Parenting is never easy, but when you have a blended family—with bio-kids and stepkids, your spouse’s ex, and other extended family members thrown into the mix—things can get very difficult very quickly.
First marriages are “apples,” and second marriages are “oranges”: you can’t compare the two. It’s important to realize that everyone’s role shifts when you create a stepfamily. In fact, when you first bring everyone together, all the kids will try to figure out where—or even if—they belong in the new system. If they don’t believe they have a place—or if they think someone is taking their place—they’ll often act out.
So what exactly do you need to know about step-parenting and blended families?
Support your spouse
As a stepparent, it’s important to support your spouse. Maintaining your presence and at the same time supporting your spouse is difficult, but will be productive. The irony is that when you relax and support him/her, the relationship with your stepchild will form faster.
You’re the good cop; let your spouse be the bad cop. If there’s a behavior for which your stepchild needs a consequence, let your spouse deal with it and support their decision. The good cop finds out the interests of the stepchild and develops the relationship by getting involved in the child’s life based on those discoveries.
Don’t Compete with the Biological Parent
Don’t compete with your counterpart. Uphold them. In other words, don’t try to be a better mom than your stepkids’ bio-mom, or a better dad than their bio-dad. No matter what you think of the bio-parent’s style of discipline (or lack thereof) it’s important to respect and acknowledge the strength of the biological connection. This can be difficult to do when your new spouse is still at war with his or her ex, and possibly still fighting over the kids and other issues.
Many stepmoms decide they’re going to make up for all the hurt and pain. Many stepfathers have an attitude of “I’m going to shape up this platoon and lead the troops out of the wilderness.” But as somebody once said, “If the stepdad is leading and no one is following, he’s just out for a walk.” We encourage stepparents to establish a relationship with their stepkids rather than being a dictator or rigid authoritarian. Simply be present in the child’s life and avoid “fixing things” or competing with the bio-parent.
Discover Your Stepchild’s Interests
Discover the things your stepson or stepdaughter likes. Start off as you would with any friendship: find some common ground and do things together that you might both enjoy. Remember, you’re just there to build a relationship appropriately, not to parent or take the place of your stepchild’s mother or father. Come in as a friend or a benevolent aunt or uncle; in other words, choose a role other than “parent” in order to foster the relationship. When step-parents try to rush it or “force new family,” it’s not going to work out well.
Get Out of the Way
Let your spouse have one-on-one time with his or her kids—without you. This helps reduce the displacement and loss the child might be feeling, and assures him that he hasn’t been displaced by somebody else. This flies in the face of the myth of “instant family.” In all blended families, this reassures the children that they still belong and haven’t lost the love of their bio-parent to the new spouse.
One of the most common complaints of biological parents is that they believe they’re caught in the middle. We often hear, “I love my spouse and I love my children, but I feel like I’m being pulled apart.” Many stepparents get all sick and nervous if their spouse is still spending time with his or her kids and not including them. Our advice to them is, “Well, if you plan to be in this marriage awhile, don’t worry about it—you’ll get your turn.” In the meantime, this relieves the bio-parent and releases them to enjoy their children— and lets the stepkids know you’re not there to take their parent away.
It’s important to realize that because of the pain kids experience after divorce—and continue to feel with a remarriage—they may act out. They may not have the skills to talk it out and express what’s really going on inside. Many couples will come in for counseling and in essence say, “Fix these kids.” Yet the kids aren’t broken, the family is. So we ask the adults if they are willing to acknowledge the pain and brokenness that they created. If the couple is able to gain the skills to listen and understand what the child is going through, over time, the kids will usually respond productively.