Successful Step Parenting – What You Need to Know to be a Successful Stepparent in a Blended Family
I always wonder about that evil step-mother from Cinderella. Maybe she wasn’t always evil, but the stress of marrying into a family unit with all of the expectations and pressures of motherhood along with the death of her new spouse and resentment of her step-daughter turned her evil… Or perhaps she was just evil because Cinderella is a story and the characters do not necessarily have all of the dimensions and emotions of real people.
This article is somewhat of a testimonial. I am offering advice from the perspective of a practiced family law attorney who leaves the office to go home and put three little boys who call someone else “mommy” to bed every night. While my relationship with the mother of those three little boys is very positive, I am fully aware of how unusual that is, and how lucky all of us are for it.
Step-parenting is like parenting without any of the authority, rights, or clear direction and expectation. You can love those kids more than anyone else does or ever could, but, at the end of the day, they are not “yours.”
No matter how hard step-parents try to stay in their lane, avoid stepping on toes, and maintain positive relationships with their spouse, step-children, and the other parent, missteps are inevitable in the absence of a “how to” manual as a guide.
So what is the secret to successful step-parenting?
Understand What You’re Getting Into
I always think about a statement Michelle Obama made about the expectations and pressures she and Barack felt as he became the first black president of the United States of America that reminds me of step-parenting. Michelle said, “Barack and I knew very early that we would be measured by a different yardstick. Making mistakes was not an option for us. Not that we didn’t make mistakes, but we had to be good — no, we had to be outstanding — at everything we did…”
Step-parents are measured by a different yardstick than parents, and they have far less room for error. They don’t have the luxury of figuring it out as they go, because making mistakes can impact their marriage and their spouse’s custodial rights to his/her children.
Knowing that you are held to higher standard, understanding that, and accepting it before entering into the role is an important first step.
Think Before You Speak
Nobody expects you to become best buddies with your spouse’s ex or be the spokesperson for their fan club. You are expected to maintain a positive relationship with him/her, and always be polite and respectful whenever you interact.
Parents should never make negative or derogatory remarks about the other parent in front of their child, but this is even more imperative for step-parents. No matter what the custodial arrangement is or how contested the battle for that arrangement was, children naturally dislike and resist anyone who clearly harbors animosity towards one of their parents.
If you harbor bad feelings toward your spouse’s ex, keep those feeling away from the children. Every word that leaves your lips in regard to your step-child’s other parent should be positive.
Come Up With Clear Rules and Expectations for all Children in the Household
Keep your house rules as consistent as possible for all kids, whether they are your kids from a previous relationship, your partner’s kids from a previous relationship, or new children you have together.
Particularly in a blended family, children are particularly sensitive to any perceived injustice in the household. Age specific expectations and consequences are, of course, necessary, but they must be consistently applied at all times. This helps kids adjust to changes and helps them feel that all kids in your home are treated equally.
Accept Your New Obligations
Coming into a child’s life in any capacity is a big deal. There are a select number of adults who generally spend extended periods of time with a child, and you are becoming one of them.
That means that you now have certain obligations to that child. I’m not talking about the legal obligations a parent has to a child, I am talking about the basic human obligations an adult who voluntarily inserts him/herself into the life of a child has to that child. That child’s best interests and needs should now be your highest priority and that can be incredibly daunting.
For example, you do not get to have fights with your spouse whenever and wherever you want. You cannot fight with your spouse in front of your step-child, ever. Chances are, that child has witnessed a fair amount of fights between his/her parents and may even remember their break up or divorce. Parents, for better or worse, get to choose what their children are exposed to.
You, as a step-parent, don’t have that right.
Don’t Take What Your Step Children Say Personally
Kids can be pretty mean. It may feel like your step-child reached into your chest and crushed your still-beating heart with their tiny fist if they say something like, “I don’t like you anymore,” or, especially as they get older, “I hate you.” These are things kids sometimes say to their parents when they are feeling angry, or frustrated. For a step-parent, however, hearing these kinds of words can be especially painful.
Children have an underlying, almost unconditional love for their parents. So when a child yells that they hate their mom or dad, it is so at odds with their true feelings that parents can easily brush off the outburst and get back to the discipline at hand. Step-parents do not have that underlying certainty that even if everything in the world goes horribly wrong, that child will still love them. That uncertainty is only further fueled by the fact that step-parent visitation rights are so rarely sought or granted.
Unfortunately, children often have conflicting feelings of loyalty. If they have strong positive feelings toward their stepparent, then they may feel that they are being disloyal to their other biological parent.
Whatever the reason, step-children may say or do things that are hurtful to their step-parent. Don’t take it personally!
When children are going through emotionally trying times and lashing out, they may choose their step-parent as the obvious target for their outburst. Patience is necessary to succeed as a parent, and particularly as a step-parent. Always remember he/she is the child, and maybe they chose you as their target because they trust that you will stick around.
Discuss a Plan for Handling Discipline with Your Spouse
One of the most divisive issues facing step-parents is how to handle discipline. Nearly every expert agrees that discipline should be left to the biological parent, but it isn’t always practical or possible for step-parents to stay out of this arena completely.
If a three year old comes up to you with a bite mark on his arm pointing at his twin brother, are you supposed to call your spouse to come home from work to deal with the situation, or does one kid need a band aid and a kiss while his brother hangs out in time out for a minute? I will let you figure that one out, but the point is, sometimes, step-parents really don’t have an alternative but to discipline.
They key is to have open communication with your spouse about how and when discipline will occur so that everyone is on the same page.
This is true in all parenting relationships, but the rules need to be known and communicated ahead of time. Even if you don’t agree with a particular rule, consistency is key. Children need to know that no matter which one of their adults, step-parent or parent, is present, certain behaviors are unacceptable and will result in a particular consequence.
It should probably go without saying, but just in case there is any question: there is never an excuse to use corporal punishment on someone else’s child. Ever.
All of the issues discussed in this article are inherently emotional and complex. Having a family law attorney who understands the legal principles and day-to-day struggles facing blended families can help you get the best result for your family.