Being a stepparent just may be the hardest familial role to play and no matter how hard you try, there is no guarantee of creating one big, happy Brady Bunchish family. Stepparenting is a delicate dance, says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD. It is all about communicating and understanding that blended families can have complicated dynamics.” Here are nine of the most common stepparent missteps and expert advice on how to bounce back from them.
We were recently involved in a case where a bio parent took pictures of bio child with step parent, created a collage, and hung the college on the childs bedroom wall. Hanging pictures on a wall is not the (only) way to create a blended family.
Being a stepparent just may be the hardest familial role to play – and no matter how hard you try, there’s no guarantee of creating one big, happy Brady-Bunch-ish family. “Stepparenting is a delicate dance,” says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD. “It’s all about communicating and understanding that blended families can have complicated dynamics.” Here are nine of the most common stepparent missteps and expert advice on how to bounce back from them.
Mistake #1: You try to be the cool parent.
“Many times, stepparents just want to be liked,” says Dr. Durvasula, so they’ll try to win over kids by buying them gifts or bending rules. Those tactics can be harmful, though, says LuAnn Schindler, a stepmom and teacher from Norfolk, NE. “Giving in to a kid’s every whim can erode the parent-child relationship,” she says. “When a student of mine wanted certain name-brand jeans, her stepmom got them, despite the high price. The stepdaughter controlled the relationship and talked negatively about her stepmom to other students – it wasn’t healthy.”
Cari Andreani, a teacher in Jacksonville, FL, who’s worked with divorced families, suggests bonding through shared experiences instead. “Go for a bike ride or cook dinner together,” she says. “Try to do a joint activity at least once a month.”
Mistake #2: You expect to be an instant happy family.
Peggy Nolan, executive director of The Stepmom’s Toolbox, says that stepfamilies take about seven years to blend. And yet, “people in stepfamilies are expected to act and behave like first families, which is like pounding a square peg into a round hole,” she says.
“You have to earn admission into your family,” explains Connie Brooks, a stepmom from Venice, CA. “For years I felt invisible when my husband and stepdaughters reminisced over stories. It took all my willpower to keep smiling while my gut clenched. Then, one day, my stepdaughter started telling a new story – and I was a part of it.”
Mistake #3: You let your stepkids be rude to you, or you are rude to your stepkids.
Dr. Durvasula says children may resent an incoming stepparent and treat him or her disrespectfully. Still, many stepparents put up with this behavior because, again, they’re hoping to get their stepchildren to like them.
Schindler suggests dealing with stepkids’ criticism matter-of-factly, recalling her own stepdaughter’s remarks while making muffins one day. “As I mixed the batter, she said, ‘You’re making them wrong. My mom doesn’t make muffins this way.’ Throughout the weekend, she pointed out several things her mom and I did differently. My answer was the same every time: Shrug the shoulders and explain there are different ways to do things,” she says. “Soon, it became a non-issue.”
Mistake #4: You assume the role of a parent right away.
“New stepparents try to discipline without establishing trust,” says Nolan, typically because they’ve been given the go-ahead from their spouses. “That leads to mistrust and disrespect, which ultimately leads to dislike.”
Try being invested in your stepkids’ lives without overstepping bounds, suggests Brooks. “Be a caring, responsible adult figure, much like a loving aunt, uncle or grandparent,” she recommends. “You can act like a parent when your stepchildren are about to do something irrevocably stupid and you’re the only one around to stop it. But you have to not be the parent pretty much every other time.” Dr. Durvasula says this is especially true when both original parents are very involved in the kids’ lives.
Mistake #5: You set your personal expectations too high.
Stepparents may feel enormous pressure to get things “right,” especially given those long-held social stigmas (wicked stepmother, anyone?) that come with the job. “I thought I had to be Super Stepmom, Wonder Wife and She-Ra all rolled into one,” says Nolan. “I turned into an exhausted, overwhelmed, angry control freak.”
Once she stopped trying to be the best, everything changed. “As soon as I let go of the things I thought I had to do as a stepparent, life in my home became more peaceful, my marriage flourished and my relationship with my stepson became rock solid.”
Mistake #6: You badmouth the other parent.
When child support payments are late or your spouse’s ex misses yet another school play, it’s tempting to speak up – but don’t. “Keeping quiet nurtures your bond with your stepchildren because they’ll never feel like you’re making them choose between parents,” says psychotherapist Christina Steinorth, who works with stepfamilies in her private practice in Santa Barbara, CA.
If possible, Brooks suggests developing a relationship with the ex. “It’s not just weddings and funerals that require the whole family; it’s graduations and holidays, new homes, babies, illnesses and more. So you may as well get comfortable with each other and avoid a lifetime of schedule juggling.”
Mistake #7: You don’t give your stepchildren enough alone time with your spouse.
A misstep that’s quite common, even among veteran stepparents, says Steinorth, is forgetting that your stepkids may need one-on-one time with their original parent. And it often happens because stepparents feel threatened by their spouses’ relationship with their children, she says. “The original parent has a shared history with his kids that the stepparent doesn’t have, which can lead to feelings of insecurity and envy.”
But allowing them quality alone time is crucial. When you encourage your spouse to be with his children, “it sends the message that there’s no competition between you and the kids for his affection, which shows you truly want to see your stepchildren happy,” explains Steinorth.
Mistake #8: You deprioritize your relationship with your spouse.
Judy Osborne, a marriage and stepfamily therapist, says many couples neglect their marriages in favor of bolstering the bond between stepparent and stepkids. But there are major benefits for children if they see a healthy adult relationship. “Using lots of energy to help stepparents and stepchildren like each other isn’t as helpful as having a good space for the couple to grow together,” explains Osborne.
She stresses the importance of having couple time. “Hire a babysitter occasionally, even if the kids are only in your house for a short while each month,” she says. “This demonstrates to each other as adults – and to the kids – that the grownup relationship is as vital as the stepchild-stepparent relationship.”
Mistake #9: You take it personally when children favor their “real” parent over you.
“During those family rituals – weddings, new babies and the unhappier realities of sickness and death – it’s easy for a stepparent to feel left out,” notes Osborne. Dr. Durvasula adds, “Even after 25 years, it’s possible that a daughter will want her father, not her stepfather, to walk her down the aisle.”
But stepchildren – regardless of age – may feel pressure from their original parents not to give their stepparents as big of a role in family events, says Steinorth. “Show your support by not participating in the ‘you have to like me best’ game.”