No parent is perfect. And in the case of blended families, the art of step parenting can be even more challenging. According to the U.S. Census, over 50% of US families are remarried or re-coupled. More than 1300 new blended families form every day. Fifty percent of the 60 million children under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.
Divorced or separating parents can learn communication and parenting strategies in a group session. They also work out parenting agreements about how they will jointly parent their children even though they no longer live together. Many times, there are stepparents involved. To help remind group members to remain non-judgmental, it’s often said, “Kids don’t come with parenting manuals.” If that axiom is true in most cases, it can also be true that “Kids don’t come with step-parenting manuals.” Step-parenting can be a lonely road. But the stepparents in our groups are quick to support each other.
Here are some bits of collective wisdom from the experiences of stepparents and adult stepchildren:
1. Understand your stepchild may be grieving about the divorce of his biological parents or your remarriage.
The child may target the stepparent with that grief which includes anger. Grief takes many forms and can have many repetitive cycles. Laurie shares, “I have a stepmom whose presence in my life has been an immeasurable blessing. We went through many painful times, especially when I was little, and she was often an unfair scapegoat and dumping ground for my disappointments. We got through it!”
2. As a couple, decide who disciplines.
Most teenagers will only respond to discipline by the biological parent, whereas younger children may be receptive to the discipline of the stepparent. Be cautious about speaking for the other parent. Monica says, “Let the biological parent be the rule enforcer.” Stepparents may find that life flows more smoothly when the biological parent is the disciplinarian because that parent has known the child longer and has the reference point of how the previous household used to discipline. Dave, stepchild, said, “I am glad my stepdad never tried to be a father to me. So, we didn’t have to get into any power struggles. He became an adult friend and mentor. He was generous with his time; he listened a lot and gave love freely.”
3. Love your step child. Time is how a child measures love.
Be as generous as you can with your time and energy.
• Listen a lot. Then listen some more.
• Cook family meals together.
• Learn about their interests, but not to win them over. Kids will read forced interest as manipulation. Learn about their interests because you genuinely care about them.
• Be generous, not petty. Ann said, “I wish I had been less selfish when my step daughter was young. I wish I had given to her more freely. At the end of the day, regardless of what the divorce decree says, who really cares if we were the ones buying the shoes or school clothes?”
• Sandee may have summarized it best. “The reality is, you love your spouse by loving his/her children. They don’t have to do anything to earn that love. It just is. Isn’t that the bedrock of all parenting anyway? Unconditional love!”
4. Take care of your own needs.
You cannot give what you don’t have. Taking time for yourself to recharge your batteries in healthy, nurturing ways is critical to giving all you can to your new blended family. Just as parents of young children must guard against burn out, stepparents must do the same. Raul shared that he sometimes runs errands by himself and listens to inspiring music in order to recharge his battery on the run. He comes back with a better attitude ready to listen to his stepchildren. “I also try to maintain my friendships by playing softball or watching a game with friends.” Joe says, “My wife and I are careful to make time for each other. We have date nights or even date lunches. We meet during the day for our lunch hour away from our jobs and evening homework chores to talk as adults.”
5. Blending a family takes time.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Many experts believe it takes approximately five years to blend a stepfamily. David L. Brasher, BCSW and family therapist states, “If you decide to be a stepparent, be sure to attend to the needs of your own children also.” Above all, be patient with yourself, your spouse, and all the children.
There are many helpful resources for stepparents. Sometimes a counselor, pastor or family therapist can lend perspective to the process of blending a family. There are also support groups. Websites that are readily accessible and helpful to step parenting immediately include:
For a faith-based perspective, visit http://stepparentingwithgrace.com.
Sally shared, “I don’t know if I am a successful stepparent. I just know my adult stepchildren come home for the holidays and bring their children to visit me and their grandpa. The grandkids even call me “Grandma!”
Laura Lyles Reagan, MS is a family sociologist, parent coach, and author of How to Raise Respectful Parents.