By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
When you remarry into a family with children, bring your own children, and/or have a child with your new partner, the challenges can be overwhelming. If you are unaware of typical family dynamics and issues that may arise in a stepfamily or blended family, you can easily be blindsided and lose faith in their ability to cope with everyday family life.
In my work with families, as well as firsthand experience, I’ve found that it can take years for a blended family to gel and form an identity. Perhaps it’s because the dynamics in a newly created blended family can be stormy – and it can take time for the new “normal” to take hold. Census reports tell us that over 40 percent of first marriages and 67 percent of second marriages fail. But what they don’t explain is why these families are fraught with so many difficulties. Perhaps knowing about some of the challenges can help you to normalize your experience as a new stepparent and to adopt helpful strategies.
Here’s a list of 6 reasons being a stepparent can be a challenge:
1. Children often see stepparents as rivals for their parent’s attention – especially if they remarry soon after their parents’ divorce. Remarriage shatters a child’s dream of a reunion between their parents so it’s normal for them to take out their anger and frustration on a stepparent. A child of divorce may feel that their parent has turned against him/her when they start expressing love toward a new partner or spouse.
2. Children are more forgiving and accepting of their own parent than a stepparent. Truth be told, most kids would rather be disciplined by their own parent than a stepparent so are more likely to be defiant or negative in their response to redirection by a stepdad or stepmom.
3. Your children may have difficulty coping with stepsibs. After all, they don’t get to select each other and they might see each other as rivals. In time, however, they might grow fond of one or more stepsiblings. However, be prepared that your children may never gel with their stepsiblings.
4. Parents usually have more tolerance for their own children’s behaviors that a stepparent does. This is normal. But since it’s not something that is talked about often, you may feel guilty about not warming up to your stepchildren.
5. There might be an unhappy or resentful ex in the backdrop – discouraging their child from bonding with you – their stepparent. Whether or not it’s overt or covert, this dynamic can have a negative impact on the ability of blended family members to bond.
6. You may feel uncomfortable in your new role as a stepparent and it can take years for you to assert your feelings. Walking on eggshells with your stepkids can be exhausting and drain energy from the new marriage.
If you’ve decided to remarry or be part of a couple again after a divorce, take it slow. Do your best to spend time with your new partner away from your children until you feel confident about the future of this relationship. Prepare your children when your new partner sleeps over and make sure that they are comfortable with this person. Even though you believe your new partner or spouse is a great person, this isn’t a guarantee that your children will share your opinion.
Just because things went well when you were dating your partner, does not ensure things will go smoothly with your children once you’re a committed couple. A second marriage effectively ends any hope of children’s mother and father reunifying and can reignite feelings of loss for kids. Take your time in getting to know your stepchildren. Rushing it may satisfy your own unmet needs to be liked. Sharing common interests, from sports and arts, can help you bond with your stepchildren. Overall, stepparents can be an asset to kids if they take on the role of friend or coach and not discipline them.
Try your best to stay out of interactions between biological parents when they are working out holiday or vacation schedules. And especially, try to be courteous and respectful of the “other parent,” keeping in mind that it’s likely neither parent would have chosen to have their children live with them part-time.
6 tips to ease the transition to being a stepparent:
1. Expect storms and to make a commitment to work through issues that arise between family members. Hold family meetings or meals to discuss household rules and rituals on a regular basis. Make agreements and discuss expectations during these gatherings. Be sure to address questions and concerns – so no one is surprised by the inevitable areas of conflict that are likely to arise between all family members.
2. Make an agreement with your partner not to discipline their children – and vice versa. Divorce expert Rosalind Sedacca writes: “Kids will never accept that level of parenting from the “new” Mom or Dad. Their biological parent needs to maintain discipline and agreed upon rules and not leave it to you to step in.”
3. Expect jealousy and insecurity to rear up. According to Rosalind Sedacca, adults can feel threatened by the children of their new partner as easily as children can feel afraid of losing their parent to a new spouse. No one should have to choose between their child and their partner. Spread your love abundantly and communicate responsibly. Let your biological children that you have plenty of love for everyone.
4. Talk, Talk, talk. Find out what others want, as well. Create a dialogue that addresses issues as they come up – rather than burying emotions and grudges until they explode into toxic behavior.
5. Work on developing new strategies, rules and approaches to conflict. Learn from what worked – and didn’t – and adapt your game plan accordingly. Remember to include all family members in discussions.
6. Seek professional counseling as a support system if needed. Don’t expect the children to take responsibility for correcting situations that need addressing. Make an appointment for you and your partner to get help individually and/or as a unit when some of the above strategies don’t appear to be working.
Most importantly, trying to maintain realistic expectations of being a new stepparent can ease your transition. Just because you are eager to embark on your new role as a stepparent and have good intentions, that doesn’t mean each and every day will run smoothly. In sum, don’t let your feelings of discouragement win over because there will be bumps along the way. But making sure that you have an open dialogue with all family members can help everyone understand one another and form a bond. In time, many of the kinks inherent in stepfamily life will smooth out if you hang in there!
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).