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Step Parenting Guidelines – How to Make Sure You Don’t Cross a Line

October 13th, 2022

When my husband and I initially introduced each other to our children and we all lived to tell, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a breeze”. After all, the first meeting went wonderfully well. They smiled at me. I smiled at them. My husband smiled at my children. My children returned the favor. I wondered what people were talking about when they mentioned feeling like an “evil stepmother”, or when they mentioned that the image of a blended family as portrayed by the Brady Bunch characters was not at all accurate. Now that my husband and I are rounding the final lap of our first year of marriage I have become more realistic regarding what to expect in the process of merging two lives.

In a blended family pain is often the common denominator. It is typically the case that each family has been through a major life-changing event by way of the breakup of their family. Even if the issues that caused the breakup seem to be resolved, or if the breakup itself is a major source of relief, there are still many adjustments that must be made by all parties involved. One of the greatest issues, it seems, is adjusting to new family members. This adjustment occurs for the adults as well as the children. While the children are adjusting to spending more time away from one of their parents, they must also begin the process of adjusting to the presence of a new parental figure within their lives. The adults, on the other hand, are learning how to parent with a new partner.

In many blended families it is typical that there are step parents and step siblings on both sides of the family. That dynamic most certainly adds another level to the adjustments that must occur. As a stepmother whose children also have a stepmother, I have learned many things about adult parental relationships. I have learned the importance of patience as all members adjust to the new living situations. I understand the importance of communicating with my present husband, while remaining in communication with my former husband. Most importantly, I have learned the importance of not crossing the invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) line with the children’s biological parent(s). I share this knowledge with you so that you are hopefully less likely to find yourself wondering how you got on the wrong side of the line.

The primary element – Respect
I cannot overstate the importance of respect in a blended family, and nowhere is this more accurate than where the children are concerned. Remember, children will likely feel some degree of loyalty to both parents, and that is typically alright. What is absolutely devastating to children is when they feel they have to choose between one parent and another or one step parent and another. It is ultimately up to the parents to model respect for their former spouse, their current spouse, and their former spouse’s current spouse if that is the case. This is not easy. In fact, it can seem downright impossible. As parents, though, we need to be ready to take on such difficult tasks. We need to put our own feelings aside (even though we feel totally justified in our feelings) and focus on our children. Imagine if you overheard someone saying very negative or depreciating things about your dearest friend. How would you feel? Our children are likely feeling the same way. There is a difference between loving someone, liking someone, and respecting someone. Thus, we can model respect for another even if we do not necessarily like them. Parents need to figure out a way to model respect for others even in the face of disagreement or stressful situations.

Space – Give the Children the Opportunity to Come to You
Next on my list of suggestions is the concept of space, which is a cousin to the concept of time. Parent-child relationships take time to develop. It seems we lose sight of that when we are introduced to our soon-to-be-stepchildren. We want to love them. We want them to love us. We want it right now. I can admit it is difficult and albeit awkward when your stepchildren are taking leave to return to their other parent’s home and you are not sure if you should reach out and hug them or wait for them to reach out and hug you. I have been there. However, it seems as though I have had more positive results when I have stepped back, put my own needs aside, and allowed the kids to reach out to me in their own time. I must give them space. The same thing is true of my own children. They need space as well. Few things are more difficult to observe than an adult who is physically forcing themselves on a child. If an adult is forcing affection it is often their own needs and insecurities they are trying to soothe and not those of the child. Our stepchildren do not owe us a hug and it is crossing the line to insist that they give one. I have discovered that if I allow the children to take the lead, the affection I receive is completely genuine and heartfelt. That means a lot to this stepmother. There are ways to communicate warm feelings without forcing physical contact. Remember, the bond between a parent and child has developed over the course of the child’s life. Don’t expect blended family relationships to be instantaneously strong and positive. Time is the key factor.

Labels and Titles – Another Touchy Subject
We live in a society where titles seem to be of the utmost importance. Titles convey respect, accomplishment, status, and occupation among other things. We use titles in our families as well. Our children learn from a very young age that there are proper names for people, and that it is important we use such labels in our interactions with others. For example, I would not have dreamed of calling my mother by her first name, and I would have been truly sorry (in a lot of ways) if I had done so. The same was true of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and others in positions of authority.

For the most part, labels and titles are good. As previously mentioned, they convey respect and depth of relationship. There are, however, times when titles can cause friction, confusion, or stress. This is often the case in the blended family. One of the first things typically established between children and their step parent is how the step parent will be addressed. Sometimes the children make that decision and simply assign their step parent a name. As long as this is alright with the adults involved there is little harm in letting the child decide how they would like to refer to their new parent, as long as the title is respectful. In my case, my son simply started calling my husband by his first name because that’s what he heard everyone else doing. It would have been another story if I had insisted that he referred to my present husband as “Daddy”. Not only would my son’s biological father have felt completely disrespected, my son would have been a bit confused as well.

