by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, August 2005
As you are beginning your life with your new love and one or both of you has children, there are a few things you need to know. The bad news is that the divorce rate for remarried couples is 60-70% which is interesting to note for two reasons. One is be aware that you need to take some precautions (and I have some tips for you) and the other has to do with the children. The good news is that stepfamilies can offer new experiences, new bonding relationships and enrich everyone's lives immensely.
Children, quite understandably, wonder if this marriage will last.
Children are often hesitant to get too attached since they see they often see the step parent as an interloper, a replacement for their parent who is no longer attached to their remaining parent. On the other hand, children may glob onto the new step parent because they long for the closeness they are missing as a result of the end of their parent's relationship. Among the many factors that influence this, are the age of the children, their relationship with each of their parents and their step parent, what role they play in the family and their perception of loyalty.
Step-parents need to come to grips with being the second banana.
Have a life of your own so that you still feel important separate from the new family that you are helping to create. A step-parent may feel less valued because they are not the primary parent. And often that puts more pressure on the marriage to help the step-parent feel important because they are not the "real" parent. So, much of what a step-parent experiences with step-children is failure, especially early on. It is a good idea to have places outside of the home where the step-parent can get satisfaction, recognition, feel appreciated, and have a sense of mastery.
As a step-parent, you have few if any rights regarding your step-children.
Too often, if the marriage dissolves so does the relationship with the step-parent. There are some who advocate pre-nuptial agreements in second marriages so that step-parents can still have a relationship with the child if the marriage does not work out..."visitation if desired would be granted to the step-parent." Think about it.
Try to get into the mind and heart of a child.
By placing yourself in the child's shoes (or sneakers), realize that their parent has fallen in love with someone other than his or her biological parent (who may or not be alive) and now this child is expected to "love" (or like, or tolerate, or accept, or get on board with) this person whom they may or may not know very well. For many children, their feelings are "you get attached to people and then they leave. After awhile you just get tired of being left." Sometimes these children wonder if it is worth it to invest their time and energy into making connections with these new people in their lives because they "aren't cool" or "they don't care about me" or "they don't love me as much as their own children" or "they expect too much from me" or "they don't want to get to know me."
Children can feel inadequate and feel "in the middle".
Often children have to make serious adjustments to living in and between two houses (with different sets of rules, expectations, clothes) and they can feel inadequate if they have difficulty making the transition as they try to lead parallel lives. There is this ever-present need to schedule events around where he/she will be, with which parent. One of the areas where children often feel uncomfortable occurs when they are asked to bring information between the two parents. It is not their role. Be careful about using the kids as spies or messengers. They already feel as if they are in the middle, so try not to add to their pressure.
Maintain continuity in the children's lives.
Too often, because they are living in two places, there is a lack of spontaneity because the children are at mom's home or at dad's home but they often feel as it is not their home. Children, young or old, get rooted and then uprooted, with new friends, schools, neighborhoods etc. If you are going to be a step-parent, try to maintain continuity in the children's lives.
Work toward developing a parenting coalition...you need to co-parent.
If parents and step-parents can cooperate with each other then the child's loyalty conflicts are minimized and the new marriage has a better chance of surviving. Try to have harmony within your household as well as across households. This is very important especially regarding school and homework issues. And do your best to keep the children out of your disagreements.
Learn new parenting skills.
One of the best gifts you can give yourself and your spouse, whether you are the biological or the step- parent, is to learn specific skills on how to keep the children out of the middle of parental issues (classes in conflict reduction, non-threatening communication, cooperation in parenting). In this way, you and the other adults in the family can help the children adjust to the "new relationships" they need to deal with. Understand that even if you are the nicest person alive, close to sainthood, the children may hate you just because you are now in their lives. It doesn't matter that you really are a fine upstanding citizen who will willingly spend hours helping with homework or shopping for the "coolest" outfit for your soon to be step-daughter's birthday. The kids would just prefer you were not in the picture. If you were not in the picture, in their minds, the chances of their parents getting back together would be much greater. And besides, there are too many changes that come along with the step-family arrangement.
Step-parent relationships work best when they are like friendships.
Although it is difficult to understand, even when kids behave ambivalently toward step-parents, this does not mean the step-parents are unimportant to their step-children's lives. Step-parent relationships, especially in the beginning (and that can be for a very long time), work best when they are more often like friendships, or like an aunt or uncle. If a step parent comes in like gangbusters, with a bunch of rules and regulations (think drill sergeant), it is less likely that a significant and meaningful connection will develop. Children are capable of closely bonding with many figures. And if the step-parent arrives thinking they are the "new parent" the child will more likely than not reject you.
There are different rules and regulations for a step-family.
