You’ve been parenting on your own for a while now. Perhaps you divorced or were widowed, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you and the kids have been figuring this out solo for a period of time, you’ve found the person to love as your romantic partner, and now you’re getting (or have gotten) married. It’s not just you anymore, you have help!
What does that mean? What does that look like? You’re asking, “Am I doing this right?”
Sometimes, it feels like you’re reinventing the wheel.
Your new spouse has specific ideas of how you should be raising your children, and it conflicts with your parenting style. The kids liked the other person when you were dating, but now that they’ve moved in the kids have completely different attitudes toward him/her. Instead of feeling like now you have a shared load, it feels like there’s more pressure on you. Everyone is looking at you and you feel like you’re falling short. This is harder than it was before! What the heck!
Take a deep breath. I’ve been here. It’s going to be okay.
On this topic, I speak from experience as the biological parent who remarried, as a therapist who helps families, children, and couples, and as an avid reader and researcher. I have a few tips that can help smooth things along when it comes to your role in creating successful step-parenting relationships. Here are a few bullet points that might help your family and give you a little peace of mind:
- You’re the expert on your kids. You know what makes them tick, what buttons are hot buttons, what their hopes and dreams are, what things they enjoy, what foods they love and hate, and what makes them sad. You know their history. You know what promises you’ve made and kept, and which ones still need to be fulfilled. Be confident in this. It’s good to listen to suggestions from the new spouse, they have an outside perspective that can be invaluable, making positive changes to your family. But don’t give away your authority, if something sounds like it would be a good idea in general, but not a good idea for your kids, veto it (diplomatically and respectfully).
- Nurture your relationship with your kids. I have had many kids in my practice as a therapist who tell me one of several scenarios:
- “My mom says we have to do everything as a family with my step-dad and his kids. I never get to just do things with my mom, only.”
- “Ever since my dad got married, I never get to be with him. She’s always there in the middle of everything. She’s nice and all, but sometimes I miss when it was just us.”
- “I feel invisible. Now that the family changed no one cares about what I want. I don’t ever get a say in anything.”
You didn’t expect your kids to feel this way, and if you could see the anguish on their little faces when they tell me these things your heart would break. They feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place. But hey, you brought these guys into the world. You’re not playing favorites by spending alone time with them.
Take time with them. Start a ritual that’s just you and your child. Maybe every payday you pick them up from school and go to a matinee movie, and then Jamba Juice before coming home for dinner – or take them out to breakfast every other Friday, they’ll wake up early for that! Little daily moments like watching some YouTube videos together for 20 minutes before you start dinner, or going in their room to talk about the highs and lows of their day, showing you care and giving that one-on-one time.
If your spouse has their own children, encourage them to nurture their parent/child relationships too. When the kids who have been your kids all their lives continue to feel valued and special to you, then they are more accepting of the step-parent and step-siblings. There’s no feelings of rivalry and replacement. All the rest of the time is family-time, together-time, family-bonding. It’s OKAY to separate a little time for you and the people you made.
- Encourage relationship with your new spouse. Sometimes the new step-parent feels rejected or doesn’t know how to initiate bonding with their new step-kids. Help them. Make some suggestions. Tell the kids they can choose the activity, but spending a couple hours on this day with the new step-parent in non-negotiable. They can negotiate what they do, for how long they do it, they can even ask you to be there – and do it, be there because they asked and that’s their comfort zone. But let the forefront of these positive interactions be with the step-parent and the kids. They need these positive experiences to draw from when the inevitable disciplining happens – way down the road.
- You be the disciplinarian. If you’re someone who spanks, NEVER ask your spouse or allow them to give your child a spanking – if you want some tips about how to manage kids without spanking I’d LOVE to chat with you about that. I’ve raised a really great kid without needing to spank and I’m accredited in the Positive Parenting Program, so we can go over some strategies to alter your disciplining style so you’re more effective with less family drama. Either way, the step-parent is your support person, they’re your back-up, they do not dole out consequences, but they have your back during enforcement.
A step-parent who comes into the family and immediately starts exerting authority and disciplining before the kids have grown to trust, respect and like them is going to alienate themselves from the children and drive a wedge in the family. When they notice something, then they pull you aside and talk to you about what happened, you two and decide together how it will be handled, but then you are the one who tells the children they are in trouble and you give them their consequences. Your new spouse can help enforce it once it’s been issued.
- Communicate with your spouse. Talk about your roles ahead of time.
- “Hey, new husband, I’d like to talk about why I allow the kids to disagree with me when you think they should comply to every order.”
- “Can we sit down and talk about incentives and consequences for the kids? I want to make sure I’m the parent who disciplines. The kids have a ten year history with me as their parent and to them you’re the new guy. Disciplining will be viewed as understandable from me, and as being picked on by you. They won’t learn their lesson. Let’s give it a year and see where we’re at and how this is working, okay?”
- “Oh, you’re feeling like the kids are disrespectful to you and that you don’t have any authority in your own home? What can I do to support you? What are the attitudes that you’re noticing? Okay, I’ll address this with the children, tell them the consequences for the behavior if it continues, and then you can help me with discipline on this topic. I’ll make sure the kids are on the same page. Sound good?”
Don’t undermine your spouse, back them up. You’re a team, but in each team there are certain duties, and neither can do them well if they aren’t outlined and if there isn’t a trusting relationship between all the team members (which includes the children).
to set an appointment specifically with Jessica, call her at (530) 921-5122 or use our online scheduler!
Jessica Wilkerson, M.A., MFTI is a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern
working under the clinical supervision of Joe Taylor, LMFT #46406 at Chico Creek Counseling.