Young children can have a very difficult time sorting through the myriad of situations that make someone a daddy or a mommy. They often don’t understand prefixes like “step”, so we are actually doing them a favor if we keep it simple. I have heard of families where the parents sit down and discuss their feelings about titles and labels and develop them together. I have also heard of parents that help their children decide on a name for their new step parent that is neither their first name nor mommy or daddy. It would seem this could prove to be a very positive experience for all involved.

Step parenting is not easy, but then again, parenting in any form is not easy. There are potential landmines every step of the way, many of them seemingly invisible. However, the landmines become more visible with time, and eventually begin to fade. In the meantime relax, model respect, and make flexibility one of your primary goals.

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Five Mistakes Step-Parents Make

August 13th, 2022

Blended families account for a growing number of families and a lot of therapeutic work is being dedicated to addressing the unique challenges they face. Having taught classes for hundreds of divorced parents I have see certain issues arise consistently. I think that most step-parents have good intentions but many are unprepared for the stress and conflict that can arise when they begin dating or marry someone with children. Below, is a list I have compiled of five mistakes commonly made by step-parents (and biological parents for the matter).

Hopefully, awareness will help you be able to take measures to avoid or minimize making these mistakes. Making these changes in how you interact with your step-child(ren) can provide significant improvement in the relationships within the new blended family and increased self-esteem (and improved behavior) in the child(ren).

1. Badmouthing The Other Parent – This is very common and can be extremely detrimental to a child’s self-esteem and your relationship with your step-children.

No matter how difficult a situation may be you must not forget that your stepchild is 50% their mother and 50% their father, so to insult the other parent is to insult a part of them. Even if the child has negative feelings about the other parent (which they should be allowed to feel and express), you should not join in the conversation.

Parents have told me they make comments about the other parent when they believe the child cannot hear them. In reality, the child may be in the car or the house and overhear you. In some cases, comments about the other parent are made in front of the child. This is something that should be avoided at all costs. Do not allow your friends or family, or the biological parent, to make negative comments about the other parent in front of the child. This is a form of parental alienation co-parenting professionals call tribal warfare. It is hurtful to the child and can be very confusing as well. If you must discuss/complain about the other parent do it when the child is not home or with you.

2. Pretending The Other Parent Doesn’t Exist – This can be a more subtle form of parental alienation but can be just as hurtful as negative comments/words. Pretending the other parent does not exist sends both overt and covert messages to the child(ren) that they are not allowed to talk about the other parent or the time they spend with other parent.

I understand that there may be a lot of conflict or negative feelings about the other parent but this is when you as an adult need to suck it up and must do what’s best for the child(ren). This is your responsibility as an adult and parent. I don’t think most people do this intentionally. In fact, they might not even be aware of how/what they are doing.

I suggest you take time to reflect and honestly assess your actions and/or words. Do you (as parents) allow pictures of the other parent in the house or the child’s room? While you may not want pictures of the other parent on the mantle, is the child allowed the have pictures up in their room or are there pictures in a photo album? A child’s room should be a safe place for them to have pictures of those they love. Do you get angry or make disparaging comments when the child brings up memories or time spent with the other parent? Awareness is key to making changes in behavior so please take time to understand what messages you are sending.

3. Participating In Discipline But Not Praise And Support – I’ve seen many a step-parent willing to take part in discipline or providing negative feedback but miss or ignore the chance to provide positive feedback, love and support. Acknowledging when a child does something good is just as important, possibly even more important than disciplining bad behavior. How do you feel about a boss who only criticizes you and never provides positive feedback? Would you respect that person and what they have to say? Would you want to continue to work there?

4. Not Acknowledging The Impact Of Marriage And New Children – No matter what the situation with the biological parents, when a parent begins to date and especially when they remarry is often a difficult time for the children. Many children still hold onto the fantasy that their parents will somehow reconcile and get back together. This is seen even in families where there was domestic violence. Just be aware that this may be a difficult transition for the children and expect that there may be some acting out, withdrawal or regressive behaviors.

Depending on the age of the child and the situation you may see many different behaviors; from bed wetting, baby talk, clingy behavior, visitation refusal, to aggression, getting in trouble at home and/or school. You can still show compassion and understanding while maintaining rules/structure. Talking to children about their feelings and having extra patience during this time is of paramount importance.

This is especially true when a new baby enters the equation. A new sibling can bring up these issues in an intact family but are amplified in blended families as they may feel replaced or on the outside of the “new” family.

5. Not Allowing Bonding Time With Biological Parent And Children – This is a suggestion that I give to all parents but one that is especially important in blended families.

Allowing children individual time with their biological parent is important for parent and child. It’s important that each child has time where they don’t feel they have to compete with the step-parent or other children for time/love/attention of their biological parent. Even though time may be scarce, each parent should spend quality time with their child(ren), including step-parent/step-children. It could be anything from a breakfast out together to a day of activity. Even if it’s only every other month, having scheduled time together gives children something to look forward to. If a child who only has every other weekend with a parent then this time becomes even more important.

I hope this gives you some ideas on effective step-parenting and/o