It takes time to get comfortable with the new personalities, habits, expectations, ways of communication, values and all the new rules and regulations of a new step-family arrangement. Even though you think you know your fiancé, when you spend the weekend with him (or her) and the children, you see sides of everyone that may make you rethink this entire arrangement. "If she would only do this, she would avoid that kind of behavior from her daughter," or "Why does he allow his son to treat me this way?"
There is no such thing as "blending" families.
Families are not fruit drinks. Relationships within families take time to grow, to develop. They develop over time with lots and lots of experiences. Don't rush. Don't be in a hurry. Develop patience and be open to difference. Fasten your seatbelt and get ready to learn about these children and who they are. What has formed them? What has influenced them? How much is personality driven and how much is a result of what they have seen and done and heard and experienced? If you want to forge a good relationship with these children, you need to invest a lot of yourself and your time. You need to watch, listen, and learn. Of course you can influence them. Do not forget, however, to appreciate that they can teach and influence you too.
Why does it take so long to adjust to one another in a step-family?
Often the children are conflicted because they feel a sense of dual loyalties. Sometimes, your fiancé (or you) may feel conflicting loyalties to the children's parent who is no longer your love but very much a part of your life. Many people who are involved in raising other people's children do not appreciate how much time is involved with the children and often find themselves in the role of instant parent without having any time to grow into their role as wife or husband. Just marrying someone takes a lot of adjustment, and that is just one person!
When you marry a family, it takes time to become cohesive.
When you marry someone who has kids or when you marry someone who doesn't and you have children or if you both have families and expect them to join hands and sing KUMBAYA, think again. You have to be kind to yourself and give yourself the chance to appreciate that:
1. It takes time
2. You will get frustrated with yourself and your spouse
3. You will always have another chance to try again
4. Get used to not having to be right and being open to 1,000 ways of doing what you have been doing one way your whole life.
Planning time as a couple is a balancing act.
One of the most difficult aspects of marrying someone and having kids along for the ride is realizing you need to plan time on your own. Saturday night dates may not happen too frequently if that is the only time you have the children. So, rather than fret, make another date night and order up the popcorn and set up the Monopoly or Scrabble with the kids. If your step-children like tropical fish, learn about them and take time to go to the fish store together. But, if your fiancé is used to having the tropical fish explorations be HIS turf with his son, then don't intrude. Find your own place and ways to connect. It is a balancing act without too many rules. If your heart is in the right place and you want to develop a lasting and loving relationship with your step-children, understand you are in there for the long haul.
As a couple, you can be a good and loving model to your children.
Too often newly married step-parents forget about the importance of their time alone. I mean time as a couple. Remember, at least one of you was in a relationship that did not work and likely the children witnessed more than you would have liked them to during the demise of that relationship. Now you have a chance to offer them a good and loving model. That does not mean that you fawn all over each other or be inappropriate. Most kids are uncomfortable with that. So ease into it. Yes, kiss and hug and hold hands, but also make sure they see that you have your own time as a couple.
When kids see a good relationship they have hope that they can have a good relationship with someone someday. When you nurture the marriage you help nurture the family. This is not a competition. It is not about who you love more. The love for your spouse and the love he or she has for his or her children is different. Jealousy has no place here. Work out your feelings and help your spouse understand what you are concerned about. Get an objective opinion from someone you trust regarding whether you are being unreasonable in your demands.
Make sure you have family time for everyone as well as individual time for yourself.
One-on-one time with biological parents and their children, step-parent and step-children alone and all the other combinations doing enjoyable things is ideal. This is A LOT OF TIME. If you are working and commuting and trying to keep up with your friendships and getting to the gym and reading a book, when do you do this? You work it out the best you can. At least know that it is a priority and if you plan time it will be more likely happen.
Communicate and make decisions as a family.
Often when people marry someone who has children, they are not used to children being "around." And, consequently, can resent them. They make decisions that directly impact the children without consulting them. Not a good plan. Communication that works best with kids is the kind that involves them in decision making that affects the whole family. Communicate openly to avoid hassles over chores and discipline. Often the little things (making a bed, saying please etc.) wreak havoc in step-families.
Getting respect from the children.
Some new step-parents believe they should have instant respect. Respect is earned. Anyone who has had children knows that there is no such thing and if you have had children and you think that just because you walked into this child's life they will respect you, think again. The onus is on the adult to treat the child with respect first. Children are the first to understand whether or not they are respected. If you want respect, give it. No questions asked. I am not advocating accepting disrespectful behavior but understand it may be the only way a child can register his or her displeasure about having ABSOLUTELY NO SAY in the direction his or her life is taking. Your concerns need to be whether you know anything about children, child development, and age-appropriate behavior. Their concerns have to do with how will my life change and what role will this new person have in my life? And more important, how will they steal my parent's time, attention and love?
