You’re dating, and you think she’s “the one”. You like her kids, her kids seem to like you, and you have a vision of a happy family where not only are you married to the person of your dreams, but you’re a welcome addition, filling in the gap of the missing person in their lives. It’s really win/win for everyone involved!
Then the wedding. Then reality.
What happened? We all got along so well before. Why is there all this stress and conflict? This is not at all how you imagined it would be. You kind of feel like, “Whoa, I didn’t sign up for this!”
You are not alone. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if it wasn’t a common occurrence in families with step-parents. So in this moment, just sit back and let that sink in. That also means it won’t be like this forever.
But, it’s going to take work and patience – and team work, and communication. Yeah, it’s not going to be as easy as it was when the kids knew your role (and you knew your role, too!). Back then you went back to your own house, their biological parent was the only head-of-household, you didn’t have this voice inside of you telling you that you need to fill some parental shoes regarding the kids. Now, you’re always there, they’re always there, there are new dynamics, new expectations, and everyone has a different opinion about how that should look. And frankly, you probably feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick.
Here are some things that I’ve learned over the years and that have helped clients smooth out the transition within their newly blended families:
- Key concepts to a healthy and happy step-parent & step-children relationship: a balance of authority and relationship. Some step-parents think it’s their role to take over where the other parent is weak so they become the disciplinarian and assume authority over the kids. Other step-parents feel it’s their job to be buddies with the kids, buying them gifts, taking them on outings, and just joking around with them so the kids will like them. The problem here is that’s not parenting – neither option. I’ll go into further detail below, but take a moment to think if you’ve fallen into one of these ruts. Can you identify?
- Remember that it takes time. A lot of time. More time that you thought it would take. Sometimes two or three years before things are flowing smoothly with everyone on the same page regarding expectations, roles, and relationship. Don’t quit trying. Kids need you prove that you’re really who you say you are, that you aren’t self-serving or operating from your ego, that you love them and value them. If you make an effort for a few months and then give up, thinking all your efforts aren’t getting you anywhere, then you’re not proving to them that you’re down for the count.
Remember, their biological parent has had their entire lives to give them this security, so they might need a little or long while to learn to trust it from you. It doesn’t come cart-blanch just because you married their parent. That’s actually a good thing, it teaches them to be discerning adults who will know how to develop healthy levels of trust with others. They will learn what to look for in potential suitors later in life by the example you are leading right now. You’re already parenting by being patient.
- Build relationship. Learn what things they enjoy and do it with them. Invite them to do some of the things you enjoy. Spend one-on-one time with them.
- If the child is young: This is a little easier because you can play legos, dolls, games in the yard, Candyland, etc. You can take them to little kid movies and to ice cream. Spend at least 15 minutes in child-directed play at least once a day (if you have time, do it a little more). That means, you tell them that you’ll play whatever it is that they want to play for the next 15 minutes. You can set an egg timer if you worry about losing track and you know you have other things to do.
- If the child is a teen: This is a little tougher because you’re going to get rejected a lot. A lot. But that’s the job of teens. They are learning to be autonomous, independent people and part of doing that is through stepping back and away from parents. They’re rejecting their biological parents, too. Here is where it gets trickier. Offer options. You can say, “Hey, on Saturday I want to spend a couple hours with you getting to know you better and hanging out. What would you like to do?” They’re probably going to shrug, roll their eyes, say “I dunno” or “I don’t care” and then shoot down all the options you offer. Expect it. Know that it’s not them rejecting YOU, it’s them being teenagers and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. So when you get the shrug or blow off, give them a few options: “We can either get up early in the morning, go get some breakfast at Denny’s, and then go to the driving range; or we can sleep in a little, get some chores done, and then get some lunch before going to see XYZ movie at the theater. It’s your choice which thing we do, but I’ve set aside time to hang out together on Saturday. Just let me know by Friday which thing you want to do or if there’s something else entirely that you want so I can plan my day accordingly.” Then smile, be loving and leave the room to allow them the time and space to think about it.
- Exercise appropriate authority. The step-parent shouldn’t be the disciplinarian – at least not for the first few years until relationship is well established and solid. The biological parent is the person to take away privileges, evoke consequences, and (if it’s part of your parenting repertoire) spank. Children can rest assured that their biological parent has unconditional love for them, and therefore consequences don’t hold the weight of betrayal that it holds when a new step-parent enters the equation and starts exerting authority before they’ve built relationship and mutual respect. You’re not impotent in this area though, you back up the biological parent. Once they’ve invoked a consequence, it’s okay and helpful to keep the kids accountable to it. If they are grounded to their rooms, you don’t have to sit by and watch them come out, you can sternly tell them to get back in and remind them of the next consequence that their parent gave as the follow-up for not obeying this one. Stand strong next to your spouse and let them know that you have their back, but you’re not taking over their role as disciplinarian. This is very important.
- Communicate with your significant other before you get married and move-in together (or do it today). Talk about the roles each of you will play. Talk about what you hope and fantasize about for the family life. Talk about the things that worry you. Talk about what to do if it all starts to go astray. Remind each other that you love one another, that it’s going to be darker before dawn.
Talk about your parenting styles. Maybe you’ve noticed a way they parent that you don’t agree with: they’re too lackadaisical with the kids; their too hard on them; they yell across the room; they don’t follow through on consequences, etc. You as the step-parent noticed this while you were dating and thought you’d have a positive influence, but it’s not going to work if you don’t talk about it ahead of time. Make it about you: “It’s really stressful for me when people yell instructions across the room, such as ‘Come eat dinner!!!'” or “I have a hard time when the kids don’t follow their consequences and it seems you let them off, is there a better strategy for punishing bad behavior? Can we come up with a chart of consequences ahead of time so the kids and I know what to expect?” Be their support person, not the person who comes in and tries to change things, that will draw a wedge between you and your spouse, and you and your step-children.
You married this person because you love them. When you married them you probably liked the kids. Remember that when the times get tough. It’s okay to be disappointed, to feel rejected, to feel weary now and then. Talk to your spouse and keep telling and showing the kids that you value them. You are planting seeds today that you will reap down the road. Sowing the field is hard work, but the harvest is worth it. It’s worth it!
To set an appointment specifically with Jessica, please call her at (530) 921-5122 or go to our online scheduler.
Jessica Wilkerson, M.A., is a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern #IMF69783
she works under the clinical supervision of Joe R. Taylor, LMFT #46406 at Chico Creek Counseling.