The Many Faces Of Step-Parenting
Updated September 04, 2018
Stepparenting is a unique parenting challenge. It can be difficult navigating your new family life as a stepparent. And you may be thrown into a parenting role of children of various ages, unlike parents who are present from a child's birth. That means certain behaviors and expectations have already been established before you take a role in parenting the child.
Depending on the children's ages and other parenting arrangements, your role as stepparents can take many different forms. Your parenting style may be different than it would be otherwise. You may have to adapt to situations you cannot anticipate regarding the other parents involved in your step child's life.
What is your role as a stepparent? If you're like most new stepparents, you're probably not entirely sure where you fit into your stepchild's life. Maybe you've wondered if you're even supposed to be like a parent to them.
The truth is, there are many faces to stepparenting, and what works for one family may not work for another. There is, however, some advice that seems to work well for most families. Let's take a look at the different ways people approach stepparenting, and what strategies seem to work well for both the parents and the children.
Knowing and defining your role as a stepparent is an important step in becoming part of a family with your partner and your stepchildren. All members of the family must be aware of and understand the role you play for the family to coexist peacefully. How you go about making everyone aware of the role you play depends largely on the ages of the children whose family you are joining.
Younger children are often more flexible about changes and more willing to accept a new adult in a parental role. With older children, you may want to include them in a discussion where your role is discussed and what the expectations are for them and their behavior. You should be sure to listen to and acknowledge any fears or worries the children have about these changes.
In general, stepparents should be acknowledged by the children as an authority figure in the home. Many families choose for stepparents to have a less direct role in disciplining their stepchildren than the other parent, but other families work well with the stepparent and other parent working equally as disciplinarians in the house. Equal distribution of discipline responsibilities tends to work best if the stepparent enters the family when the children are young.
The level of emotional closeness between children and their stepparents can also vary. For some children, time is needed to adjust and not feel like they are betraying the parent no longer living in the home. The role of stepparents is not as a replacement for the other parent, but as an additional ally and supporter of the child.
Unexpected Challenges Of Step-Parenting
As a stepparent, you should expect challenges, as with being any parent. What those challenges end up being, however, are bound to be different from what you expected or what other types of parents face. One challenge stepparents often don't see coming is how long it can take for their stepchildren to accept them into the family.
With many parent and child relationships, bonding occurs fairly quick. And when you enter a family as a stepparent, you are already strongly bonded with the children's other parent, your spouse. Because you are close with one member of the family, you may expect that the children will accept you. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. You have likely spent more time developing a relationship with your stepchildren's parent, and you will need to spend time developing individual relationships with them, as well.
Cooperating With Your Spouse's Ex
You most likely knew going in that you would need to cooperate with your spouse on parenting roles. What you may not have anticipated is that you'll also need to learn to cooperate with your spouse's ex-the children's other parent. If both parents have a say in decisions about the children's upbringing, then you will need to be able to communicate with them or accept their decisions.
Not Seeing You As An Authority Figure
Some stepchildren, especially school-aged children, see their new parent as competition or an enemy rather than as an authority figure or support person. You may be tempted to get even stricter to gain their respect, but this usually backfires and makes them hate you. Instead, work on developing a caring relationship with them first, before slowly stepping into the role of authority figure and disciplinarian, when needed.
Being Told You're Not A Real Parent
It's not uncommon for a step-child to try to get under your skin or take away your authority by telling you that you're not their real mom or dad. When that happens, stay calm. Explain to them your role in their family, and that you are a member of that family.
Working With Your Spouse
Don't forget that this situation may be difficult for your spouse, as well. They are in the position of wanting to keep close bonds both with you and their children, at a time when you and their children may be experiencing a lot of tension with each other. It may feel at times like your spouse is choosing sides, and it may be the children's side. This is often because they feel guilty about imposing these changes on their children's lives.