Get to know your new step-children.
It is important to appreciate that as a step-parent it is NOT your job to FIX or change these children (even as a parent that is a good rule to remember.) Rather your role is to get to know them, learn who they are, and accept them. Step-family life is all about adaptation and bringing histories, traditions, values, points of view together. They do not have to be consistent, they do, however, need to be heard and respected. Again, this does not mean you have to like everything about your step-children, but it does mean that you do not have the right to belittle them, insult them, and make them feel unsafe or unwanted. Remember, they were there before you and now as a couple you need to make the family come together. There is no such thing as an instant family or instant love. Believing that there is places unrealistic demands on the step-family.
Be a responsible adult.
When it comes to acceptance, don't forget who the adult is, and while doing so, be careful not to act like a child. Leave that to the kids. Always strive to behave as a responsible adult. Take the "high road" and you will see that it takes you to a better place with the children (and yourself.) Ask yourself, "What kind of step-parent do I want to be?"
Make and embrace new rituals and traditions.
As you get to know each other create your own rituals and traditions as a family. If you marry someone who is used to opening the Xmas presents on Xmas eve and you are an early Xmas morning race to the tree type, you may have to do some adjusting. Talk about the traditions and rituals that are important to you and why they hold meaning. It can be a lot of fun to integrate your life into someone else's so you can be a part of creating a family that celebrates life's meaningful moments in a way that truly reflects each and every one of you.
Retain contact with extended family members.
After a new spouse enters the picture with a new set of extended family members the grandparents and cousins are often yanked out of the children's lives. Sometimes family members "from the other side of the family" are in strained positions with the children because they may not be comfortable calling or inviting the children to family events, or just keeping in touch. Imagine how much more difficult it is for children to not only lose a parent (through death or divorce) but to lose the family that comes along with that parent. Step-parents need to think of the effect of this on the kids. The children's family keeps changing. For most children it is better to keep the peace with the previous family because the more loving people who are concerned with a child's welfare, that a child has in his or her life, the better it is for that child.
The biological parent is the disciplinarian; the step-parent is the advisor.
As difficult as it is to accept sometimes, try to agree that the biological parent is still the main disciplinarian and rule maker. Both of you need to agree on who and how rules are enforced. The step-parent can be an advisor from the sidelines; encouraging the parent but the parent needs to enforce discipline. You cannot have discipline without a foundation of love and trust. When a child challenges a step-parent's authority, don't threaten. In calm, matter of fact way say, "YOU are right; I am not your father. But these are the rules of the house and I'm going to talk about this with your mother. If the child becomes abusive, say, I don't deserve to be treated like this. I know that you are angry, that you probably don't like that I am here, you have a right to your feelings, but you do not have the right to call me names. Look beneath the child's anger. You will probably find other, more vulnerable feelings. Try not to take the child's anger personally. Kids act out their sense of frustration while in the middle of a situation.
Don't become a replacement parent.
Step-parents are not meant to "step" into a biological parent's shoes, but instead talk to the children about developing a different relationship with them. "I do not want to replace your mom. You have a very big heart and she will always have a place in it. You and I will get to know each other slowly, over time" is a good way to put it. Develop a different role by being a confidant, a mentor, a loving friend, an aunt.
Don't get caught up in what your step-child calls you.
Offer choices...I'd be comfortable with "Sue," "Mom," or some kind of nickname. What are you comfortable with? Step-parents can introduce the step-children to new experiences...bond by going to basketball games or theatre or something unique...hiking, camping. Younger children are generally more receptive to becoming part of a step-family than older ones so be prepared.
Come to grips with your own feelings as a step-parent.
You can be overwhelmed and also enjoy the wonderful change...they are not mutually exclusive. Not being accustomed to children's noise and kid's leaving things around...step-parents who are not used to being around kids are not used to interruptions or the lack of privacy. Everyone wants to keep the romance in a relationship. When there are kids, you cannot keep that fantasy because of all of the vying for attention between the adult and child. The more time you spend together the less you dwell on what an infringement they are on your life because you begin to see the rewards...you can teach them things and you can learn things...about them; about yourself. You impact one another's lives.
Appreciate the different backgrounds of the step-children.
Try to understand that difference is just that...it is not better or worse. You may have different explanations than the other set of parents. You cannot make a step-child or any other child more like you or turn her into the person you want her to be. You have to accept her for who she is.
Most importantly spend time getting to know your new family.
Build in individual time with each child...even though there is a lot of transition and readjustment time, do things with the children...You may feel this is more difficult with older children who want to be with their friends and it may be but it is still worth the effort. Time "alone, together" is essential for forging ties and keeping balance in the new step-family.
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