Whether you are just beginning a blended family, or have been in one for awhile, you know that there are many difficult adjustments that both parents and children must go through. Oftentimes stepparents have a hard time understanding their stepchildren and how to reach out to them. The may become frustrated when their expectations of a loving family aren’t met. In the book, You’re a Stepparent… Now What?, author Joseph Cerquone gives practical pointers for stepparents on attempting to build a positive relationship with their stepchildren.
Watch Out for Unrealistic Expectations. Many stepparents feel the pressure to make their new family into a perfect one. However, with the stresses of the previous marriages, finances, custody battles and the adjustments to a new living situation, reality often presents a different scenario. Take small steps in building a relationship with your stepchildren. Focus on building a respect from them before you expect them to have a loving relationship with you.
Encourage Openness. One thing a stepparent can do is to let the members of the family know that they can express their emotions and discuss their fears and insecurities. But Cerquone warns not to expect the children to confide in you early on. They will most likely only confide in their parent at first.
Be Supportive. Recognize the importance of your stepchildren’s relationship with the “other” parent. Do not seek to replace them, but rather focus on creating a new relationship with your stepchildren. And be sure to be yourself.
Be Sure to Partner with Your Spouse. You and your spouse will need to be in constant, open communication about the family. Be mutually supportive of each other and make joint decisions regarding the family. Make sure the children know you are united in your decisions.
Let the Parent Discipline. Cerquone encourages that especially in the early days of the new family, the parent to do the disciplining, not the stepparent. He says that, “Before you can be an active disciplinarian, you have to earn something more than your stepchildren’s perfunctory respect. Until they know you and trust you better, you can’t expect them to listen to you simply because you are now the new dad or mom in the house.” That doesn’t mean you will never be the disciplinarian, but Cerquone warns to start the process slowly. In the beginning, a stepparent should be actively involved in the rule-making, but not in the disciplining when the rules are broken. And be sure to present the house rules as a joint decision, so that the stepparent is not seen as the villain.
Don’t Turn Your Stepchildren into Scapegoats. Cerquone warns that while stepchildren (particularly those in the pre-teen and teen years) can be frustrating, be sure not to blame them for all the problems in your family or relationship with your spouse. Ask yourself if their attitudes and actions are the true problem, or if you more frustrated with something else — finances, your own feelings of being an outsider, or the way your spouse is ineffectively disciplining the children?
Maintain a Sense of Humor. Particularly if you have teens in the house, it will be crucial to maintain a positive attitude. Cerquone says, “A sense of humor will… refresh you as a stepparent… Humor will help you treat teen behavior as something other than the end of the world.” Save your energy for important things by not taking the little things too seriously. Try to have fun with your stepchildren. Cerquone suggests: “Think about occasionally making your points with your stepkids in light ways, for example. Write your concerns in a funny card or an amusing note. Or forget about making any points and just take your stepchildren out for some fun. See a comedy at the movies or spend the day at an amusement park…”
Be Persistent. The process of becoming “family like” will not happen overnight. In fact, therapist Patricia Papernow cautions that it may take several years. But keep working at it, because the benefits of your relationships with your stepchildren will be worth it.
This article is based on the book, You’re a Stepparent… Now What? A Guide to Parenting in Families With Nonbiological Children by Joseph Cerquone.