A parent is someone who raises a child, regardless of biological heredity. As Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman write, “The word ‘step’ in stepparent does not mean ‘half parent’ or ‘partial parent.’” (1993, p. 202) Yet there’s also no denying that parenting stepchildren is fundamentally different from parenting biological children.
The difficulties and challenges that come with stepparenting
So what is it that makes stepparenting so hard? Let’s start by discussing some of the challenges inherent to the job, because understanding the difficulties you’ll face as a stepparent is key to maintaining your sanity and avoiding the pitfalls that ensnare so many families.
Why your stepkids may not want you there
You may be a wonderful person and tons of fun to be around. But when you move into the home, there’s a good chance the kids will perceive you as several very undesirable things:
- A new authority figure (what kid wants another one of those?)
- Competition for the love and affection of their biological parent.
- An intruder onto the scene who represents a departure from the original family that is still near and dear in their heart.
“From the child’s point of view, a stepfather (or live-in lover) is not immediately welcome. After all, he’s a mysterious masked stranger who sweeps onstage in the middle of the second act to seize a commanding position. But the first act of the play, which was the child’s life before the stranger galloped in, had a full cast of characters, including a mother and father and children in well-defined roles. Why is the stranger here? Is he good or bad news for my sibs and me? Will he take my dad’s place at the head of the table and in my mom’s bed? Will he try to usurp my dad’s place with me? Will he take my mom away from me? Most children don’t want the play changed. They certainly don’t want new leading actors. They like the simplicity of the first act. The powerful forces swirling around them make children feel fragmented, not whole.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, pp. 241-242)
What type of relationship you have with your stepchildren will depend on how these forces balance out. If kids have a relatively lukewarm memory of the old family, a secure attachment to their biological parent, and also enjoy your company, you may have relatively few problems. If, on the other hand, kids loathed the divorce, feel strong loyalty towards the family of old, and are insecure about the love of their biological parent, then you’re likely to have problems no matter how fun and affectionate you are. Every situation is unique, and every stepparenting situation falls somewhere along this spectrum in terms of how you and the kids play off one another.
The stepkids may be damaged
Few people appreciate just how traumatic divorce can be for a child. It’s by far the most overlooked trauma that exists in our society. Divorce impacts EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of a child’s life, something few other traumas can do. Only placement into foster care creates more disruption to a child’s life and their core measures of welfare.
Twenty-five percent of kids whose parents divorce suffer lasting psychological problems that stay with them well into adulthood. This may not seem like much, but it’s anywhere from 8 to 25-times the rate of lasting disturbances seen among children who are sexually abused. (See our book: Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison) This means that stepparents aren’t just dealing with the difficult dynamics that come with a stepfamily. They might be working with stepkids who are significantly damaged and reeling from the implosion of their childhood home.
Having an appreciation for what your stepkids have been through will help you show a little more empathy when it comes to the problems that arise. Many children are struggling to deal with the worst event of their life. Remember this, and try to show a little compassion.
You may feel like an outsider at first
“I wish that I didn’t feel like I’m always on the outside looking in.”
– Marianne, 41, Illinois (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 80)
Kids have a bond with their biological parents that acts like glue and “can be a strong exclusionary force when stepparents come onto the scene.” (ibid, p. 24) You don’t have the same shared history, and absent the biological ties, many kids are going to be very suspicious about your intentions. It’s going to take some time before you can feel like you belong, and that’s assuming the kids aren’t actively trying to push you away.
Other people may not want you to succeed as a stepparent
When you’re parenting biological children, there usually isn’t an outside entity standing in your way. Everyone in the world wants you to succeed. This isn’t always the case with stepchildren. There very well might be another parent on the other side of the family who is determined to see you fail; a dark shadow insistent upon foiling your attempts to get close to her offspring.
The stepchildren aren’t always your allies
“The desire to rescue our stepchildren carries with it no guarantee that they want to be rescued. We can’t be their ‘Moms’ or their ‘Dads’ unless they want us to be.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, p. 30)
Whereas every child wants to be loved and cherished by their biological parents, not all children are so thrilled about letting a stepparent into their life. This means the desire to please you and their yearning for a healthy relationship isn’t going to be as strong, making everything you do harder.