Stepparents don't get a lot of positive press. Faced, most of the time, with two myths -- “Your partner’s kids will/should adore you!” and “Your partner’s kids will/should hate you!” -- stepparents in general (and stepmothers in particular) find themselves struggling with unrealistic expectations, all-to-real frustrations, and a divorce rate that's higher with each subsequent marriage.
In honor of National Stepfamily Day (Sept. 16), I asked three experts to tell me what they think is the biggest mistake step parents face, and how to avoid it -- or fix it, if it's already happened. I also asked them what they think is the biggest challenge faced by step moms and step dads, and how to address it. An edited version of my interviews with them ran in my "In the Parenthood" column in the Boston Globe's Living/Arts section today, but of course what doesn't make it into the newspaper is as interesting than what gets published (if not more so). Here's the advice they had to offer:
What is the biggest mistake step moms and step dads make, and how can they fix (or avoid) it?
Really the most common mistake I see is not at the level of the stepmom or stepdad as an individual. It's a mistake at the level of the couple: They try to "blend." And believe me, contrary to what the media would have us believe, in the vast majority of remarriages or repartnerships with children, "blending" is a highly unrealistic expectation.
That's why the National Stepfamily Resource Center has asked therapists, stepfamily experts, and the media to stop using the term "blended family." Sure, when couples expect to 'blend" they have the best intentions. But let's think about what the metaphor of blending implies. It implies that the stepfamily is supposed to look, feel, and act like a first family, as if that's the only standard of success.
Plenty of stepfamilies are happy settings for adult and child development, but rarely do they look like first or 'blended families"! Especially in the first years of a remarriage with children of any age, things are likely to be "lumpy and bumpy" as everyone makes enormous adjustments. That's the norm. Kids or adult kids have to share mom or dad in a way they didn't have to during the period of the divorce, the stepparent may be adjusting to no longer being single and having an "insta-family," whether the kids are in residence or not, young or old, and,finally, when both members of the couple have kids from a previous marriage or relationship, there are even more moving parts and hence more complexity in the adjustment process.
The key to satisfaction, the research suggests, is to relax those expectations of "blending" and accept that stepfamilies and stepparents are all different. Depending on the age and temperament of the stepchildren, whether the ex wife or ex husband is supportive of the kids having a relationship with the stepparent, and how supportive the marriage is, relationships between stepparent and stepkids can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum: from very close and loving to polite and civil to prickly but workable. If the married couple (or life partners) lets go of the idea that it has to be all love, all the time, right away, they can figure out a stepfamily dynamic that works for them.
The metaphor of blending is a unrealistic expectation that makes normal stepfamilies feel like failures. And it doesn't describe stepfamily experience accurately.
The other biggest mistake is forgetting to put the marriage or partnership first. A divorced and remarried mom or dad has tons of history with his or her kids, and less with his or her partner/spouse. Because remarriage with kids is so challenging (rejecting stepkids and unsupportive exes put a lot of stress on a marriage!) couples have to really tend to that relationship without feeling guilty.
If the marriage fails, the kids of any age experience another divorce. The whole ship goes down. So remarrieds with kids need to tend well to their spouses and marriages!
As a stepparent it is especially important to respect the child's relationship with their other parent. One of the biggest mistakes is to be critical or hostile toward the child's other parent. Such behaviors can develop into a negative pattern that escalates over time, taking a toll on everyone. Likewise, moving into the role of the child's parent too quickly, or pressuring them to refer to you as "Mom" or "Dad" when they already have a parent creates problems.
If these mistakes have already happened, it is important to start today to behavior more respectfully toward a partner's ex, especially when children are involved. If children have heard hostile comments made about their parent, apologize for the mistake and work toward building a relationship in which children learn that they can trust you will do what you say. Stepparents can be powerful positive role models for stepchildren. An opportunity not to be missed!
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by stepparents is having unrealistic expectations for the new stepfamily, the first and most crucial being that the stepfamily will “blend” over time. While some stepfamilies do “blend,” many don’t. The pressure to blend creates an unrealistic expectation for stepparents to live up to. Some stepparents, especially stepmothers, end up working too hard to fit into the new family by taking over all parental duties – cooking, cleaning, and chauffeuring their stepchildren. This will only frustrate the stepparents more and will rarely lead to blending. When a family doesn’t blend over time -- which happens more often than not -- stepparents naturally feel ashamed and guilt-ridden that they “failed” in some way. The sad truth is that “blending” is an ideal that only occasionally occurs. It is not a reality for most stepfamilies, but fortunately is not a prerequisite for happiness.
