Step Parenting Guidelines – How to Make Sure You Don’t Cross a Line
When my husband and I initially introduced each other to our children and we all lived to tell, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a breeze”. After all, the first meeting went wonderfully well. They smiled at me. I smiled at them. My husband smiled at my children. My children returned the favor. I wondered what people were talking about when they mentioned feeling like an “evil stepmother”, or when they mentioned that the image of a blended family as portrayed by the Brady Bunch characters was not at all accurate. Now that my husband and I are rounding the final lap of our first year of marriage I have become more realistic regarding what to expect in the process of merging two lives.
In a blended family pain is often the common denominator. It is typically the case that each family has been through a major life-changing event by way of the breakup of their family. Even if the issues that caused the breakup seem to be resolved, or if the breakup itself is a major source of relief, there are still many adjustments that must be made by all parties involved. One of the greatest issues, it seems, is adjusting to new family members. This adjustment occurs for the adults as well as the children. While the children are adjusting to spending more time away from one of their parents, they must also begin the process of adjusting to the presence of a new parental figure within their lives. The adults, on the other hand, are learning how to parent with a new partner.
In many blended families it is typical that there are step parents and step siblings on both sides of the family. That dynamic most certainly adds another level to the adjustments that must occur. As a stepmother whose children also have a stepmother, I have learned many things about adult parental relationships. I have learned the importance of patience as all members adjust to the new living situations. I understand the importance of communicating with my present husband, while remaining in communication with my former husband. Most importantly, I have learned the importance of not crossing the invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) line with the children’s biological parent(s). I share this knowledge with you so that you are hopefully less likely to find yourself wondering how you got on the wrong side of the line.
The primary element – Respect
I cannot overstate the importance of respect in a blended family, and nowhere is this more accurate than where the children are concerned. Remember, children will likely feel some degree of loyalty to both parents, and that is typically alright. What is absolutely devastating to children is when they feel they have to choose between one parent and another or one step parent and another. It is ultimately up to the parents to model respect for their former spouse, their current spouse, and their former spouse’s current spouse if that is the case. This is not easy. In fact, it can seem downright impossible. As parents, though, we need to be ready to take on such difficult tasks. We need to put our own feelings aside (even though we feel totally justified in our feelings) and focus on our children. Imagine if you overheard someone saying very negative or depreciating things about your dearest friend. How would you feel? Our children are likely feeling the same way. There is a difference between loving someone, liking someone, and respecting someone. Thus, we can model respect for another even if we do not necessarily like them. Parents need to figure out a way to model respect for others even in the face of disagreement or stressful situations.
Space – Give the Children the Opportunity to Come to You
Next on my list of suggestions is the concept of space, which is a cousin to the concept of time. Parent-child relationships take time to develop. It seems we lose sight of that when we are introduced to our soon-to-be-stepchildren. We want to love them. We want them to love us. We want it right now. I can admit it is difficult and albeit awkward when your stepchildren are taking leave to return to their other parent’s home and you are not sure if you should reach out and hug them or wait for them to reach out and hug you. I have been there. However, it seems as though I have had more positive results when I have stepped back, put my own needs aside, and allowed the kids to reach out to me in their own time. I must give them space. The same thing is true of my own children. They need space as well. Few things are more difficult to observe than an adult who is physically forcing themselves on a child. If an adult is forcing affection it is often their own needs and insecurities they are trying to soothe and not those of the child. Our stepchildren do not owe us a hug and it is crossing the line to insist that they give one. I have discovered that if I allow the children to take the lead, the affection I receive is completely genuine and heartfelt. That means a lot to this stepmother. There are ways to communicate warm feelings without forcing physical contact. Remember, the bond between a parent and child has developed over the course of the child’s life. Don’t expect blended family relationships to be instantaneously strong and positive. Time is the key factor.
Labels and Titles – Another Touchy Subject
We live in a society where titles seem to be of the utmost importance. Titles convey respect, accomplishment, status, and occupation among other things. We use titles in our families as well. Our children learn from a very young age that there are proper names for people, and that it is important we use such labels in our interactions with others. For example, I would not have dreamed of calling my mother by her first name, and I would have been truly sorry (in a lot of ways) if I had done so. The same was true of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and others in positions of authority.
For the most part, labels and titles are good. As previously mentioned, they convey respect and depth of relationship. There are, however, times when titles can cause friction, confusion, or stress. This is often the case in the blended family. One of the first things typically established between children and their step parent is how the step parent will be addressed. Sometimes the children make that decision and simply assign their step parent a name. As long as this is alright with the adults involved there is little harm in letting the child decide how they would like to refer to their new parent, as long as the title is respectful. In my case, my son simply started calling my husband by his first name because that’s what he heard everyone else doing. It would have been another story if I had insisted that he referred to my present husband as “Daddy”. Not only would my son’s biological father have felt completely disrespected, my son would have been a bit confused as well.
Young children can have a very difficult time sorting through the myriad of situations that make someone a daddy or a mommy. They often don’t understand prefixes like “step”, so we are actually doing them a favor if we keep it simple. I have heard of families where the parents sit down and discuss their feelings about titles and labels and develop them together. I have also heard of parents that help their children decide on a name for their new step parent that is neither their first name nor mommy or daddy. It would seem this could prove to be a very positive experience for all involved.
Step parenting is not easy, but then again, parenting in any form is not easy. There are potential landmines every step of the way, many of them seemingly invisible. However, the landmines become more visible with time, and eventually begin to fade. In the meantime relax, model respect, and make flexibility one of your primary goals.
considers raising her four children one of her most important jobs. Thus, one of her primary writing topics is parent and family issues. Laura is also writing her dissertation “An Exploration of the Lived Experience of Step-Motherhood” in route to attaining a Ph.D. in psychology. Laura’s dream is to be a professional speaker and author on matters of parenting, relationships, and over-all wellness.