Effective Guidelines for Stepparents
Ask most stepchildren, especially teenagers, how they feel about having a stepparent in their lives and they’ll tell you plenty:
- “Two parents are enough, thank you very much.”
- “I don’t need some outsider telling me what to do.”
- “I wish my parents were back together.”
Comments like these can easily hurt a new stepparent but it may help you to know that they are rarely about you as a person. Rather, they usually reflect the child’s sadness and anger about how his family has changed. Practicing the technique of “de-personalizing” these statements is important although difficult when the stepchild’s verbal jabs are directed at you. But realize these comments are about what the stepchild is experiencing, it is not about your character or abilities.
So how do you develop a cooperative and caring relationship with your stepchildren when they appear to be acting as if they don’t want you there? Remember that stepchildren may resist developing a close relationship with you, their biological parent’s new girl/boyfriend or spouse, until they think you’ll stay. The children may have a distrust of their parent’s choices particularly if there have been several other adults who have come and gone in their life.
I want to offer 5 starting guidelines for being an effective stepparent
1) Avoid trying to replace the absent biological parent. Regardless of why the other parent is not around on a full time basis (poor parenting skills, deadbeat, deceased, in prison, etc.) this other parent is a permanent fixture in the child’s mind. Few things are strong enough to break that parent-child bond. The other biological parent will most often be psychologically present in the stepchild’s mind even if they are not physically present. Recognize that for you, the new stepparent, there may be new hopes and dreams about your future now that there is a new committed adult relationship in your life. But remember that the stepchild may not have those same positive gains but may instead still be focused on what has been lost particularly now that their custodial mom or dad is now focused on his/her new partner.
2) Acknowledge that this is a new and challenging situation for you. What might it be like for a stepchild to hear this from you? – “You know, I’ve never been a stepparent before, and you’ve never been a stepchild, so let’s figure how we can do this together – and do it well.” Research shows that most of the time stepchildren want stepparents to just be their friends. Ask them what it would mean for them to be your friend. Focus on the positive and see what the stepchild needs from you, rather than on what they don’t want. Win their trust, respect, and cooperation. Later you may be able to move into other roles with them.
3) Explore realistic expectations – the children’s and your own. Some common myths about stepfamilies include expecting your stepchildren to call you “Mom” and kiss you goodnight; expecting your new stepfamily to quickly feel like a “normal” family; or expecting your stepchildren to automatically understand and like your rules or usual ways of doing things. If possible you need to intentionally discuss “role and rule” expectations before remarrying.
4) Accept that “instant love” is a myth. Building a healthy stepfamily involves developing trust, effective communication, mutual respect, and fun activities over time. Realize that you may not feel the same love for your stepchildren as you do for your own biological children. Love may take a long time to develop or it may never develop but respect, acceptance and trust can still be experienced in an effective stepfamily.
5) Work out your stepparent role gradually. There is no set number of weeks, months, or years for your new relationships to become stable and comfortable. Patience and flexibility are key ingredients in making a stepfamily work. Stepparent, don’t just try and teach your stepchildren to obey you “no matter what” but teach them how to make good choices.
Stepfamilies can be enjoyable and nurturing families. As summer or holidays approach and the children are at home more, plan some activities as a stepfamily. Have a family meeting where everyone can offer some ideas about what would be an enjoyable activity and once it’s planned, go do it! Stepfamily life doesn’t have to be dreaded but can be very rewarding.