Stepparenting is not for the faint of heart. Even in fairy tales, stepparents get a bad rap, often being designated with the adjective “evil.” While perhaps many would not willingly choose to become a stepparent, it often comes with the territory when a parent remarries after a divorce.
There are important considerations to keep in mind as stepparents navigate the often tumultuous waters in establishing new relationships with stepchildren.
Allow for Natural Relationship Development
Good stepparenting is a balancing act. Trying to get too close too soon can easily backfire, especially if children are still adjusting to the reality of their parents’ divorce. They may resent the stepparent for trying to replace their biological father or mother, or be angry that their parent chose to remarry (as they may have hoped their parents would eventually get back together). Go slowly and allow time for gradual adjustments rather than trying to force the issue. Let stepchildren warm up to you on their own terms, and make it clear that you do not intend to replace the relationship that they have with their own same-gender parent. Perhaps you can take each child out one at a time for a fun activity, such as getting an ice cream or going to a movie, to begin the process of getting to know one another.
If new stepsiblings are part of the package, it is especially important to allow relationships and bonds to develop naturally over time. Trying to force closeness unnaturally will only complicate matters.
Divorce and remarriage are confusing enough for the adults involved; remember that it is infinitely more confusing for the children. They may not know how to process their emotions. For example, they may think that showing affection to a new stepparent is being disloyal to their biological parent. They may feel guilty for really liking their new stepparent (perhaps even more than their biological parent). If they have new stepsiblings, they may bond well with them over time to the point that feel like the new family unit is their “real family,” and are lonely when they go to the other parent’s quiet home.
How Much Stepparenting is Too Much?
One of the tricky parts of stepparenting is the need for the adult to be able to set rules and discipline the child(ren) when necessary, even if a healthy emotional bond has not yet been established. The stepparent becomes an authority figure whenever the children are in the house. This can be especially difficult if the same-gender biological parent has different or more relaxed rules in his or her home.
It may be best if the biological parent married to the stepparent is the one who lays down the rules of the house and enforces them, at least initially, so the children do not point to the stepparent as the cause of their “misery.”
Stepparents Can Represent a Threat to the Same-Gender Biological Parent
Post-divorce emotions may still be raw for the other parent. If that is the case, the reality of another adult entering the picture and beginning to love or make decisions for the children could be adding insult to injury. Be aware that you as a stepparent might represent a massive threat to the biological parent. Not only did you marry his or her ex, but you also may potentially capture the affections of his or her children. If the other parent has financial woes, s/he may feel unable to “compete” with the lifestyle, vacations, or hobbies of the new family. A little compassion goes a long way in these situations. Try putting yourself in the shoes of the biological parent and act the way you would hope s/he would act if the roles were reversed.
Try to verbally build up the biological parent when you are with your stepchildren; never undermine him or her. If possible, try to form a healthy relationship with the biological parent apart from the stepchildren. Perhaps go out to lunch together, or take a walk. Try to keep the conversation light at first and just get to know each other. By building a solid bridge between the two of you, it will be easier later on to address any co-parenting issues that come up.
Counseling and/or Mediation can help in an especially difficult situation. A counselor can dig down and figure out the behaviors that are causing the pain, while a Mediator can clarify and formalize the counselor’s suggestions. To book a Mediation appointment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.