Some people say that adults don’t fully mature until they have children because parenthood requires a greater level of responsibility and commitment. Being a stepparent is a similar rite of passage on the road to character development and social evolution, with its own unique twists. In the best scenarios, stepparents can promote healing and growth in their new families.
For most of us stepparents, our role is a supporting one. The extent of involvements for each person depends on a multitude of factors, including basic chemistry. But we do get to decide how we want to behave and the attitude we bring to the family.
Fifty stepchildren of different ages were asked to give advice to stepparents; here is a summary of what they said.
- “Don’t try to replace the mother or father.”
- “Be a friend. Don’t try to be their parent.”
- “Try hard not to take things personally.”
- “Remember that you are the grown-up, they are the kid. Behave accordingly.”
- “You chose to have stepchildren; they didn’t choose to have a stepparent.”
- “Be patient.”
- “If you can, try to love your stepkids as if they were your own.”
- “Don’t love them as if they were your own children.”
- “Don’t push your relationship with them.”
- “If my brother and I still secretly wish my dad and mom would get back together, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.”
- “Blended families are like organ transplants; sometimes they take and sometimes they don’t.”
- “Never talk about the parent that you are not married to as a way of making conversation with your stepkids. It makes everyone feel awkward.”
- “Don’t try to change the parenting style of the original parents.”
- “If your stepkids don’t want to talk, don’t make them talk. Give them space. Give them a day. If it continues longer, then you can ask if there is something wrong – but if they still don’t want to talk about it, go tell their parent, your spouse, that something seems to be bothering the child.”
- “Don’t feel badly if they don’t want to eat your food.”
- “Don’t open their door without knocking. Wait for them to say ‘come in’ before opening the door.”
- Contrary to popular myth, love takes time to develop. Give your relationships with your stepchildren time to grow and develop naturally. Forcing closeness is often ineffective. Sometimes, it may even damage your relationship. Encourage the children to call you by your given name to avoid confusion and conflict about parenting roles.
- Set aside some one-on-one time for each of your children and stepchildren, and respect their individual needs and wants. If your children or stepchildren want to vent their feelings about the divorce or remarriage, listen openly and validate their feelings without agreeing with them. For example, “I can understand how you’d feel that way” vs. “Yes, I agree [or I feel] the same way.” Be patient as they deal with the loss of their original family structure; some people take years to recover.
- Keep in mind the challenges of raising children between two households. Although it’s ideal to strive for as much consistency between households as possible, often you’ll need to accept and be respectful of the differences. Encourage your children and stepchildren to maintain control over their own clothes and other personal items – even if they have to share closets or bedrooms. Keep the children’s teachers informed of family changes that may affect their social behavior or school performance.
- Strengthen your parenting relationship with your partner. Discuss parenting roles, beliefs, and expectations. It may help to take a parenting class or to work with a counselor.
- Develop simple, explicit rules for your children to follow. In most cases, it’s often best for each parent to be the primary disciplinarian for his or her own children, with the stepparent filling in for emergencies and gradually taking on the role of an emerging parent. Remember, parents, are most effective when they provide a unified front. Instead of responding immediately to a child’s request, confer with your spouse and make a mutual decision.
- If the kids have family pictures that include both of their parents, let them display the pictures. Don’t let your insecurities get in the way of the kids wanting to have pictures in their own room at your house.
Checking in with your Stepkids
Find a quiet moment to ask your stepkids how your relationship is going from their perspective. Is there anything that they would like to change, or is there anything in particular that they especially like about it? Ask your spouse how he/she feels about your current relationship with the kids.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Wisdom on Stepparenting: How To Succeed Where Others Fail (CreateSpace, 2012) by Diana Weiss-Wisdom (Ph.D.). Written by a psychologist and stepmother, this book is for stepparents who want to learn how to be resilient, happy, and confident in their relationship with their spouse and their stepchildren. Dr. Weiss-Wisdom offers realistic coping strategies and proven techniques that help individuals succeed in their new marriages and build caring relationships with their stepchildren. In private practice in San Diego, CA for more than 25 years, Dr. Weiss-Wisdom is a noted expert in marriage counseling, stepfamily issues, and psychological testing.