What is the best way to parent step-children?
With the dramatic increase in divorce and remarriage over the last 20 years, blended families have become far more common.
There are many questions and concerns regarding how best to parent a stepchild, along with communication issues between ex-husbands, ex-wives, stepfathers and stepmothers. As if that’s not difficult enough, there continues to be a barrage of stereotypes surrounding blended families and relationships with stepchildren. These stereotypes include extremely derogatory terminology that can even be found in Disney animated cartoons as well as movies, horrendous references such as “The wicked stepmother,” or lines like, “I’m going to beat you like a redheaded stepchild.” These references are totally inappropriate, and grossly hurtful. I don’t know where they originate, and personally do not care.
Raising stepchildren is an extremely delicate issue. If biological fathers and mothers are involved, it makes life much easier and smoother for the child, as well as all adults involved, especially if there is good communication amongst all parties. However this is unfortunately not always the case. In many instances, there is gross animosity and anger amidst divorced families. Stepchildren frequently do not want to be disciplined by stepparents. Limit setting becomes difficult, and boundaries are inherently broken in these relationships. Some tips in raising stepchildren:
- I strongly advocate family meetings from the very beginning. If that has not started, it is never too late to start them. These are meetings that usually occur once a week in the home, where everyone is allowed to voice their opinion. Some of the rules for these family meetings include no criticism or feedback back to the individual. They are freely allowed to voice their feelings, concerns or complaints, as well as any positive statements they want to make during these sessions.
- Rules of the home should be voiced as well as written. Stepchildren frequently are going to play the biological parent against the stepparent. This is extremely common and understandable, especially if the biological parent is not giving them as much time as they perceive they need.
It is important to understand what has occurred in the family. We usually have a divorce situation, or perhaps the death of a spouse. Either way, depending on the age of the stepchildren, there is loss, or blame may be directed toward the biological parent perceived as causing the breakup of the family. However anger is not necessarily directed only at the biological parent, but is often directed towards the stepparent, as well. There is always some degree of emotional turmoil because there has been a dramatic transition in their lives. This needs to be recognized.
Marriages continue to fail at increasing rates in Western society. We need to be cognizant of this fact. Instead of externalizing blame and pointing fingers, we need to accept it for what it is, and do the best we can for our children.
Oftentimes parents will overreact and give more to stepchildren to appease or to take care of their anxieties and stress. What is very common also is we will see biological children start to act out because they feel they are not getting the attention that they need. The balancing act can be more easily achieved if there is observance of equal time and recognition, especially in the family sessions mentioned above, where this is addressed openly, with nothing being hidden.
Being open and honest with children and stepchildren is extremely important. Of course, maturity is not only based on chronological age, but on the acceptance of responsibility, and an individual’s ability to show respect towards others. When a certain level of maturity is reached, stepchildren and biological children may ask for answers, in their search for the truth. Statements like, “When you are older, I will tell you,” are okay for a short period of time, but when the child actually gets older and you still deflect their questions, it is detrimental and can be dangerous.
I have to admit that it is very easy to sit and write this for a website, to write statements like, “Be loving and be caring.” That sounds very good in text. In reality, this author understands that it is extremely difficult to implement, with the stressors that are going on in the day to day activities of life, driving back and forth to school, from one sports activity to another, dealing with homework and grades, demands at work, family stressors inside and outside the home, dealing with ex-husbands and ex-wives. These issues and suggestions regarding them are much easier to write about than to implement.
One crucial area of discussion: As children get older, they should never be used as pseudo-wives or husbands. There is absolutely no reason and no benefit whatsoever for parents to speak to their biological children in a divorce situation about the other spouse, or communicate with the children concerns or issues with pick-up times, appointments, or when they are coming to see them. If that is occurring, it is a classic example of splitting. Parents need to act like adults, and in a divorce situation, must communicate with each other, not through their children.
This author has seen parents in divorce situations who discuss their financial concerns or their own stressors with their children, looking for indirect empathy or sympathy. Of course this is totally inappropriate, and something I should not even have to write about; however it is amazing how many parents continue to do this, not understanding how inappropriate and detrimental it is.
Stepchildren calling their stepparents mother or father: I have been asked this questions numerous times; the following are some thoughts:
- Stepchildren should NEVER be forced to call their stepparents mother or father.
- If there is a biological parent deceased, and the child so chooses to do that, it is more than fine.
- Many children feel embarrassed when introductions occur at a school function or in other settings, saying, “This is my stepfather.” There are many ways to get around that. They can say, “This is my mom’s husband,” or “This is my dad’s wife,” and then call them by their first name, a very practical way of getting around the issue, if it causes discomfort.
- If there is an excellent relationship with a stepparent, it can be appropriate if the child so chooses. However this usually always causes some distress with the biological parent. This is a sensitive issue, and needs to be looked upon as such, always trying to give the child’s wishes the highest priority.
Finally, we need to remember that stepchildren are children– adding a prefix and hyphen IS IRRELEVANT. These are children who have been through a dramatic change in their lives. They need to be loved as any child, and parents need to act like adults, and communicate with each other.