Tips for Navigating the Role of Stepparent

Few things can be as daunting to a new partner as becoming a stepparent with all the changes that marriage brings — the merging of two lifestyles, different expectations based on families of origin, and different parenting models, just to name a few. Now add to this the angst, insecurity, and fear of the battle-worn and displaced children struggling to find their space in this new arrangement that they neither asked for, nor, in many cases, wanted, and you have the prescription for the infamous wicked witch stepparent. Even though this is a rather gloomy scenario, it is not hopeless.

The main objective here is to act in your adult, and remember that parents are entitled to parent – including stepparents. Also keep in mind that the only one that you can change is you.

Time to get real
It is important to get real: you will always be a step away from parent. That means that there are children in your house, whether on weekends or all the time, that on some level, perhaps not even a subtle level, wish you were not around. Children that want the two most central people to their existence, mother and father, back together again may feel both at fault for the break up, as well as see you as the one roadblock to their reconciliation. Never mind that they may have inherited new stepsiblings that they may not like, are jealous of, and have somehow found in their house. These children weren’t given any options, and now a new family has formed instantly with new rules and new people with whom they now must share their parent and all that attention. Talk about feeling out of control.

The Children
If the child or children are young, they neither have the skills nor sophistication to cope. Here we have the perfect environment for acting out behavior, or worse – depression, free floating anxiety, underachievement, or repressed hostility at the parent who got them into this predicament in the first place. This anger may not express itself for many years – making it much harder to have a successful resolution.

The Ex
Then, there is the final ingredient – the hostile ex-mate. Ex is a terrible pronoun. It speaks of discount, invisibility, and no sphere of influence. Where once there was love and cooperation, now there is fear and dislocation. Unfortunately there is no power on earth like a parent, and with young children in our culture, this translates to mother. Suddenly someone else is in her life – and possession just might rear its ugly head. This is a problem and not an uncommon one at that.

Here is what I know: let go of guilt. You and your husband or wife are one, and must not let anything or anyone put you asunder. So you must stick together, no matter what. The parent who doesn’t have full custody, often acts as the visiting parent, bearing residual guilt for the divorce, “guilt in search of a transgression,” and may be fearful of losing the love of their children. As a result, they are more vulnerable to the manipulations of those children who are also often acting out of misplaced loyalty on behalf of their absent parent.

As one of our Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry, once said: “United we stand – divided we fall,” and never is that more true than in second families.

The following are rules to help parents cope with their new combined family:

RULE ONE: That head on the pillow next to you must be on your side – right or wrong. All adjustments to this rule number one must be made in private.

RULE TWO: Don’t react – be proactive at all times.  This requires the parents to receive information impersonally, realizing that their children from their respective families are operating out of projected material, or it wouldn’t be so emotionally charged.

RULE THREE: This leads me into rule number three – act in your adult.  There are many trees in our forest – including the adult tree – find it!

RULE FOUR: Stay conscious. No blocking here, and no wounded child behavior. This will only put you on par with your children in an adversarial position. Remember: the child tree in your forest doesn’t have the capacity to help you in times of stress, only your conscious adult tree does. This tree has choices.

RULE FIVE: This rule is my personal favorite: listen to your children empathically. It is the best way to communicate. This means don’t ask your children how they feel, and then defend your position while emotionally beating them up for having told you their truth as they see it. Rather, value and respect what they are willing to share with you, without giving up your right to parent.  This allows children to be clear in their communication without getting over invested in the outcome. This creates a safe and, more importantly, neutral space for all parties to return to, often with a softer and sometimes change of heart.

RULE SIX: Don’t assume anyone’s motives. Remember what the old adage said about assumptions. It is important to remember that, often in the case with children, they are unconscious of their motives. This can hold true for adults as well.

RULE SEVEN: Do your best and be kind to yourself. If you are authentic in your behavior and do your best, you are more likely to secure a positive outcome.  Keep in mind that you are modeling behavior and children are taking their cues from their parents. Value yourself; establish boundaries and clear rules that are family creations. If children are involved in the making of family rules, they are invested, and therefore, more likely to follow them.

Since grief is the central player in divorce and in the new families created from divorce, it must be honored and given time to heal. A family that grieves can live again – not in the same way, but in a new way, and many times, more vitally.  Don’t burden your children with your problems, but rather seek professional help and counseling if tensions run too high.

Finally, the unspoken rule is to never speak in a derogatory way about biological parents, for that will attack the very identity of the children who count their natural parents as half of who they are. Ultimately, you and your stepchildren are on a spiritual journey, which has the opportunity to open your hearts and quicken your soul. Remember: between 40% and 50% of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Add to this the fact that 65% of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage and form blended families – thus you can see the scope of the problem.

Therefore, parents have an obligation to prepare the next generation for the future, including and most importantly, their future relationships. So model for your children what a good marriage is about. Stand together and make room for the kids.