With a blended family and you will have problems that intact families do not have. Step kids – or steps – can vary widely in age – some involve babies and toddlers and others, teens or even grown children. Therapists know that relationships between the non-bio moms and non-bio dads and their step kids are likely to involve land mines of sensitive feelings and resentments, no matter the age. Combine that with immaturity, and, well, I’m about to help you with that.
First, understand that being a step parent is a choice, and if you decided to take this difficult challenge on, you must bring your best self to the table, no matter how old the kids are. Whether you are older or younger than they are, you must be the one, the adult, who sets the standard of respectful behavior toward the ones who gained you as a family member through marriage. Steps can and will stoop to low levels of behavior, though you must not.
Now, think about what it is like for a child to have his or her parent bring a new person into their family. Most children would like to have their parent to themselves, without that intrusion, but they tolerate the step parent because they want their mom or dad to be happy. It may take years for a child to feel comfortable and warm to this new person being around, or it may never happen. The only thing a step parent can do is be graceful, let it be what it is, and don’t try to force things.
Now, with that in mind, here is a list of step-dos and don’ts that will help you now and throughout the years.
General step do’s and don’ts that will ultimately help you through the holidays and other times:
• Don’t make them call you mom or dad, don’t have expectations. If they are blatantly ugly to you, simply tell them that these words are hurtful to you and you are always open to a warmer relationship.
• Don’t talk about their mom or dad or the divorce. Whether it is your spouse or the ex, don’t infer, insinuate, or say directly anything at all about their parents. Most steps are fiercely loyal, so nothing good will come from it. Allow them to display photos of their parent in your home. If they talk about their parents to you, validate them and stay neutral. If the parent is deceased, allow them to honor that parent however they see fit.
• Don’t bribe. If you think you can buy a step child’s love, you’re wrong. They will be happy to take what you offer, but then they will only think of you in terms of what you can give them. Let them get to know you, the person, so they can bond with that instead.
• Do adopt the stance of a kindly friend and inspirational coach. If the children are older than 9, a stepparent should let the natural parent do the parenting, and the two of you can discuss what that is going to look like when the children aren’t around. Stepparents must be respectful, gentle and kind with the children that are not theirs. Even if the children are not responsive in the beginning, keep maintaining an adult, respectful stance. If they are unkind and land an arrow through your heart, tell them so: “Wow, you refusing to talk to me really hurts my heart. I so want to be your friend. I am ready and willing when you are.”
• Treat stepchildren equally even though it is impossible. Just do your best to treat every child the same, be attentive and interested in who they are. Try to learn what scratches each child’s itch when it comes to love languages … usually it’s quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service or gifts. Little ones may love hugs. Make a point to pay attention to them when they speak, to comment on what they say, to point out positive things you hear, and to be a fan of who they are becoming. Within the home, create a space for each child that is theirs and is made special for them.
Now, for a holiday idea that will help blended families get off to a great start.
When everyone is together for any length of time, begin with a family meeting. The tone of this will be fun and friendly. Bio and step parents should be in the best of moods and express their excitement and appreciation of the opportunity to be together. Each spouse could present a small token gift to each stepchild with a short comment about how and why they chose the gift, and what it means to have that child there today. (Keep it under $20). Once the parents are done, have each child do the same – if the children are young the bio parent can help. The children could present something they made or even a drawing. This will be a wonderful icebreaker and family ritual you could do each year. After the ritual, have a friendly discussion of rules and expectations – stress respect, and tell them what that looks and sounds like. Tell them things such as, bring your best self to the party or remove yourself to a place within the area where you can work out your bad feelings if you have them. Reassure everyone that your goal is for everyone to enjoy themselves.
The step parent role is one of the hardest any person could have. Patience and grace will serve you well in the long term. I have seen the most stubborn rejecting step children melt over the years and finally embrace their step parent as someone they love and cherish, simply because that person was persistently patient, interested and caring.
Doctor Becky Whetstone is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and former journalist, writing for the San Antonio Express-News. She specializes in marriage and mid life crisis, individual struggles, and helping people learn how to have healthy relationships. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.