Until five years ago, I never thought I’d ever create a stepfamily, but now I have. Turns out, I’m just going with the national flow. Even the staunchest defender of the traditional nuclear family, Focus on the Family, states that within two years, there will be more blended families in the US than any other form of family.
I have learned some things from reading and from doing (both right and wrong). Here are some things that help in step-parenting:
Take an interest in your stepchildren’s lives (friends, music, sports).
Be there for them - steady and supportive.
Make yourself available from a slight distance - not pushing yourself on them.
Be understanding and non-judgmental toward them.
Be patient - allowing them time to sort problems out.
Don’t try to replace or compare yourself in any way to their other parent.
Don’t shower them with too much praise or affection at first.
Don’t demand a lot of attention.
Don’t do anything that makes you need or expect appreciation or response.
When you are talked to in a mildly disrespectful way, ignore it and just discontinue the conversation.
Whenever a stepchild addresses you in a very disrespectful way by attacking your character, say calmly that you love them, but you also love yourself and you will not participate in conversations like this. Withdraw immediately, remaining quiet and peaceful, and let your spouse know about it when you get together.
A good parent and spouse will broker the relationship, getting both of you present and asking both what was said, and where the stories of what happened are different, calling no one a liar. Your spouse needs to invite and encourage both the child and you the stepparent to rephrase statements so both can show respect for each other.
In relating to stepchildren, it is helpful to avoid some common assumptions that turn out to be MYTHS:
Depends on the child—some absolutely yes, some absolutely not, and some absolutely unpredictable. Don’t take it personally, or it will be worse. That’s just how they are. Like an elementary school teacher starting up a class in August or September, it’s better to start out more reserved and matter-of-fact. Let them see that your greater warmth will come out in response to theirs, and to the respect they show you with their loyalty and obedience.
The marital affection you receive in front of them needs to be reserved, and the affection you give needs to be VERY limited. It takes a long time, if ever, before they will be comfortable seeing or hearing about the affection you naturally show each other.
It will take more time (years) and effort (from both of you) for them to let you into their hearts, especially if (a) the divorce wasn’t fairly and adequately explained to them, (b) your remarriage was fairly quick, (c) you are suspected of dating each other or being friends before or during the divorce process, (d) the other parent isn’t yet remarried and happily so, and (e) your spouse isn’t very loyal or assertive in power struggles between you and others for their support.
Actually teenagers are often the hardest to reach and to know. Probing questions may be taken personally, and so they would come best when you and your spouse are both present, and agree for one of you to say, "We were wondering. . ."
In our own blended family, I have approached building relationships with my stepchildren as a life-long adventure. Without extending myself any less than before to my own children, I offer as much of myself personally to my new (step) children, though they don’t usually need or take as much. Treating them as a wonderful add-on feature of my life, just as important as my own children, when on occasion I find them treating each other the same way, I am pleased and amazed.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.