Remember to have empathy for your spouse during this time. Talk to them about how you can best help with the transforming family roles. The two of you may have different ideas about parenting, and that is something you will have to work out together. Most of the time in a disagreement, the stepparent will need to defer to the original parent's strategies when it comes to raising stepchildren.
If you are the original parent, looking for advice for your spouse who is a stepparent to your children, then also be patient with them. Do not force a relationship between your spouse and your children. It is difficult for both of them, and they will need time to develop a real relationship with each other.
Establishing Discipline As A Stepparents
Most stepparents find disciplining stepchildren to be the most difficult aspect of the relationship. As mentioned, stepchildren are not likely to see you as an authority figure in the beginning. If you have your children, think back to how your relationship with them progressed.
Did you discipline them from birth? Of course not. The first year of life with your new child is about establishing a bond. It's the same with stepchildren. They are not infants, but you do need to establish a bond before you begin doling out discipline.
This does not mean you should let the children walk all over you. After all, if they're able to follow the rules at school and accept a teacher as both a support person and authority, then they can do that for you.Remember that you have to be both. You can't only dole out discipline, or you'll never establish trust with your stepchildren.
Step-Parenting Every Other Weekend
Forming a bond with your stepchildren is even more difficult when you only see them occasionally. If your spouse's children live with their other parent, you should expect the bonding process to take even longer, probably well over a year. In many stepfamilies, becoming a fully bonded family can take around five years.
Stepparenting, when your time with the children is sparse, is different from living with them full-time. Because you and your spouse get limited time with the children, the focus should be on spending time together and bonding. Children who live with you part-time should have certain chores, routines, and responsibilities that make them feel like a part of your household when they are with you, but discipline should be kept to only when it is necessary. No one is going to be happy if the whole time your stepchildren are with you is spent in arguing, disciplining, and disagreement.
You should also be considerate of how your partner feels about only seeing their children every other weekend. They may feel like they need to cram all the things they can into that weekend, spending every moment with the kids. If this is your scenario, you should support your spouse in planning weekend activities for the kids, but also be there to make sure they don't overplan and stress themselves out, which won't be good for anyone, including the kids.
Blended Families And Parenting Multiple Sets Of Kids
Forming a blended family, of course, makes the situation even more difficult. If you and your partner each have children from previous relationships, then you are each struggling with stepparenting in various ways. Many times, one set of kids lives with the two of you full-time,and the other does not. This can make it extremely difficult to feel like everyone is getting a fair amount of attention. And feeling guilt over the time spent with the every other weekend kids is common.
The parent who stepparents the every other weekend kids may also have a harder time bonding because of less time spent with their step kids. This can also lead to guilt if your spouse is full-time stepparentsing your kids. In these situations, it's even more important for everyone to communicate and have empathy for each other. All of you are adjusting to various roles.
You may also find that you struggle with step siblings that don't get along. When there are multiple sets of children, it's not the parent and child relationships that need adjustment. It's also the relationships between the kids. Some families are lucky in that they have step siblings that get along well right from the start. In other families, however, the children may never fully like each other, and steps will constantly need to be taken to mitigate the relationship between the kids.
Remember, you and your spouse chose each other, but the kids did not choose any of this. That doesn't mean you should act out of guilt and give in to them, but it does mean you should consider their feelings as you respond.
How The Stepchild Feels About You
Children can respond in multiple ways to gaining an extra parent. And it may be different depending on the age of the child. If your stepchildren are older, like 15 and up, then they are likely more worried about developing their independence, and you probably won't have much of a role in discipline or being an authority figure. For older kids, there may be some resentment, but you may eventually find that they see you as a friendly adult support person, if not necessarily a parent.
For younger kids, especially school-aged kids, many difficult emotions can arise. One of the most common is jealousy.
It is quite typical for children to feel jealous of a stepparent. That's because you are now taking up time that they otherwise would have had alone with their parent. It may not feel fair to you, and maybe you're also jealous of sharing time with your spouse, but you have to remember that this is what it means to be with someone who already has children. You will have to share them. Empathize with the kids and understand that sharing is probably even more difficult for them than it is for you.
