While parenting is one of life’s great joys, even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to do well. With many demands on your time, energy, and attention, you may feel as though you can never get everything done. It can feel as though there isn’t enough of you to go around.
What’s more, every child is different and needs different things from you. As your child grows, his or her needs change, requiring you to continually learn how to meet them.
All of the things that make parenting a challenge are compounded when you are a step-parent. In other words, it’s complicated!
You may be unclear about your role in the larger family system. Are you expected to be more like a parent, or more like a family friend? Where are the boundaries? Can you set and enforce rules, or is that solely the province of your spouse? What happens to your relationships with your own kids, if you have them, as you develop relationships with your spouse’s kids? What to do if the ex-spouse is uncomfortable with you in any sort of parenting role?
It is not easy for anyone in an evolving stepfamily to manage relationships and adjust to the new boundaries, roles, and rules. The following ideas may help you make a successful transition during this challenging process.
Accept the limits of the situation. Establishing new families takes a long time, some say as long as seven years. Just because you love your partner, it is unrealistic to think that you will automatically love his or her children, or vice versa. They may never be ready for, or interested in, a loving relationship with you.
Expect things to get better. With proper help and guidance, children recover after a death, divorce, or remarriage. With love, care, and respect, and perhaps some professional assistance, most children regain their emotional bearings. It is critical that you and your partner manage your own emotional reactions in order to help the children adjust without trauma.
Realize that part-time families take even longer to form. All relationships take time to grow and develop. When stepchildren see you less often, you have less time to get to know each other.
Embrace the uniqueness of your new family. If you expect that your stepfamily will be just like the family of your first marriage, you are setting yourself up for frustration. Your new family will have its own unique identity and will evolve in its own special way.
Allow time for grieving. Stepfamilies begin with an experience of loss, and everyone needs to grieve. The adults’ losses are not the same as those of the children, and both must be respected.
Parents’ losses include:
- Living without a partner and a marriage that had once been central to their happiness.
- Letting go of dreams and plans for the future made with the former partner.
- Adjusting to routines and lifestyles due to moving to a new house, financial changes, etc.
Children’s losses are usually different from those of their parents. Their losses include:
- No longer having both biological parents at home.
- Having less time with the parents due to their dating or remarriage.
- Feeling conflicted about relationships with parents and step-parents.
- Adjusting to changes in routine, lifestyle, friendships rules, and boundaries.
- Letting go of the fantasy of how they wanted their family to be.
Acknowledge the absent parent. When one of the parents is absent, the children need a special kind of understanding. An absent parent, who has died or who lives elsewhere and doesn’t visit, is part of a child’s emotional life. The child must be allowed to hold dear the memories and hopes regarding this parent.
Help the kids fit in. Children of stepfamilies belong to two households. It is understandable that they have questions about how they fit in. They are usually able to adjust to having two sets of rules as long as they are not asked to choose which is better.
Be clear about the rules. Successful stepfamilies have learned that rules should be created together in the beginning of the marriage. Especially at first, the biological parent should take the lead in explaining and enforcing the rules of the new family. If the spouses agree, the stepparent may have more involvement after the relationships with the stepchildren have been established. All of this works best when the parents can agree to be flexible and cooperative with one another.
Educate yourselves and seek emotional support. Read books about managing stepfamilies, attend classes, and participate in stepfamily support groups. Seek the help of an experienced mental health professional to help you through the rough spots. Marriage and Family Therapists have specific skills and training for working with families and stepfamilies.
Give the kids their own space. Make physical space available for the children who don’t live with you. Children need a sense of belonging. Creating a room or section of a room for visiting children will help them feel like part of your family.
Expect them to think it’s temporary. Accept the fact that your children may expect you and their other parent to reconcile. They may fantasize that your new relationship with your partner is only temporary. This is especially true in the beginning. Find a time to sit down with the children and explain that when two people are unable to live together anymore, it doesn’t mean they love their children any less. This is especially important for the parent who has moved away, since the children will inevitably feel a sense of rejection.
Expect resentment. No matter how good a parent you are, you will never be the biological parent of your stepchildren. It is natural for a stepchild to feel some resentment for you, especially when you are setting limits for their behavior.
With all the complexity and changing loyalties, confusion, and potential for miscommunication, stepfamilies can be as solid, or more so, than first families. Remember that loves cures all ills. So when in doubt, do the most loving thing.