As a stepparent, you may face difficulty fitting into the new family. Since you may be viewed as an "outsider," you may encounter surprisingly stiff resistance to your inclusion in the family, in the form of unexpectedly powerful and negative feelings such as jealousy and resentment, as well as your own confusion and sense of inadequacy. Your role in the family, especially early on, is ill-defined and you may end up trying out several different roles before finding one that "fits." While this lack of definition can be stressful and confusing, it also gives you the freedom and latitude to determine a role all your own.
It's important that you and your spouse decide together the best way for you to be involved as a stepparent. In many families, stepparents take on a role that is less "parental." For example, when my stepfather entered our family, three of the children were grown and two were teenagers. Pete took on the role of playmate and skill teacher, introducing my brother and me to tennis and woodworking. However, if our family had consisted of younger children, a more nurturing involvement on his part would have made more sense.
Experts agree that what is most important is that you establish a relationship with your stepchildren that is mutually satisfying. Here are some suggestions for doing just that.
- Give yourself and your stepchildren time to get to know one another. Relationships develop slowly, so allow lots of time for bonds to form. Spend time getting to know each stepchild one-on-one without competition from biological parent-child relationships. It's natural for stepchildren to resist this at first. During that one-on-one time, do things that you both enjoy.
- Hold realistic expectations for yourself. Resist the myth of instant love. Don't expect that you will automatically love your stepchildren or that they will love you. If love develops, super! But aim for mutual respect. You may fall victim to rejection and displaced hostility from your stepchildren. Thus, you may occasionally feel as if your stepchildren don't like you, which may make you hesitant and uncomfortable. Try assuming an "as if" position, where you act toward your stepchildren as if they really cared for you. Try not to take their displaced reactions too personally. Remember that you come into the family after the children are likely to have experienced many losses. It will take time for stepchildren to warm up to someone new.
- Don't expect stepchildren to call you "Dad" or "Mom." Instead, let the children decide on what to call you. Some children choose to call their stepparent "Father Bill" or "Mother Julie" or some other term that is comfortable for them. However, most children, except those who were very young when the stepparent entered the family, call their stepparent by their first name.
- Share skills and interests you have that might interest your stepchildren. These abilities and aptitudes will distinguish you from the other parents and reduce the likelihood that you will be viewed as competing with the biological parents. For example, in my family my stepfather taught us tennis and entered us in tournaments. We played and watched a lot of tennis together. He was also a master woodworker.
- Leave the disciplining role to the biological parent, and support the parent in this and other areas behind the scenes. As respectful relationships form, the time may come that you can successfully share this role with your spouse. It is quite appropriate that the biological parent allow the stepparent to participate in decisions and activities surrounding discipline as the stepparent-stepchildren relationships develop. If you and your spouse have difficulty coming to an agreement on discipline and parenting, take a parenting class together. Forge an approach that fits your family's needs.
- Stepparents have little or no legal responsibility for their stepchildren. The biological parent is wise to give you legal permission to act when necessary, especially in the case of an emergency.
- Show interest in and involve yourself in a nonintrusive way in stepchildren's activities, interests, and accomplishments. Attend concerts, praise specific achievements, and do other things that show you care and are proud of your stepchildren. Be involved in school, religious, sports, and other activities with the family.
- Look for ways to send messages to stepchildren that you trust them. For instance, allowing teens to borrow your car for a date might be a nice way to build a connection. And the favor will probably not be forgotten.
- Don't play favorites. You will almost certainly have closer, stronger feelings for your own children than your stepchildren. But if you want to build connections with your stepchildren, you must separate your actions from your feelings. Treat your stepchildren with the same respect and consideration you show your own children, even though real caring has not yet developed.
- Don't attempt to replace or compete with the absent parent and never badmouth him or her. As one stepfather put it, "If stepparents try to set themselves up as equal parents, they set themselves up for failure."
- Find groups supportive of stepfamilies. Communities may have an ongoing stepfamily support group, or one could be organized. Support groups bring people together who share similar concerns to encourage and learn from one another.
- Get more educated. The National Stepfamily Resource Center (www.stepfamilies.info) is a great resource and link to lots of helpful advice for successful stepparenting.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Fitzpatrick, J., Williamson, S., Duncan, S. F., & Smith, T. (1989). The remarried family: Meeting the challenge (Publications 607A-H). Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.