As many as 50% of American families are blended families, a construct with needs that traditional families don’t have. It’s important, as parents, to consider every angle of this dynamic.
Blending a family is hard work, and stepparenting can be especially tough. Challenges often arise when building relationships with children that might not want you around, or those who may even resent your presence. And if you're blending children of your own into a new family, the dynamics become even more complicated. Plus, you also need to maintain a healthy relationship with your partner, when statistically, second, third (or more) marriages have a higher risk of failing. Among of the three biggest reasons why these marriages fail? Finances, sex, and parenting.
So what can you personally do to be a better stepparent? Here are 10 perspectives to help you own this role:
1. Have a plan and set expectations.
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of the book Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, tells us that all parents need to be on the same page. Talk to your partner about how they do things and how they envision your role with the kids. Lay down the groundwork for rules, chores, consequences and expectations, not only for children, but for parents too.
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Talk about awkward situations or things that are uncomfortable for you and for the kids. Is it okay to wear underwear in the living room? Does everyone knock before entering bedrooms? What about locking bathroom doors? Hold weekly family meetings to discuss problems, to recognize achievements and to spend time together. Compassionate communication is key.
2. Take the passenger seat.
Let the biological parent run the show. At least for the first year, or even the first couple of years. Stepchildren need to be able to form a bond with you before they will respect you as a parent. Step back and watch how things are done within the family you are entering into, and don’t try to come in and “fix” things. Support your partner in their parenting and let them handle the discipline.
3. Families aren't a perfect package deal.
Yes, your partner comes with a family, and you might too. The kids are their own unique individual selves, though, and they each require their personal relationships. Allow time for individual bonding between you, the kids, and your partner. Get to know everyone, while also respecting their time away from you.
4. Work on that R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Respect is earned. It isn’t something that can be demanded,or received automatically just because you are in a parental role. You earn it in a variety of ways. Listen to your stepchildren. Allow them to have their own process in developing a relationship with you.
5. Develop a support system.
Sometimes you aren’t going to be able to talk to your partner about their kids. They might not be in a place to hear it, they might not agree, they might think you’re crazy. You might be overstepping your bounds. Sometimes, your partner is going to be part of the problem. In these times, it’s important to have people to vent to, to seek advice from. Let’s face it, you’ve got a hard job. You need to have friends who will help you to handle it.
6. Show love and compassion to the bio-parents.
It’s important to honor and respect the relationships that exist between your step children and their biological parents. Your partner’s ex is not your enemy. It is not a competition. The more you are able to work together and get along, the better your relationship with the kids will be.
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7. Take care of yourself.
Be a role model. Go to the gym. Eat well. Get adequate sleep. Do things that stimulate you mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Show your stepkids what self-care looks like, and that you respect and value yourself. Being healthy will help you be more able to handle conflict and shield yourself from negativity.
8. Be patient.
The kids might take a long time to warm up to you. Your partner might take a long time to allow you equal standing as a parent. You might need some time to adjust to your new role. Don’t rush it. According to an article by Lee Rose Emery, it’s important to let the relationships with your step-children develop naturally. It can take four-to-seven years before roles are established and wrinkles are smoothed out. Be compassionate with yourself and be patient with everyone involved.
9. Don’t take it personally.
Christina Steinorth, author of Cue Cards for Life: Gentle Reminders for Better Relationships warns step parents to be prepared to hear things like, “You aren’t my mom/dad,” and “I don’t like you.” Be sensitive to the fact that they are mourning their parents’ split, and don’t get offended.
10. Stay positive.
Find the things that you like about your stepkids and let them be known. Don’t hold back on praise, or on letting your family know how much you love and appreciate them. Find the things that they are doing right, the things you are grateful for, and talk about them. It can be so easy to get caught up in the negative, especially when we are struggling with new roles, relationships and situations. Julie Johnson of support group Hand in Hand Parenting tells step parents to use humor to lighten things up, and to bond. Laughter is therapeutic.
Above all, don’t give up. Show your stepchildren, and your partner, that you are going to stick around and resolve conflicts together, that you are going to be a family that works things out.
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We would love to hear your own stepparenting experiences and strategies. Share them with us by commenting below!