable times together. Again, communication is key. Spouses should talk about how to manage significant events like birthdays and holidays. Respecting how the children feel is also important.
Feeling positive about being a stepparent is possible. Careful development of relationships, open communication and patience are the building blocks for a success story.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being.