Given today’s divorce rate of 50%, cheap a lot of new families are created out of remarriage. In addition, many children become step-children after one of their parent’s has died and the other has remarried. Sometimes step-children also inherit step-siblings, meaning that the parents in such reorganized households have a lot of new family dynamics to deal with. Even if blended families are now a social norm, creating and living in one always comes with certain challenges. For a new step-parent, the road is far easier when preparations are made; it is helpful to learn about common step-parenting issues and strategies for managing them.
Honoring the Previous Family
Being a step-parent is harder than being a regular parent. Not only must you build a new family, but you also have to do so without nullifying the original family your step-children come from. On the contrary, the more recognition, validation and honor you can give to the children’s original family, the more comfortable your new children are likely to feel around you. In cases where the other parent of your step-children has died, you can certainly ask the children about their past experiences in the family, their special memories and even their relationship with that parent. You want to show the kids that you aren’t afraid of the topic and that you aren’t trying to pretend that they didn’t once have a whole different home. Your unspoken message is “that was a precious part of your life and this new life with me in it is a different chapter of your lives. Both parts are valid.”
Step-children who come to you through the process of divorce may or may not have pleasant memories of their previous home. There are many types of divorce and in any case, the children’s experience of the dissolution of a home is normally very different from the experience of the adults involved. Again, you don’t want to pretend that the children did not have a previous life. In fact, acknowledging that all this change is difficult and must feel awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling can only help. Remember that children can feel intensely angry that they now have to live with a parent who is not their natural parent and siblings who are not their natural siblings. Acknowledging their grief and their right to anger shows that you are an understanding and trustworthy adult. “I know it’s strange having a whole new family in this house. It might make you feel upset or uncomfortable at times. We just want you guys to know that we understand and we’re here to help in whatever way we can. It isn’t easy. We don’t expect everyone to just start loving each other. That may come with time but it may not. All we ask for from everyone in this household is mutual respect. We talk to each other nicely. That will help all of us get along. If we later learn to like each other too, that will be a huge bonus!”
You May be Dealing with Trauma
Step-children have usually experienced some sort of traumatic loss, whether that was caused by death or divorce. Because of this, they often carry layers of grief, anger and anxiety – feelings that they don’t necessarily talk about. Their behavior, however, may be affected. As a step-parent you might see something that looks like an attitude problem, whereas it is much more likely to be an emotional problem. Sometimes it can be helpful to arrange for psychological counseling for kids who are being thrust into a blended family; counseling can give them a venue to work through their painful emotions far more quickly and efficiently than just waiting for “time” to do its magic. It is important to note that “time” does not necessarily heal these kinds of wounds at all. Therapy is a far better option. If therapy is out of the question, step-parents can accomplish much by being knowledgeable and utilizing resources such as books (books that can offer education and an opportunity to explore the issues in the reorganized family), pastoral services, community services and family services.
Because of all these emotions, step-children are rarely ready to give their hearts over to some new adult. It’s best if you don’t expect them to do so. Over the years, your patient, kind and understanding character will leave a strong impact, helping these youngsters to eventually open up to you and form a positive relationship. This process cannot be rushed, so just sit back and read some good parenting books (such as Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe) and wait.
As a new step-parent, you will want to avoid engaging in disciplining your step-children. Let their natural parent do this – unless the children are pre-schoolers. However, you can establish some basic expectations and rules just by living them yourself and using plain language to ask the children to abide by them. Work with your new spouse to create a set of basic rules and expectations that you are both willing to endorse. Suppose your new spouse never asked his kids to take their plates of the table after eating. You feel that since they are already teenagers, they should certainly be doing this for their own good as well as for the good of the household. In your home, you raised your children to do this task routinely. You have no intention of taking the step-children’s plates off for them and it irks you to see their father do it. Discuss the issue with the children’s father. If he sees the value in changing his previous philosophy and strategy, then the two of you can ask the kids to remove their plates from now on. If he doesn’t, however, then you remove your plates, you continue to ask your children to remove theirs, you express once only how you think and feel about the issue and then you let their Dad take care of it. If the problem gets out of hand, you can enlist the services of a family counselor.
Keep in mind that when you are pleasant, rather than strident, step-children are more willing to learn from you. When you keep the tone of the relationship positive, when you are willing to lead the way by your warm, kind example, you can accomplish a great deal over time. Don’t rush. Trust the process. Step-children are willing to learn more from warm, gentle step-parents than from strict, rule-oriented, authority figures.
Having said this, there is no reason for you to accept any sort of abuse from a step-child. Read “The Relationship Rule” in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice to learn how to establish respectful communication between you and the step-children. This is one area that you should really work hard to bring the children’s parent on board since establishing and maintaining basic standards of respect will help your new family remain healthy and caring rather than dysfunctional and destructive to its members.
Take the Lead
Don’t wait for your step-children to warm up to you. YOU warm up to them first, even if they don’t “deserve” it. Children need adults to take the lead. Pay attention to their preferences and their feelings and aim to respect both. Go ahead and “buy their affection” by getting them little treats, making favorite foods or doing special acts of kindness. By tuning into their preferences this way, you help the step-children feel safe and seen – prerequisites for a healthy relationship. You can get to know the kids better by opening up discussions stemming from issues in the news or articles you’ve read. Listen to their thoughts and opinions on all topics and accept what they have to say without judgment. Keep criticism very low – both about what they say and what they do.
Your Spouse’s Children
Your relationship with your spouse is the glue that holds your new home together. Try your best NOT to argue about your kids. Allow your new spouse to love his or her kids more than he or she loves you. Doing so helps your spouse come to love you more LATER ON. Parents have an intense, instinctive, protective love for their kids – a different kind of love than the one they have for their partners. You are NOT in competition with your spouse’s children, but if you feel you are, then accept the fact that the KIDS win and you lose. Then move on from there. Once you stop struggling, your partner will ironically love you more.