The Road to Successful Step-Parenting
Finding a role that works for you and your new family
Being a step-parent is a role that more and more adults are being asked to play in modern society. However, being a step-parent is quite different from being a primary (biological or adoptive) parent. Thus, many adults who find themselves becoming stepparents feel at a loss in regards to what is expected of them by their spouse, their stepchild/ren, and their own child/ren. New step-parents often don't really know what they expect of themselves, either.
The following guidelines are drawn from the answer to "what is successful stepparenting?" Successful step-parenting would be defined as having many overlaps with successful parenting in general - that the step-child arrives at adulthood as a happy and responsible human being capable of forming healthy relationships with others.
However, step-parenting involves many nuances that are not found in primary parenting. It is hoped that these guidelines will help to spell out some of these nuances, for step-parents and their spouses to discuss.
Steps to Success
Step-parents must realize that they are joining a fully-formed family that has its own way of functioning. As part of accepting and honoring this family, the stepparent must accept and honor their spouse's parenting style. After all, many spouses have been raising children for more years than they've even been acquainted with the new step-parent!
Sadly, many step-parents come into an existing family with the conviction that it is their role to "straighten out" the family. As soon as the households are combined, the step-parent may try to change family rules or critique their spouse's parenting style.
Many step-parents make the mistake of over-emphasizing discipline when they first join a family, without working on the caring relationship or bonding with the child/ren. The nurturance aspect of parenting is the very important basis upon which the right to discipline is built.
Before you move in, make sure that you understand how your new spouse does things with his/her family, and think about whether or not you can live with things being exactly the way they are when you (and possibly your own children) first join the household.
Step-parents need to focus on building a nurturing bond with their new stepchild/ren. As noted above, many step-parents jump into a disciplinary role in the new, combined family. Step-children almost always resent this, and will rebel against the step-parent, or possibly both parents, as a consequence.
Step-parents need to take the time to be with the new step-child/ren one-on-one, doing things that the child likes to do. This can be as simple as playing a board game together, or as involved as taking the step-child out to lunch or dinner or shopping or a movie.
Particularly in today's society, children do not automatically obey adults just because they are adults. The respect that a child feels for an adult is based on the time the adult has spent with the child and how the adult has treated the child. Spending one-on-one time with step-child/ren is an investment in the future of the entire family.
Honor the step-child's relationship with your new spouse. Make sure that your spouse has time to spend with his/her primary (biological or adoptive, from the previous relationship or marriage) children, without you or your children.
Remember that your step-child/ren did not marry you, and most likely did not choose for their parent to marry you. The child/ren still need a lot of time with their own primary parent. Allowing the opportunity in the family schedule for each adult to spend time with their primary children, as well as with their new step-child/ren, is also an investment in the overall happiness and smooth functioning of the entire blended family unit.
Focus on the positives with your step-child/ren. So often, step-parents come into the new family situation focusing on what the problems are and what needs to be fixed. In order to build the nurturing relationship described in (2) above, the stepparent really needs to consciously think about and connect with the stepchild/ren's strengths.
Maybe the step-child is underachieving at school or behaving problematically at home, but perhaps this same child has a talent in sports or the arts. Supporting the child's strengths is another way to detach oneself from jumping too firmly into the disciplinary role.
Take a long-term perspective. Step-families experience a lot of stress relating to the child/ren's behavior and the couple's ability to co-parent. Research shows that the step-family adjustment process averages two years in length, and this is two years from the time the family all lives together under one roof.
Remember that the goal is for you and your new spouse to be married for many years after the youngest child has grown and left home. Therefore, don't let issues with children and parenting take center stage in the family's life to the exclusion of all other issues. Take a "pick your battles" perspective.
Remember that children do not stop growing and maturing at age 18. Your children and step-children will continue to grow and change and work out their issues well into their 20's, just as you will gain in wisdom in your 40's, 50's, and 60's.
Do not contribute to conflict with your step-child/ren's other parent. Honor the fact that this person was married to your spouse for some period of time, (although sometimes your stepchild was a product of a less formal relationship between your spouse and the child's other parent).
Many times the step-parent comes into a highly conflictual situation with the step-child/ren's other parent, and the step-parent feels it is their duty to take their spouse's side in the conflict, aid and abet the spouse's feelings of anger and hurt toward the former spouse, and criticize the step-child/ren's other parent.
For the step-parent to play this role is not at all helpful to the overall peace and functioning of the household, nor is it helpful to the development and behavior of the step-child/ren. Rather, it is recommended that the step-parent take the role of "coolhead" or "problem solver" in relation to the step-child/ren's other parent.
Often times, the step-parent can help to reduce the conflict between the two households. I have had several families in my practice in which the two mothers - primary mother and step-mother - related quite well to each other and were able to work out details between the two households calmly and in a manner that was best for the child/ren they shared.
This can also be the case for the two fathers - the primary father and the step-father. I have even seen cases where the two step-parents - step-mother in one household and step-father in the other household - did the best job of communicating about the shared children. Remember that you as the step-parent never had a significant emotional relationship with the stepchild/ren's other parent, and thus have no "baggage" to interfere with your ability to communicate with the other parent in a business-like and effective manner. Try to maximize this peace-maker role as you begin your life as a step-parent.
Strengthen your current marriage in any way you can. The key to any family, especially a step-family, is the relationship between the two adult partners. Make sure that you make time for "dates," when the two adults can spend time together without children, doing fun things.
Make sure that the two of you are communicating effectively, being open about feelings and solving problems in a spirit of teamwork. Do not allow the child/ren's behavior or your differences in parenting style come between you in your marriage. After all, as mentioned in (5) above, half of your years of marriage or more will be spent together without children in the home. Make sure that you are building on your common interests so that you will be ready for the post-childrearing years.
Don't hesitate to get professional help if you need it. Making a step-family work, and making a marriage work within the structure of a step-family, can be very difficult. Dean Medical Group's Psychiatry Department has a number of professionals who have many years experience working with stepfamilies, and there are other counselors with similar professional experience in the Dane County area as well.
Don't be shy about getting an assessment to determine if counseling would be helpful. Often times, counseling can be fairly short-term (8 to 12 sessions), especially if the adults don't wait too long to get needed help. People don't hesitate to call in a lawyer for a legal problem or an accountant for a financial problem. Similarly, call in the mental health professionals when you have a relationship or behavioral problem in the family. You'll be glad you did.