Another unrealistic expectation is that stepparents will automatically love their stepchildren, and that the stepchildren will reciprocate that love in return. Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If a stepparent doesn’t love their stepchild, it’s acceptable as long as they provide them kindness, compassion, and respect. No more and no less should be expected of stepparents or of their stepchildren. When an expectation of love is removed, it is easier for the whole stepfamily to just be nice to each other in a genuine way. In turn, this eventually can lead to love.
My advice to these stepparents would be to revise any unrealistic expectations. This could be the key to a happy and adjusted stepfamily. Using some of the following techniques, stepparents can improve their mindset by:
• Substituting positive thoughts for negative ones
• Visualizing positive outcomes which will help you achieve goals for your family
• Using positive affirmation to break negative patterns
• Practicing small acts of kindness which will make your family feel more connected
What is the biggest challenge step moms and step dads face, and how can they address it?
Rejecting kids and adult kids is something that men and women with stepchildren struggle with. They struggle with it because it's HARD! It's all very well and good to tell a stepparent, "Don't take it personally when the kids are nasty to you -- they're only kids." But try actually living it! Particularly when the "kids" are in their 20s, 30s, or older. I think as a culture we need to round out our picture of remarriage with children. We have quite a bit of knowledge about how it affects the kids, and how to support the kids. We have less of a research-based understanding of how it affects the stepparents, and the least knowledge of all about how it affects stepmothers.
That's why bias against stepmothers especially is so rampant. Ignorance and bias -- for example, our common belief that "If she's nice and a good person those kids wil warm right up to her; if they dislike her it's because she's doing something wrong or she's cold and mean" -- really takes a toll on women's self-esteem in particular. So they bend over backwards trying to win the approval or the stepkids or adult stepkids. And become increasingly discouraged, even resentful. It's a downward spiral from there sometimes. But with a comprehensive program of public education, we could address the bias and give stepmothers and stepfathers the tools they need to succeed. Mostly, they need support (from their spouses, friends, family, and society in general), appreciation (particularly from their spouses), and a realistic picture of what they can expect from their stepkids and from themselves.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping expectations realistic for how life will be in a blended family. If the expectation is quick adjustment and instant love all around, that is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. Building trust and new relationships takes time and effort. There are certainly many positives about remarriage, but the reality is that children have a different perspective than their parents. For parents, remarriage is a new life with someone you love and hopes for the future. For children, it feels like an arranged marriage. They may worry that they are being replaced by a new partner and the special place they now have in the family. Adults and children may have a whole range of very mixed emotions, and it takes time for everyone to figure out their new roles and relationships. An entire chapter in my book, Putting children first, addresses these challenges with recommendations based on research on healthy stepfamily relationships.
New stepparents should not try to take on the role of disciplinarian or replace the child's parent, but rather support their new partner in their parenting and having healthy relationships with their children. All of these challenges can create stress on a new marriage. Remarried partners should take time to strengthen their friendship, emotional intimacy and the bonds that attracted them to each other. Communication and addressing problems early on is key. It also helps to find something positive to say about each other--as often as possible! As a stepmother of 4 children for the past 30 years, I can attest to the rewards that can grow out of these important relationships.
Each stepfamily is unique with its own challenges, so it’s difficult to generalize about the biggest challenge they face. In my online survey, completed by more than 3,000 stepmothers, the majority of complaints weren’t about stepchildren. Stepmothers complained that their partners were too lax or inconsistent about providing structure and boundaries for their children to follow after a divorce. This is a common scenario: Mothers and fathers often feel guilty for hurting their children by getting divorced, and are unwilling to dole out appropriate consequences when their children misbehave. This is difficult for stepparents to tolerate, especially when it is not their place to punish their stepchildren. If they do step in, more than likely, stepchildren will end up resenting the stepparent.
If stepchildren misbehave on a regular basis, stepparents should focus their attention on their partners, and encourage them to step up to the plate when it comes to teaching their children appropriate behavior. When clear and fair rules are in place in the home, children will feel secure and will grow and develop in healthy ways.
It is helpful for stepfamilies to establish house rules for everyone in the family to abide by. If stepchildren are old enough, they can even participate in setting up these rules. Often, parents are amused to find that their children establish stricter punishments for breaking a rule than the adults would've done! When everyone in the family has agreed upon the house rules, stepparents and their partners can feel more secure backing each other up when children misbehave.
(Photo of Pedro-Carroll by Antonino Barbagallo)