Becoming a stepparent by reuniting families or marrying someone with a child can be rewarding and fulfilling. If you have never had children, you will have the opportunity to share your life with someone younger and help shape their character. If you have children, they can form relationships and form a special bond that only siblings can have. In some cases, new family members get along without any problems. But sometimes there can be bumps in this new road. Understanding your role as a parent – along with the daily responsibilities that come with it – can lead to confusion and even conflict between you and your partner, your partner’s ex-spouse and their children.
While there is no easy formula for creating the “perfect” family, it is important to be patient and sympathetic to the feelings of all involved.
The Challenges of Being a Stepparent
The challenges of being a stepparent can include entering a new family where everyone already knows each other. For starters, you may feel a bit left out. Your stepchild may reject you, ignore you, or just feel uncomfortable or shy around you. Dealing with this and finding a way to build a relationship with your stepchild that works for him and you can be difficult. You may have to deal with negative reactions or criticism from your stepchild’s other parent. If your stepchild’s other parent is not keen on being in your stepchild’s life, this may affect your stepchild’s behavior towards you. If you have children of your own, you may feel biased towards your own child or be upset if you think your spouse is not treating your child fairly.
You and your partner may have different approaches and expectations about parenting. You will need to work with your partner on any issues that arise due to these differences. There may be pressure to take on a particular role – for example, stepmothers may feel expected to take on the main caregiver role, or stepfathers may feel they have to take responsibility for rules and boundaries.
Take Slow Steps
A stepparent’s first role is that of another caring adult in a child’s life, similar to a loving family member or mentor. You may immediately want a closer bond and wonder what you’re doing wrong if your new stepchild doesn’t warm to you or your children as quickly as you’d like. But relationships need time to grow.
Start slow and try not to rush things. Let things unfold naturally—children can tell when adults are being fake or insincere. Over time, you may develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your stepchildren; this is not necessarily the same as the relationship they share with their birth parents.
Factors Affecting Your Relationship with Children
Children grieving the loss of a deceased parent or the separation or divorce of their birth parents may need time to heal before they can fully accept you as a new parent.
For those whose birth parents are still alive, remarriage may mean the end of hope that their parents will be reunited. Even if several years have passed since the separation, children (even adults) often cling to this hope for a long time. From children’s point of view, this reality can leave them feeling angry, hurt and confused.
How old the children are can affect the relationship. When it comes to forming and adjusting new relationships, younger children often have an easier time than older children. However, there may be a “sleeping effect” in young children. Some make big changes at first, but disruptive behaviors or compulsive emotions emerge years later. To help prevent problems later on, talk openly with kids, even if they seem okay with big changes.
How long you have known the children is important in the relationship you will establish. Generally, the longer you know the children, the better the relationship will be. There are exceptions (for example, if you were friends before the parents separated and were blamed for the separation). But in many cases, having a past together can make the transition a little smoother.
How long you have had a relationship with the parents of the children before marriage is another factor.Again there are exceptions, but typically children will feel like you’ve been involved for a long time if you don’t rush into the relationship with the adult.
How well the parent you married got along with the ex-spouse. This is critical. Minimal conflict and open communication between former partners can make a huge difference in how easily children accept you as their step-parent. It is much easier for children to adjust to new living arrangements when adults keep negative comments out of earshot.
How much time children spend with the stepparent. Trying to bond with the kids each weekend—when they want to spend quality time with their natural parents that they don’t see as often as they’d like—can be a difficult way to make friends with your stepchildren. Remember to put their needs first: If children want to spend time with their natural parents, they must be met. So, sometimes bragging yourself can help smooth the road to a better relationship in the long run.
Knowing ahead of time which situations can be a problem can help you prepare. Then, if more complex problems arise, you can handle them with an extra dose of patience and grace.
Steps to Positive Stepparenting
All parents encounter difficulties from time to time. But when you become a stepparent, they can be more difficult because you are not a natural parent. This can trigger power struggles within the family, whether it’s from the kids, your spouse’s ex-partner, or even your partner.
Talk to your partner or partner.
Communication between you and your partner is important so that you can make parenting decisions together. This is especially important if each of you has different ideas about parenting and discipline. If you’re new to parenting as a stepparent, ask your partner what the best way to get to know children is. Use resources to find out what kids of different ages are interested in and don’t forget to ask them.
Create new family traditions.
Find special activities to do with your stepchildren, but be sure to get their feedback. New family traditions may include board game nights, biking together, cooking, crafting or even playing quick word games in the car. The key is to have fun together, not try to win their love because kids are smart and will quickly spot if you’re trying to push a relationship.
Identify wants, not needs, first.
Above all, children need love, affection and consistent rules. Giving them toys or treats can lead to a situation where you feel like you’re exchanging gifts for love, especially if it wasn’t earned with good grades or behavior. Similarly, if you feel guilty for treating your biological children differently than your stepchildren, don’t buy gifts to make up for it. Are you doing your best to figure out how to treat them more equally?
Do not use children as intermediaries.
Try not to ask the children what is going on in the other house – they will be offended if they feel asked to “watch” another parent. Whenever possible, communicate directly with the other parent about planning, visiting, health or school issues.
Respect all parents.
When your partner’s ex-spouse dies, it’s important to be sensitive to and honor that person. If you and your partner share custody with the natural parent, try to be kind and compassionate in your interactions with each other (no matter how difficult). Never say negative things about the biological parent in front of children. Doing it often backfires and kids get angry at the parent who uttered the words. No child likes to hear their parents criticized, even if they complain to you.
House rules are important.
Keep your house rules as consistent as possible for all children, whether they are children from a previous relationship, your partner’s children from a previous relationship, or new children you have together. Children and young people will have different rules, but they should always be applied consistently. This helps children adjust to changes, such as moving to a new home or welcoming a new baby, and helps them feel that all children in your household are treated equally. If children are dealing with two different sets of rules in each household, it may be time for an adult-only family meeting, otherwise children may learn to “work the system” for short-term gain but long-term problems.
All step-families are different, but like all families, they share a common purpose. They can be just as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family can always navigate smoothly, but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges that are unique in the beginning. Within this is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.