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A Stepparent's Role

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Latter-Day Saints Perspective

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 non intrusive 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.

References

  1. 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.
  2. Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.

The Family: A Proclamation to the Worlddeclares it the solemn responsibility of husband and wife "to love and care for each other and for their children." Mothers and fathers have distinct but equal responsibilities. By divine plan, fathers are to "preside over their families in love and righteousness and . . . provide the necessities of life and protection. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."

But what about families who don't fit the traditional mold? How do these roles and responsibilities apply to stepfathers and stepmothers working to unite a blended family? The Proclamation states that such circumstances "may necessitate individual adaptation." Modern scripture and other gospel publications give insight into how gospel principles can be adapted to the needs of a blended family.

Build a Foundation on Christ

Build and strengthen your new family with the scriptures and words of Christ. Remember, "Happiness at home is most likely to be achieved when practices there are founded upon the teachings of Jesus Christ".2 Sister Chieko Okazaki wrote, "It seems to me that the Lord has a tender and powerful interest in these second-try marriages. Blended families should make him a partner in their enterprise".3

Church attendance, family home evening, and family prayer can bring togetherness to blended families. "Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed" (3 Ne 18:21).

Seek for Unity

Elder Wells counseled blended families to especially strive for unity. The Lord said, "If ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27). This unity starts with solidarity and love between the parents. It is then built upon shared family goals and time spent together.

One way to develop unity is through family service projects. Elder Wells said of his own home, "Our 'blended family' was successful because we were given love and respect as well as opportunities to serve and sacrifice." He counseled all families to remember the words of the Proclamation: "Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities."

Have Patience and Show Love

The Lord said, "Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast" (D&C 31:9). Stepparenting requires a special measure of patience. "Because emotional attachments between stepparents and stepchildren require time, it sometimes may take years to establish a united and harmonious blended family".5 The principle that love takes time is especially relevant to blended families.

Elder Marvin J. Ashton taught that developing love is a process of patience and persistence. "The Great Shepherd had the same thoughts in mind when he taught, 'If ye love me, keep my commandments' (John 14:15) and 'If ye love me feed my sheep' (John 21:16). Love demands action if it is to be continuing. Love is a process".1

Elder Wells noted that, even after many years, some stepparents may still play a secondary role in the life of their stepchildren. Nevertheless, the stepparent should give relentless love and patience to build that new relationship. "Though some children may be reluctant to bond with a new parent, they should not have to compete for that parent's love. While a stepmother, for example, may never take the place of a deceased parent in a child's heart, she can create a place of her own in that child's heart by showing love and exercising patience."5

Set Your Finances in Order

"And again, verily I say unto you, that every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide, and he shall in nowise lose his crown" (D&C 75:28). Finances can be a complicated matter for blended families. Open communication and frequent family budgeting sessions can help sort things out. The following is an excerpt from Elder Wells' 1997 address:

"All family members need to understand the family's financial situation and monetary constraints. Establishing a sound budget and setting financial priorities with the help of all family members can limit misunderstandings. Review the family's financial situation often, and avoid preferential treatment in money matters. When necessary, advice from a bishop or qualified consultant can be sought.

"Blended families, like all families, need to remember the blessings the Lord has promised to faithful tithe payers.

"'One of the best ways that I know of to pay my obligations to my brother, my neighbor, or business associate, is for me first to pay my obligations to the Lord,' President Joseph F. Smith said."

Successful Stepfamilies are Possible

In a 1997 General Conference, Elder Jerald. L. Taylor thanked the Lord for "my second mother, who loved me as one of her own." Happiness in stepfamilies is possible. Elder Wells wrote that, "Like nuclear families, blended families within and without the Church can be successful, loving, and unified." Unique challenges must be faced. Sacrifices and adjustments must be made. But "Those who pay the price of making their blended families successful can know the joy that comes when we 'live together in love' (D&C 42:45)."4

Written by Megan Gene-Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Ashton, M. J. (1975, November). Love takes time. Ensign, 108-110.
  2. Nelson, R. M. (1999, May). Our sacred duty to honor women. Ensign, 38-40.
  3. Okazaki, C. N. (1998). Disciples. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
  4. Taylor, J. L. (1997, May). Gratitude. Ensign, 33-34.
  5. Wells, R. E. (1997, August). Uniting blended families. Ensign, 24-29.