Being a stepparent is fundamentally different from being a biological parent, especially in the beginning. When things are running smoothly, you may not be able to tell any difference at all. But as soon as things hit a rocky patch – say the kids start acting up or testing limits or behaving in ways that require you to discipline them – the gap between a biological parent and stepparent is quickly exposed.
As a stepparent, you’re coming into a child’s life at mid-juncture, and the type of love, trust, commitment, loyalty and respect that exists between a child and a biological parent who’s been around since birth simply isn’t there. So when any type of conflict arises, children are more hypersensitive and ambivalent about the relationship. They’ll more quickly resort to questioning your love or commitment towards them, challenging your authority as a parent figure, or simply fighting against your role in their lives.
Therefore stepparents have less margin for error, and face greater struggles in their parenting duties. The ins and outs of step-parenting could fill an entire book, and in fact, we’ve created a book on step parenting that we would strongly recommend. In the mean time here are some valuable tips information that will help you get the relationship started off on the right track:
What stepparents should & shouldn’t do
- Recognize that children don’t bond on contact
One of the most common mistakes is that stepparents go into the marriage expecting to slide right into a parenting role. They think: I’ll put on a ring and come into the home, and then the kids will start calling me mommy, and we’ll all live happily ever after as a family. It doesn’t work this way. Relationships are built, they don’t come for free, and they aren’t awarded as a consolation prize for marrying a child’s parent.
Stepparents need to recognize this, and understand that building a relationship with the kids takes work. It requires time, energy, attention, and effort. Whatever time you spent building a relationship to your new partner, it will take an equal amount of devotion to do the same with your new stepchildren.
You’re not just marrying a partner; you’re marrying his or her kids as well. And part of that marital duty is to work to court the children just as passionately as you did your new mate. You need to create a family around them just as if they were your own. Before you can command their respect as a parent, you need to build a healthy relationship. This comes through showing them affection, spending time with them, conveying that they are worth your time, and showing that you honestly, truly care and want to be involved in their lives. You need to show that you view them not just as baggage that came along with your partner – some added responsibility you took over because you had no other choice – but as special people that are desirable to be around, whom you love and care about separately and individually, irrespective of the marriage arrangement. Until this is accomplished, you can never be a true parent to them.
Another common mistake is to assume that because you and your partner’s kids get along well now, that things will be fine after marriage. Things change once you blend the family, and many step parents who got along well with the children while dating suddenly find a very different situation after marriage.
- Ask for mutual respect and common courtesy
When dealing with tweens and adolescents, step back from demanding they regard you as an authority figure right away, and instead ask that you each merely regard one another with mutual respect: “I know I’m not your parent, and I haven’t yet put in the time it takes to earn the same love and respect a parent might command. But here’s the deal: Until I’ve had time to earn this position, I’ll try to do everything I can to respect you as a person, and all I ask is that you respect me as a person in return.”
- Lay off the discipline in the beginning
Just as relationships are built, respect is earned, and thus stepparents should take a backseat role in discipline until they’ve had time to establish themselves as an authority figure in the household. “Taking over the discipline without first earning the child’s respect and loyalty is a bad mistake,” write Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 243)
Such diplomacy can be made harder because a number of children will act openly hostile toward this new member of the family. Stepparents must exhibit an extraordinary amount of patience in these situations, and do all they can not to take such hostilities personally. It’s not about you – it’s about their fears (whether rational or irrational) of what your presence will mean in their lives.
If a stepparent comes in and responds to a child’s disrespect with animosity in return or by trying to come down on them like a ton of bricks, he or she can only expect further rebellion. Unless you want an intractable, Israel-Palestine like conflict in your home for years to come, the parent needs to be the bigger person and absorb these initial attacks without returning fire. If you do, almost all children will eventually come around.
- Keep familiar routines and introduce changes slowly.
Don’t let stepparents come in and make a lot of new demands of children. This is going to create a lot of animosity between them and the kids. Many stepparents come in and want the kids to instantly adjust to their nuances in living. This approach is assured to create conflict. Instead, stepparents should act as though they are the guest in the child’s house, not the other way around, and do their best to assimilate into the family’s lifestyle and the way they’ve been managing all these years.
Be especially cautious about any actions that might be construed as interference with a child’s bond to their parent. For example, one stepmother came in and decided that her husband’s little girl was too old to be sitting on her father’s lap, and so she began shooing the tike away and forbidding her from climbing into her daddy’s arms. Through this action alone, this stepmother just became mortal enemy #1 to her stepdaughter, who from there on out was bound to think of this woman as the oppressive witch who aims to keep her from the embrace of her beloved father.
Stepparents should never come in and try to implement massive changes of any kind, and especially not anything that alters the interactions children have had with their parents. This means…
- If kids have been sleeping in the same bed as their parents, don’t instantly cut them off cold turkey and forbid them from ever doing so. There’s no reason you can’t continue to accommodate such activities in a more limited degree; it even promotes an opportunity for parent and stepchild to bond.
- Stepparents should not try to introduce new rules about how the children are to behave or what they can or can’t do.
- If a child is too old for something, (which is a subjective determination), then this is something the biological parent needs to bring up, and isn’t something a stepparent should try to enforce.