I have a friend who is getting married this weekend for the second time, and she already refers to her fiancé’s kids as her step-kids. She brags about them on Facebook just as she does her own biological children, and she looks forward to the adventure of blending their families.
However, it’s not always that easy when two families come together. In other words, not everyone is going to have the “Brady Bunch” experience. First of all, you need to understand your role as a step-parent. Dr. Phil describes them in his book, Family First, and we’ve included some of his descriptions of the role of step-parent below:
- Unless your stepchildren are very young, you’re not going to likely do well in a disciplinarian role. However, “It’s extremely important that the stepparent be an active supporter of the biological parent’s disciplinary efforts.” Lines of communication between the parents need to be wide open, as the rules of the house need to be set.
- While you are not necessarily a disciplinarian as the stepparent, you can’t step in as a friend or just the “mother’s husband” or “father’s wife.” You still need to take on an active role as an authority figure.
- While you never want to be seen as attempting to replace the biological parent, you can still establish yourself as the child’s ally. As Dr. Phil says, your presence “can play an important balancing role in terms of modeling and information-giving about life from the male or female point of view.”
- Set your expectations! You do not want to have unrealistic goals as to the level of closeness you are going to achieve with your stepchildren. They may be experiencing “emotional confusion” or even guilt in that they are betraying their biological parent if they establish a close bond with you.
- This is a tough one, but Dr. Phil says you should actively support the child’s relationship with the biological father or mother who is no longer in the home. As he says, this “may require some real internal commitment on your part,” going on to say, “Don’t let jealousy or envy of the bond they share with their children or the working relationship and history with your current mate cause you to be less than supportive of that relationship.”
- If you are in what Dr. Phil refers to as a “truly blended family,” where both of you are bringing children into the marriage, you must take great precautions that you are not perceived as favoring your biological children over the stepchildren. As time goes on, Dr. Phil says the emotions will become more level but, in the early stages, you need to be hypersensitive to this.
It might seem like a daunting experience to blend families in the beginning, as if there is an art form to it. Actually, there is to a certain extent. Carri and Gordon Taylor, who are nationally recognized experts on creating thriving stepfamilies, offer the following five secrets that they have seen repeatedly work for stepparents:
Secret Number 1: Defer to the Bio-Parent
This backs up what Dr. Phil discusses as well. As the Taylors note, this might go against your inclination, but it’s important as the steprelationship develops. As they note, you don’t want to be the heavy, but you can’t disappear all together. In other words, you’re the “good cop,” where the bio parent is the “bad cop”. As the couple points out, you’ll reap the benefits, saying, “The irony is that when you relax and support the bio-parent, the relationship with your stepchild will form faster.”
Secret Number 2: Don’t Compete with Your Counterpart
Your natural urge might tend towards wanting to be the “cool stepparent” and, in doing so, you’ll be competing with the stepchildren’s natural parent. Instead, uphold and respect them. This can be extra challenging if your spouse is still battling it out with his or her ex, but that makes it all the more important.
Stepmoms have a tendency towards wanting to heal the hurt, while stepfathers think they’ll just step in and instill strict rules. Neither is the best way to go. Instead, “Simply be present in the child’s life and avoid ‘fixing things’ or competing with the bio-parent.”
Secret Number 3: Discover Your Stepchild’s Interests
Take an interest in what your stepchild likes and nurture the relationship by getting involved. In other words, finding common activities may help you ease into the relationship.
Secret Number 4: Get Out of the Way
Allow your spouse to have “me time” with his kids without you. This might go against the notion of jumping right in and blending the families, but the Taylors insist that allowing this bonding time will go a long way in blended family happiness and helping the kids to avoid feeling displaced. As they noted, “In our own stepfamily, we always encouraged each other to go off for the weekend or do special things with our bio-kids solo, and it helped everyone immeasurably.”
Secret Number 5: Act Lovingly Even If You Don’t Like Your Stepkids
This is an old therapy trick I remember from when I got my Masters in Counseling Psychology called “fake it ‘til you make it.” As the Taylors point out, you may feel guilty at first because you don’t feel affection towards your stepchildren. However, if you commit to act lovingly towards them, you may be surprised to find that love will truly develop down the road.
One reason you may not like your stepkids is because they are acting out but, as the Taylors point out, this is a defense mechanism they may develop as a result of the pain of divorce. Don’t try to “fix” them, as they are not broken – the family they once knew is. Listen and try to understand, and the healing process can begin.
Almost 2,100 blended families form in the United States every day, so you have likely experienced this, may experience this, or know someone who has gone through it. It’s important to take things slowly but, if you love your new partner and are willing to put in the work and practice the tips mentioned above, we’re confident you can have complete success in blending your family.
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