Successful Step-Parenting Do's and Dont's
Step-parenting can be joyful and rewarding, but it's not necessarily easy. If you've just remarried or expect to have a blended family in your future, this list of step-parenting do's and don'ts from the experts will help ease the transition.
The evil step-parent archetype is so etched into common culture that it's a wonder anyone ever finds the courage to blend their families together. Love may be powerful glue, yet it doesn't always serve to make a stepfamily experience seamless or even harmonious. Sometimes being a step-parent can seem counterintuitive -- a delicate dance of one step forward and two steps back.
On the other hand, step-parenting can yield incredible joy, too. So if you expect some missteps but otherwise try to relax, you can enjoy the benefits of your new role.
Here are 5 tips from step-parenting experts to help you on your way:
- Don't Spring Your Relationship on Your Kids
"If you're anxious about telling your children you're getting married, that should tell you something. Have plenty of conversations first, so announcing your intentions won't come as a surprise," urges Ron L. Deal, author of "The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family."
- Do Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings
This may be the happiest time of your life, but for your kids, a second marriage may bring up feelings of sadness, loss and disloyalty. "A stepchild may resist a step-parent, especially one they really like, because it makes them feel disloyal to their other parent," explains Jenna Korf, a certified stepfamily coach. It's important to understand this, but don't let your compassion for the child turn into sympathy. "This is a trap many step-parents fall into.
Their empathy paralyzes them from setting limits and showing up," says Deal. "If the child says, for example, 'You're not my mother,' respond with 'You're right, I'm not your mom and I bet you wish she was here, but she's not. I'm here and the rule of the house is that you must empty the dishwasher.'" Say this kindly but firmly. For this to work, the biological parent must back up the step-parent, he adds.
- Don't Push It
"Stepfamilies aren't first families, which bond really well as groups. Stepfamilies, in contrast, bond best during one-on-one time. At least initially, group activities can activate everyone's sense of being an outsider, creating tension. A lot of couples in repartnerships think, 'We have to all have dinner together,' or 'We need to spend the whole weekend together.'
Think again! Stepfamilies are different and that's OK," says Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of "Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do." Knowing this can help when kids shy away from bonding. "Give it time and take the pressure off yourself," she says, recommending the letting go of shoulds. "Most shoulds are based on inaccurate ideas, such as that step relations should feel like first family relations or are doomed to failure. Letting go of that is a great step forward," she says.
- Do Stay on the Same Parenting Page
"The biological parent is responsible for setting boundaries that protect his partner's and the household's well-being," says Korf. "The parent should be clear that disrespecting the step-parent is not an option." Dr. Martin notes that "it's unlikely that you'll always be on exactly the same page when it comes to expectations for the kids" and says that one frequent dynamic is a parent who parents out of guilt post-divorce and a step-parent who thinks that should end."
Combat this by setting boundaries as a couple. "Kids need to know the parent and step-parent are a united front. Then they don't feel the need to test limits," says Dr. Martin.
- Do Reap the Benefits!
Then comes that magic moment. "It may happen when somebody opens their arms and invites you into the conversation, or says 'we' instead of 'us.' Those reward moments get sprinkled in and help step-parents find their place," says Deal, who calls these moments of grace.
"Step-parents are like teachers on the first day of school. You have a measure of positional authority because you're an adult, but you don't have relational authority yet, which takes time. Let the child set the pace and take advantage of opportunities to spend time together. Life as a stepfamily gets made in a Crock-Pot, not a blender. You'll be cooking for a while, but what a delicious result it makes."
Corey Kagan Whelan is a freelance writer, specializing in all things mom, living with her kids in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.
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