Say the word “stepmother” and most people conjure a picture of the wicked queen in Snow White or the selfish, cold stepmother of Cinderella. The truth is that few step-parents come close to meeting the character flaws of either of these extreme examples. Yet step-parents often bear the burden of blame for many family issues. The logic behind this process is simple: they are the “outsiders.” When almost every cultural situation is examined, the “outsider” is the first to be blamed when things go wrong. Why would the family dynamic be any different?
Step-parents walk a fine line in the family dynamic. They are often accused of trying to replace the missing parent or of trying to take the custodial parent away from the children. In most cases, nothing could be farther from the truth. Step-parents are usually only guilty of wanting to fit in to a family unit where they have found love and a chance at happiness. Making this transition easy is never truly easy.
There are many things that step-parents should and should not do in order to help the new family dynamic run smoothly.
1) Never say anything negative about the noncustodial parent. Most step-parents are not familiar with the noncustodial parent and have no ground, other than the word of others, for their judgments. However, even if you know the noncustodial parent well, you are not treading on safe ground when it comes to the health of your new family if you choose to make negative comments. Regardless of what this person may or may not have done, they are the biological parent of the children in your new household. That bond will always be exist.
2) Make it clear that you are not trying to replace a biological parent. Whether or not the biological parent is still in the child’s life, always be certain that the child knows that they can never be replaced by another person. At the same time…
3) Do not assume a role of “friend” to the child(ren); you are NOT their friend. You are assuming a parental role in their lives – that of a step-parent. You love their custodial parent and are entering the family dynamics because you want to become a part of that parent’s life. As a result, you are now a part of their child(ren)’s lives. Your role will be as varied as that of any parent, with one exception – there was someone there before you. You are now ANOTHER parent – the children for whom you care no longer are limited to two parents – they have more.
4) Remember that the biological parents know their child(ren) much better than you. While there are advantages to the perspective of an “outsider looking in”, they are rarely more advantageous than the perspective of the parent who has raised the child from infancy. Suggestions are wonderful; decisions should be made as a couple, with the custodial parent having the final say. At the same time, there are always situations where it seems that the child(ren) are “getting over” because of guilt issues with the parent. In which case…
4) Suggest family counseling. Even if you must suggest from the perspective that you would like assistance in defining your role in the family, family counseling is an excellent choice for dealing with the new family dynamics and everyone’s new roles. This can be an excellent forum for working out all types of issues – even ones that you are not aware exist.
There are a few parenting tips extend to step-parents with the same importance as any other parent. Patience is a must. Communication is a vital key. Listening is twice as important as speaking. Finally, remember that families are not all about seriousness. Take some time to allow the new family to adjust to one another in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Children are going to test and try their parents – especially step-parents. Remember that no one passes every test. Just give them – and yourself – your best.