All stepfamilies come with challenges – the combining of different households and family cultures, the weekend visitations, the dealing with exes, the confusion that the children feel in trying to make sense not only of the divorce, but now this new parent and stepbrothers and sisters that they didn’t ask for. The stress can take its toll. It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the struggles between stepparents and stepchildren are one of the primary causes of second divorces. The move from divorce to singlehood to stepfamily certainly requires time and patience, but like most life transitions also benefits from some awareness and skill. Here are the most common mistakes you want to avoid:
Disciplining too soon
One of the big, yet easy, mistakes that a lot of new stepparents make is stepping in a disciplinarian too soon. While the intentions may be good, the kids are likely to show resentment, rather than respect – the proverbial “You’re not my father!”
This is particularly true for teens who are likely to see the stepparent as nothing more than another authority telling him what to do. The antidote to a child or teen’s resistance is a supportive relationship. Hold back and develop a connection before taking any disciplinarian role. If your partner needs support, be the sideline coach or sounding board, but let him or her take the lead. Once a strong trusting relationship is established, gradually step up the discipline.
Nurture first, discipline second.
Failing to develop individual relationships.
Each child in a family will have a different response to a stepparent – one child quickly warming up, while another remains aloof. Children who are particularly close to the other natural parent may hold back, believing that they become close to the stepparent they are in some way being disloyal.
The way around this emotional quagmire is remaining patient while at the same time initiating one-on-one activities. Choose places and activities – movies, picking up a pizza, playing cards or legos – that offer comfortable distractions to break any awkwardness, yet allow you to step out of your “parent” role, and give you both an opportunity to engage and enjoy each other’s company. Whenever the child talks, be quiet and listen. If the mood seems right throw out quick, one-liner questions – “It seems like you are not excited about coming here some weekends. How come? Is it hard to move between two houses?” – and see what happens next.
What’s likely to happen next is not much – a “It’s okay” or grunt, though you might be surprised. Whether the child or teen talks about themselves or not is less important than your showing an interest in his world, and by casually bringing up topics letting him know what type of things can be talked about.
Build your stepfamily one relationship at a time.
From Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., for Psychologytoday.com
Photo by John Edwards 2008