Molly was thirteen when her mom remarried and she now has two biological siblings and two step-siblings. When we met recently she shared her frustration about her stepdad, Kyle’s role in her life. Before her parents’ divorce, she only had to accept discipline from two parents and now she finds that both of her parents and her stepdad expect her to follow their directives and conform to their rules.
Molly put it like this: “I don’t hate my my stepdad, Kyle, but I don’t how can he expect me to accept his rules when my mom and he argue a lot and my two stepbrothers have different curfews and when they are with us on weekend. I didn’t ask for my mom to get married and it just isn’t fair that my life changed so suddenly and I have no control over it.”
While no two stepchildren will have the same response to a stepparent entering their family, one thing is certain, as a stepparent, you’re most likely an “outsider” who needs to win over their respect and trust gradually. It’s essential that you do your best to understand your stepchild’s perspective, try to give him or her a sense of security by being there for them, and by being a good role model. This means doing everything within your power to be an adult friend who might be an asset because you are helpful and a good partner to their parent.
When a stepparent can embrace his or her role as an adult friend or mentor, and enjoy shared activities with their stepchild, they often find that their stepchild is more likely to accept them over time. But keep in mind that there is no such thing as instant love between a stepchild and stepparent. Stepparents are wise to connect around their stepchild’s interests and activities and try not to take it personally when they are given a cold shoulder which can make them feel like an “outsider.”
In a recent publication for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, OSU Assistant Professor Ron Cox outlines the key steps blended families must overcome after remarriage. When a stepparent assimilates into the pre-existing dynamic between their new partner and his or her biological children, the stepparent often faces challenges assuming the responsibilities of the role.
Professor Cox writes that “the relationship that the bio-parents have with their children was formed long before the relationship with their current spouse.” And because “children will, either consciously or unconsciously, resist their parent’s remarriage,” difficulties often arise in establishing boundaries and parenting effectively and appropriately. But, as Cox points out, adapting to a role in a blended family often pits to stepparent and odds with the bio-parent. Loyalties, past history, and fear of change all contribute to conflict that arises from the adjustment everyone is going through.
Imparting a belief that communication is key to overcoming the challenges inherent in being a step-parent in a blended family, Cox lay out three keys to success that are aimed at building a healthy bond between step-parent and their step-children, and maintaining the love between the step-parent and bio-parent that brought this new family together.
First, Cox advises the bio-parent to “declare your spouse [the stepparent] your lifelong partner.” Without a conscious approach to co-parenting, the biological children “will create a division in the couple’s relationship.” Indeed, at this fragile stage in a remarriage, the relationship must be “protected and nurtured,” and the bio-parent must present a united front with their new spouse. Effectively reinforcing to the children that the remarried couple are a team is key to building strong ties in a blended family.
Next, Cox argues that the biological parent must “pass the power to the stepparent.” Because the step-parent doesn’t posses the authority that comes from a shared history with their new step-children, the bio-parent has to be active and engaged in empowering their partner to assume to normal role of a parent, from discipline to the stuff of daily parenting life. In my opinion, this has to be done gradually after the stepparent has earned the trust of their stepchild by being understanding, expressing empathy, and showing interest in them.
Finally, Cox conveys that building trust between the spouses is crucial in effective co-parenting. This is very much a two way street — while “the biological parent may not [initially] be sure that the stepparent truly has the child’s interest at heart,” the stepparent must also be especially mindful of “how he or she expresses their criticism of their spouse’s children.”
In the end, fostering mutual respect will lead to long-lasting trust, and blended families can use these building blocks to break through the all-too-common concerns and conflict that can come to dominate life in a newly blended family.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.