Help for Step Parents: How to Navigate Two Big Hazards to Your Happiness
Nobody plans on becoming a stepparent. But it happens more often than you might think. About 1300 new stepfamilies form every day, reports the Census Bureau. More children are living in stepfamilies or other partnerships than ever before. Experts estimate that by the time they finish high school, more than half of children will spend some time living outside a “traditional” nuclear family structure with married biological parents.
Building a stepfamily may seem like a wonderful chance to start over. The bliss of new love inspires hope, courage, and brings out our best. But it can also blind us to some difficult truths — mainly that your kids and new partner may not love each other the way you want them to.
Most couples underestimate the challenge of becoming a blended family. It will take much more time and patience than you likely imagine. Even if you are certain you know what you’re getting into, tranquil waters can become wild rapids in a flash.
Help for step parents is here. It’s important to know about two big hazards, and how to navigate them.
Hazard #1: Not Knowing You’re Still the Outsider
The first big challenge to new stepparents is taking the unavoidable place as an outsider. You want to slip smoothly into your new family, but they started without you.
The relationship with your partner involves more than the two of you. It’s a complex mix of children, extended families, previous partners, their new partners, and more. Then there’s your ex. You may feel you’ve come to terms with the breakup, but strong ties remain, especially if the two of you have children together.
Even if you have the best of intentions, building a stepfamily will make choppy waves. It’s important to see when it’s time to let a fantasy go (and embrace it!) to avoid needless hurt and heartache.
Consider the Age of the Children Involved
Under the age of nine, stepchildren are more likely to accept a new adult in their lives with less acting out. Siblings in their tweens and teens may find it much harder to change the life they know; “there’s a lot of shared ground about thousands of things we’re aware of and many we’re not aware of at all.” So says Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t
Children ten and up have a more concrete ideas of family, and may be more wary and deliberate about forming new relationships. They have suffered deep losses, and may have built tight bonds with remaining family members as a result. To them, having to live with an adult who doesn’t ‘get this’ threatens their sense of security.
Tools to Balance Rocky Emotions: Empathy and Perspective
To foster harmony in your new family, you will need more than good will and patience. Insight and empathy will help a lot. Try to see things from the child’s point of view. How you would you feel – as a kid – about your parent’s friend being around all the time?
Say your partner’s family watches television together. How does your presence changed that? A seemingly little thing — like who sits next to whom — can spark anger or hurt. Children feel conflicting loyalties but are not very diplomatic when venting emotions. Your empathic perspective can help the parent and children unpack what’s going on calmly.
Hazard #2: Having to Do Discipline and Daily Routines Differently
The second major hazard for new stepparents comes with establishing rules, routines and discipline. A common mistake — particularly for stepdads — is to take up an authority role with kids right away.
Imagine that you’re a child and your mom’s new partner is now calling the shots around your home. This person hasn’t raised you, and you two have no relationship. How would you accept this person’s orders to clean your room and get along with your siblings?
Resistance isn’t necessarily a sign of disrespect, or that the kids ‘are bad’. Competing factors are driving their reactions. Say they have a dad they love and miss. You want them to accept you as a new father figure – but it feels to them like a painful betrayal. Because they lack the words and perspective to understand and convey these emotions, they act out in childish ways instead.
Tools for Navigating the Hazards to Your Happiness
What can stepparents do when the dream of a happy new family seems to be washing away? Be very patient. It can take between five to seven years to develop meaningful relationships within your new family.
So you can’t replace a biological parent. But you and your partner can create your own unique role as stepparent.
When it comes to daily routines and family discipline, both partners need to be on the same page. Talk with your partner about what you both say to the children about what’s expected when the stepparent is in charge.
Say mom goes out, and stepdad has the kids for the morning. What happens when he says to put away their cereal bowls, and they refuse? Sure, he can yell and send them to their rooms. But this does little to foster positive feelings and respect.
A more constructive approach might look like this: Remind kids that family rules still apply, regardless of who’s enforcing them. If children act up when the time comes, a bit of empathy can help set things right. “I know it’s hard for you to have me in the house. You miss the way it was with your dad. It’s not easy. How about we clear this up, and bike to the park?” This is far more likely to connect with a child than forcing the issue. If the kids still refuse to cooperate, let the matter rest until the parent’s return.
You may not like to leave issues unresolved. You may feel unappreciated and like a failure. But it’s critical remember that setting expectations without mandates is a necessary — albeit uncomfortable — part of the process. It’s also important to remember that these behaviors aren’t personal.
Give Each Relationship Its Own Space – Compartmentalize
The challenge of parenting and step parenting may leave couples wondering, “Where is our relationship in all of this?” It is so important to keep the lines of communication open. Give yourselves time talk about what’s going on with the children, but also to what’s going on between the two of you.
The balancing act between the couple’s needs and the children’s needs is especially hard for blended families. The biological parent feels a loyalty tug-of-war as much as the children do. Whose needs come first – your partner’s or your kids’? It’s important to give each relationship its own space.
Your ability to create “compartments” for each family relationship is valuable and worth developing. Couples need to prioritize one-on-one time for themselves and members of their original family. While it can be difficult for stepparents to respect these boundaries, doing so can free the biological parent to focus on the kids as needed with less guilt.
Journey’s Reward: New Family Relationships
Forming new relationships between stepparents and kids is rarely going to be smooth sailing. The first step may be to realize that “happily ever after,” is a fantasy. Creating your own unique family culture will be deeply rewarding in is own way, though it will take a journey over years.
In time the children may see they have gained an extra parent who loves them, who cares about them, who stands by them, even adores them. They have a trusted adult they can confide in – without “getting into trouble” with a parent. As teens mature, a stepparent can become a beloved adult confidant as no one else can.
Empathy, perspective, letting go, acceptance, and compartmentalization are all vital tools to help build harmonious, strong, warm family relationships. Family counseling can help everyone use these. Even if you weren’t there from day one, you can still be central to building new and loving bonds as a blended family.
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