Stepparenting as Art, Not Science
Begin by realizing that this is a difficult job for which you (like most stepparents) are not trained or well prepared. There are few rules and fewer absolutes in stepparenting. Know you are not likely to receive gratitude or warm fuzzy feelings in return for your efforts. Be prepared not to overreact when you are told, “You're not my mother/ father. You can't tell me what to do.” Do not let such comments deter you from the responsibility to be a parent to any and all children in your household. There can't be factions within a family. You sink or swim together.
Martha married John when she was twenty-six and John was twenty-eight and the single father of five year-old Phillip. Martha's mother warned her about the burden she was taking on as an unprepared instant mother to this rambunctious boy whose biological mother came and went unpredictably, often leaving an angry, newly abandoned child in her wake. But Martha, in the throes of new love and newly pregnant, forged ahead, thinking the baby would help bind her often-frazzled blended family together. The reality proved otherwise, with her stepson's refusal to listen to Martha and his frequent tantrums only worsening when combined with the jealousy he felt after the arrival of his new half brother Corey. At her worst, Martha found herself dead tired, holding a wailing Corey as she screamed in anger at Phillip, often banishing him to his room. On more than one occasion, Phillip opened his door long enough to scream back at her, “I hate you! I want my mommy,” words that convinced Martha her situation was hopeless and that she was the worst stepmother in the world. By the time John would get home from work at night, Martha typically greeted him with ultimatums (that he “do something” about Phillip) and tears.
Looking back, those months were definitely the worst for the entire family, with increments of improvement coming as Martha got more sleep and learned to set clearer boundaries with her stepson. Little Corey's presence did in fact eventually help smooth out the household's rougher edges as the baby began to worship his big brother Phillip whose attention always brought Corey big smiles and easy laughter. However, Martha's realization about her lack of preparation and perspective as a stepmother came a couple of years later. It happened when she had to give then three-year-old Corey a time-out in his room for an incident of bad behavior. When an angry Corey slammed the door and screamed, “I hate you,” at his mother, Martha heard herself saying calmly, “I know you feel that way now honey, but you won't after you calm down.” Martha stopped in her tracks, realizing that way back when Phillip screamed the same words at her she had immediately assumed she was a bad stepmother; when the truth is that children in the throes of tantrums say things that one should never take personally. Setting limits for a child is part of every mother or stepmother's responsibilities to her child.
Here are some guidelines for helping children and stepchildren adjust and thrive in a blended family:
Put your marital relationship first; without it, the other relationships will fall apart
Stand by your partner and present a united front when disciplining each child in the household
Make time for activities involving the whole family
Keep separate solo outings for biological parents and children to reassure the child he still has a special bond with his parent
Gently guide your biological child toward a relationship with his stepparent
Don't take it personally if your stepchild refuses your conversations or invitations or expresses a wish for his biological parents to reunite
Encourage your stepchild's positive behavior rather than dwell on his negative behavior
Don't yell, shame, or nag a stepchild; defuse a negative interaction by looking at your own behavior; and then do what you can to defuse the situation
Let your child or stepchild take the lead in how much togetherness or intimacy he's ready for with his stepparent
The difficulties of adjusting, and the time needed by everyone to do so in a blended family, should not be underestimated. Given the varying degrees of emotional maturity present in young children, school-age children, teens, and young adults, expectations should be adjusted to meet specific developmental levels.
Of course, given the difficulties inherent in parenting adolescents, any stepparent should realistically expect the job to be harder with teenage stepchildren. If you're stuck in conflict with or about an adolescent's behavior, and particularly if your marital relationship is suffering, make family therapy an option.
Don't get stepped on. In an effort to be liked by your stepchild you risk becoming a doormat. Children respect and ultimately trust the stepparent who sets clear boundaries and responds fairly and consistently to the children's behavior. Good parenting is also good stepparenting.