Step-parents have been vilified for centuries. The “evil” stepmother (or stepfather) is a common archetype in television, movies and even fairytales. In reality, a loving step-parent can be a powerful force for good in a child’s life. Here’s how to overcome your step-child’s fears—and perhaps some of your own…
Building a Strong Step-Family
Assess the Situation
When becoming a new step-parent, it is important to sit down with your partner and thoroughly discuss the transition. Schedule a time to talk through expectations, roles, and responsibilities. Determine if, when and under what conditions it is acceptable for you to discipline your step-child. Decide what your step-child should call you. Let your spouse know you want to be the best step-parent possible to his/her child. Ask for your spouse’s patience and support as you navigate this new role.
Do Your Research
Tap your spouse’s understanding of his/her child to learn how to best relate to your step-child. What are your step-child’s likes and dislikes? What communication and disciplinary styles work best with them? Taking time to do a little research in the beginning can minimize future conflict.
Expect (But Don’t Fear) Resistance
Step-children often resist a new step-parent. Don’t assume the worst: that your step-child hates you. Even if your step-child tells you so, don’t believe it. Children frequently test the boundaries of people they fear will ultimately reject or disappoint them. If your spouse had a number of unsuccessful relationships before you, your step-child may question whether you’ll stick around. Let your step-child know that you not only love their mother/father, but are committed to him/her.
Debunking the Reunion Myth
Some children still cling to the belief that their biological parents will someday get back together. The child may even think he/she can “drive you away,” making a reunion between his/her parents more likely. If this is the case, your spouse may need to gently remind your child that particular fantasy is not going to happen—for reasons utterly unrelated to you.
Don’t equate the bad attitudes described above with being a bad child. These reactions are normal for kids acclimating to a blended family. The transition to a step-family is hard on you; it is also difficult for a child. The majority of adjusting will take place in the first year of marriage. Hang in there.
Respect Your Spouse
Consistently showing respect to your partner is one of the quickest ways to win the respect of your step-child. Children are naturally protective of their parents. By showing consideration to your spouse, you prove to be your step-child’s ally, rather than his/her adversary. Some conflict is inevitable in a marriage. Just remember your step-child is watching—your treatment of your spouse will guide their impression of you.
Respect Your Spouse’s Ex
Even if your spouse’s ex doesn’t seem worthy of respect, try to extend it anyway. Bad-mouthing your child’s other parent will increase tensions with your step-child and possibly your spouse as well. When interacting with your step-child’s other parent, it is probably best to let your spouse set the rules.
In time, you should feel comfortable asserting your authority as a step-parent. Especially in the beginning, though, try not to come off as bossy or controlling. Initially, your step-child will view you as an interloper; it will take time for you to be seen as a “naturalized” citizen of the family. This doesn’t mean you should be a pushover or tolerate disrespect. Just show some tact and discretion regarding your new position in the family.
Money Can’t Buy You Love
Resist the urge to ingratiate yourself to your step-child by buying frequent or extravagant presents. Material goods won’t win true affection and may create unrealistic expectations. The best way to win over your step-child is simply to spend quality time together, both as a family and one-on-one. The time you invest getting to know (and enjoy) your step-child speaks volumes. Recreational activities, family outings and games can help break the ice and ease you both into a deeper relationship.
Reminders for the Biological Parent
Your spouse is boldly entering a new family environment. Even if your spouse has previous parenting experience, adapting to the unique culture of your family can be intimidating. Make sure your spouse feels like you have his or her back. If your spouse makes a parenting decision you disagree with, try to speak with him or her privately about it. You will likely continue to be the primary disciplinarian and decision-maker in relation to your children, but try to present a united front to the children. If you openly question your spouse’s authority, your children will be more likely do so too.
The title of “step-parent” doesn’t always command the respect it deserves. In reality, step-parents have tremendous capacity to affect positive change in their step-child’s life. Don’t be daunted by the stereotypes and don’t be discouraged by any initial challenges. Families—whether blended or biological—are not so much defined by bloodlines as they are by love and respect.