The best thing to do is to be gracious and allow your stepchildren to continue having some alone time with their parent. You can gradually work in more time spent with them yourself, as you integrate into the family and the children accept you. It also helps for you to focus attention on the stepchildren,so they see you not as someone stealing attention away, but as someone who is providing additional attention to them.
The children that adapt most easily to and accept newstepparents are very young children. They are most likely to see stepparents as a parent, equal to the original parents.
Feeling Left Out
It is possible to feel left out as a stepparent. This happens both to people with full-time stepchildren and those who only see their stepchildren occasionally. When you live full-time with the kids, you may feel like you're living in a household that you're not a part of, and that can be extremely difficult. You'll need to find ways to form relationships not only with your partner but with their kids too.
For stepparents who only see their spouse's children occasionally, they may find that their partner wants to spend all of that time with the kids. Your spouse may plan activities specifically for centering attention on the children. If that's the case, remember that your partner only sees their children rarely, and this may be difficult for them. Find ways also to give attention to the kids and join in with their activities in ways that you and they will be comfortable with.
It's important that you don't let this feeling of being left out seep into your marriage relationship. Even in blended families and stepfamilies, the marriage is the foundation of the household.
Common Step-Parenting Mistakes
We all make parenting mistakes, but here is a couple that is more often found specifically in stepfamily relationships.
Thinking The Child Will Love You Immediately
As you've seen from the descriptions of relationships and emotions in this article, it is unwise to expect your stepchild to love you right away. Don't be disappointed by this. Understand that, as with any relationship, it will take time for the two of you to bond. Spend time with them, and listen to them, and where possible, help the other parent set routines and expectations.
Thinking You Will Love The Child Immediately
Although you may sincerely want to love your stepchild, you may be dismayed to find that you don't. It's okay. Don't get down on yourself about it. Just as the child needs time to bond with you, you will need time to bond with them. Not loving your stepchild right away doesn't mean that you will never feel love for them.
And not feeling loving doesn't mean you can't act caring towards them and spend time together. In fact, those are the best ways to develop a loving relationship between you and your stepchild.
Adding To A Blended Family
It is essential that you do not see having a baby as a method for solidifying your new marriage. This is not the right way to view the situation. You and your spouse should build a strong marital relationship that has nothing to do with the children.
By making a new baby the way that you and your spouse are connected, you begin the process of isolating existing children from a previous relationship. This does not mean you and your spouse cannot have children together. It means you should do so because you both want another child. And the new child should not be used to force out your stepchildren in any way.
Some women who have stepchildren and no children of their own may feel that they want to have their kids. But sometimes life doesn't allow this. If you're struggling with being a stepmom and being infertile, you may want to consider pouring yourself into being a parent to your stepchildren. Being a mom is not about giving birth. You have a lot to offer regarding influencing your stepchildren's lives and making them the best people they can be.
When Step-Parenting Feels Like It's Just Not Worth It
No doubt about it, being a stepparent can be tough. And sometimes you may feel like it's just not worth it. When that happens, it's okay to give yourself a break. Take some time to yourself, even if it means skipping a family outing with your spouse and their children. Once you've had time to recharge, you can again begin working on your stepfamily relationships.
If you are committed to your spouse, just remember that being a stepparent is a permanent part of your role in their life. And don't forget that the best thing you can do for your step kids is to form a strong family foundation by continuing to focus on your relationship with your spouse.
You may see some people say that you don't have to love your step kids and that it does not love that brought you and them together, but that's not true. It's exactly love that brought you together-your love for their original parent, your spouse. And helping to parent those kids is a thing you do out of that love.
If you're struggling with feelings about your step kids and being a stepparent, don't be afraid to talk to someone. Being honest with your spouse is important, but they may not be in a position to support you emotionally as you navigate these changes. You can make an appointment with an online family counselor to help you find your bearings and distress.