Wouldn’t life be more manageable if there was a handbook to handling life-altering situations? Although there are plenty of books and articles based in solid research that discuss different parenting approaches, there isn’t a handbook on preparing you for the emotional ramifications that come with it. As parents, we may not be fully aware of the emotional and mental effects a specific challenge or situation can have on us until we are put into the position to act. We are still evolving and learning about our strengths, our blind spots, and our areas of growth. Taking this into consideration, it would be too simplistic to assume that you know how you are going to handle every parenting “what-if”.
The concept of step-parenting has its own set of multilevel challenges in addition to the ones mentioned above. Children may experience academic related issues, symptoms of depression and conduct disorders, changes in socioeconomic status, a different parenting schedule, new schools, etc. While these challenges are happening, it is no wonder that there is an adjustment period and that it varies family to family.
Now let’s focus on you, the step-parent. In trying to define your role in the family, you are also dealing with some unknowns such as: how the children are coping with the transition of becoming a blended family (if applicable), how the children are processing the emotional loss/adjustment about the concept of their “old” family , and what expectations and/or reactions your spouse will have to your new role as a step parent.
Step-parenting can be a very experimental process for all parties involved. However, if done mindfully, one big benefit that children can gain from the experience is increased resiliency. Children learn how to deal with change, learn to be flexible and begin to see things from different points of view. Below I have outlined some ideas to keep in mind as you are navigating through the moving pieces. These are general ideas and you may have to take some ideas into context based on your unique situation. They should be treated as concepts (not a to-do list) to keep in the forefront and to regularly revisit as the family evolves and as everyone develops their sense of agency.
- Define your boundaries with your partner. You are not there to “replace” the biological parent but instead are there because you love your spouse and realize that their children come as a package deal. In doing so, communication about boundaries will be vital to avoid making assumptions and to be clear of what roles you can play in the child’s life. You may find yourself in a situation where both biological parents are very active and present with their child, and so the last thing needed is for another parent to push their own values and agenda on what they think is best for the child. On the other hand, you may find that you are the parent figure for that child because they do not have an accessible role model. If that is the case, a conversation about what responsibilities you have to the child will be necessary.
- Adjust your focus from being “one big happy family” to enhancing individual relationships. Each member in the family has their own love language, ways of feeling valued, and wants to feel respected. To get to know more about each person, quality time is key. Think about what interests the child has and what you can do to build the adult-child alliance. Age appropriate activities where the child can get to partake in a safe activity free of instructing or critiquing will set the stage for the parent and child to get to know one another in a setting that is child led. Take this time to be present and mindful with the child and enter their world. If you have your own children, it is important to carve out this time for them also in order to avoid feelings of inferiority. Aim for 30 minutes to one hour a week of quality time spent for each child. This relational building approach is most effective when broken down throughout the week rather than just carving out a one-hour time block.
- Create more moments for supported introspection. There will be plenty of times where the child is upset, and they may act out towards you. Something to keep in mind is that the way they express themselves towards you is only one part of the puzzle. What you see on the surface is called a “secondary emotion”. Underneath every secondary emotion is a primary emotion. This primary emotion is what drives what we see. For example, if a child is feeling guilty (primary emotion), they express sadness or anger (secondary emotion). Take time to help the child regulate their emotions by assisting them to identify their feelings, asking them what they need and letting them know you are there to listen when they are ready.
- Find an outlet for yourself. Everyone can benefit from gaining outside perspective to help aid us with our own set of emotions and reactions to this adjustment. Whether it is a therapist, a trusted friend, mentor, etc. It’s important to find someone who will be a sound board to validate your emotions while also highlighting your strengths in order to give you support. They may try to give you advice, which is fine if that is what you are seeking occasionally. Take their advice into context and make informed decisions based on the values shared with your spouse.
- Find ways to enact new rituals to unite the family, not to alienate. There will be opportunities where parents can divide and conquer one on one time. There will also be opportunities where the family can enjoy a group outing. When enjoying these opportunities, be open to flexibility. Time is limited when spending quality time with children.
- Refrain from bad mouthing any of the biological parents in front of the children. At the base of things, this concept is about respect. Children will be watching and paying attention and if they hear their parents talking ill of the other, this will create confusion on the child’s part. There is a high likelihood of eroding confidence and a sense of security to the relationship the child has to their parent. It pits parent against parent and may instill questions of authority. You’re breeding mistrust when there needs to be feelings of security in their parent.
- Keep lines of communication open and as collaborative as possible to talk to all parents involved. All parents are present and represented so that everyone is on the same page about discipline, diet, bedtime, and expectations for the children. It’s not about you getting your input (unless it is welcomed and asked for). It’s about collaborating and following through on values. It’s not your job to change or create the rules but rather support them to the best of your ability.
I want to let you know that you will not have all the answers, and that’s ok! Do your due-diligence and reach out to the resources available. You can revisit these concepts while also practicing self-reflection. Self-reflection is important to see how your actions and mindset may be contributing to the step parenting stressors in your life. Ask yourself; “Am I being the best stepparent that I can be?” If not, think about what blocks need to be tackled in front of you so you can be the best version of yourself. In the meantime, strive for patience and flexibility while you look for moments of appreciation and growth.
Diana Nesko, MS, LGMFT provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Diana!