With the high rate of divorce and remarriage, many couples are experiencing a new first: becoming a stepparent. Blending families creates it’s own set of challenges, and on top of that, stepparenting doesn’t exactly have a great image in our culture (e.g., Cinderella, Snow White). Often times, most of the issues of becoming a stepparent can be resolved by addressing things prior to the family blending. Here are some suggestions of things to remember when becoming a stepparent:
- Don’t try to force the relationship with your stepchildren. It’s important to understand that all relationships develop over time. This is especially important in the situation of becoming a stepparent. Children will inevitably have grief and loss issues surrounding the breakup of their biological parents, whether from divorce, death, or other circumstances. Understand that it takes time for them to adjust to the changes and the new roles in their blended family.
- Discuss limits and expectations up front and early in the relationship. Many issues can be avoided by simply having an honest discussion about role expectations, both with your partner, as well as the children. For example, how will discipline be handled? What are the rules of the house? Make sure to discuss the differences in parenting styles and how this will be handled with the stepchildren. Define what the role of the stepparent will be, and be as specific as you can. Having different expectations can create a lot of unnecessary conflict between everyone in the family. Once the limits and expectations can be defined, and parenting styles negotiated, sit down as a couple with the children and be specific in defining expectations and limits to them. This also creates an atmosphere of team parenting, which is good modeling for them.
- Recognize the differences in parenting roles, and don’t try to replace the biological parent. Trying to step in and take on the role of “Mother” or “Father” can create a lot of conflict. Recognize up front that your role as a stepparent is different than the child’s biological parent, which is a positive thing. Often times, a stepparent can feel less important or threatened by their new role, which is a normal feeling to have. What you do with those feelings, however, can either make the relationship with your stepchildren stronger, or cause the relationship damage.
- Try not to take it personally, and be the “adult” in the relationship. Inevitably, children in a blended family will most likely have some resistance to the changing in the healthiest of ways, which can be hurtful to a new stepparent. Don’t take their reactions personally, and don’t allow yourself to engage in or react to negative behavior. This only fuels the fire. For example, if your child yells “You aren’t my mother! I don’t have to listen to you! I hate you!”, don’t respond back with “You are so ungrateful for everything I do for you, so if you like your mother so much, go live with her!” Respond back in a calm, assertive way, that enforces the limits and expectations that you have previously discussed as a blended family. Be empathic if possible, and try to get to the underlying emotion. Don’t allow inappropriate behavior, but do this without becoming reactionary.
- Don’t ever bad-mouth the “ex” or the other biological parent, especially in front of the children. Recognize that, despite any unresolved issues between your new spouse and their “ex”, that individual is still your stepchild’s mother or father. It is hurtful and creates emotional trust issues for the child to hear you talk about their parent behind their back. It also puts them in the position of having to “pick sides”, which is devastating to a child’s emotional well being. Have good boundaries with what is discussed in front of the kids, and keep your own (or your spouses) unresolved issues separate from them.
- Don’t take sides or get in between your stepchildren and their biological parent. Many times, a new stepparent will feel like they need to come in and take over, or clean up messes. Your role as a stepparent isn’t to change the situation, it’s about developing your own unique relationship with your stepchildren. Don’t play “messenger” for them with their biological parent, and allow them to have their own unique relationship with their parent. If you feel caught between your stepchildren and your spouse, encourage them to discuss their feelings with their biological parent.
- Ask for support and encouragement from your spouse. Communicate your struggles in a non-blaming and non-attacking way with your partner, and ask for specific ways of support and encouragement in your new role as a stepparent. If you are the biological parent reading this, make sure and be supportive of your spouse in their new role. Understand that the role of a stepparent can feel very uncertain and ambiguous at times. Present yourself as a team, and reinforce any agreed upon boundaries and rules with the children. One of the most common things we hear with stepparenting issues is when a new stepparent feels abandoned and alone from a lack of support from their spouse. This can alienate the new stepparent from the blended family, as well as placing the children in the middle of the conflict. The new stepparent needs to know you are backing them, and encouraging the kids to have a healthy, respectful relationship with their stepmother or stepfather.
If you are struggling with stepparenting or blended family issues and would like to make an appointment, call us at 317-569-0046, or contact us via our website at www.imaginehopecounseling.com. Imagine Hope Counseling Group provides individual, marriage, relationship, and family counseling to the greater Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.
Blending Families by Elaine Fantle