Parenting Resolutions for the Not-So-Perfect Stepparent

Happy New Year! What are you doing to make 2016 your best year as a stepparent?

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Can I give you a few thoughts to consider? Start here—don’t insist on being perfect.

We set ourselves up to fail when we try to do everything perfectly, expecting that will create the relationship we’re hoping for with our stepchild.

This year, instead of making resolutions on how to be a better stepparent, I encourage you to make room for imperfection and second chances.

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Step Parenting Blended Families

What I’ve Learned in 19 Years as a Stepmom

My husband and I celebrate 19 years of marriage today. All four of the kids in our wedding picture are grown – we have only an “ours” child still at home – 13-year-old son Nathan.

I love the way my friend Heather Hetchler counts years in stepfamilies – # of kids X years married, so in stepfamily years, we’ve been married 95 years! Wow! That’s a long time!

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How to Cope with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

I’m addressing a question today I received from a reader. How do you cope as a stepmom when you’re dealing with a biological mom who is belittling to you and doesn’t want you in her children’s lives?

The stepmom role becomes harder when the bio mom makes every effort to exclude you from her children’s lives. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. At the root of this issue lies the fear that the bio mom feels the children are going to bond with the you – the stepmom, and form a deeper relationship with you than they have with her.

It’s an unfounded fear because children almost always have a stronger relationship with their biological parents than they have with a stepparent. However, she’s reacting out of her own fear and communicating to her children that she wants their loyalty. Women are territorial when it comes to their children. If you have children of your own, you understand these feelings, but it doesn’t give the bio mom the right to act belittling or antagonistic  toward the stepmom.

To help alleviate the threat the bio mom is sensing, the stepmom needs to send a message that she has no intention of interfering with the relationship between the bio mom and her children and isn’t trying to replace her in any way. In their book, The Smart Stepmom, Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal give an example of how to communicate this message which they call “The No-Threat Message.” They suggest doing it in person or via e-mail if the relationship is already strained.

“Dear Meghan, since we are both involved with your kids, I wanted to take a minute to communicate with you. I want to share that I totally understand and respect that you are the only mother of these children. I’m not their mom, and I will never try to take your place. They are your children. I am honored to be an added parent figure in their lives. I view my role as one of support to their father, and my desire is to be a blessing to them. I promise to speak well of you and work together for their benefit. I desire to make their lives easier, not more difficult. Please know that I pray for the entire family. If there’s anything I can do to help the situation or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

Sending the no-threat message doesn’t guarantee the bio mom will accept your position in her children’s lives but it offers her some perspective on how you feel about your role. She is more likely to allow a relationship between you and her children if she doesn’t feel threatened by your behavior and sees you live out the No-threat message.

Unfortunately, some bio moms are mean-spirited and vindictive. In this case, there’s not a lot the stepmom can do to have an amicable relationship. For further insight, I suggest reading the chapter from The Smart Stepmom, “Meet Your Ex-Wife-in-Law: Friend or Foe.” It gives additional scenarios of how to cope with a difficult ex-spouse.

What suggestions would you give this reader? I’d love to hear them.

Picture by Grant Cochrane

Related Posts:

Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Creating Healthy Boundaries with Your Ex-Spouse

Recognizing the Need for Boundaries

What is Your Role as a Stepparent: Friend or Parent?

 In working with stepparents recently, I’ve noticed a common thread that spells disaster in the  early years of stepfamily development: the tendency for the stepparent to play a strong disciplinary role instead of allowing the biological parent to be the primary parent to his/her children.

I recognize the pattern because it happened in our home in the early years of our marriage.  Struggling with leftover guilt from my divorce, remarriage, new step-siblings for my children, and constant change, I became a permissive parent. I didn’t want to address misbehavior or dole out consequences. So my husband began doing it instead.

My husband’s intentions were good but the fall out of his actions was not good. His relationship with my girls wasn’t strong enough to withstand the negative side of parenting that occurs with discipline.   And it set him up to fail as he became an unlikeable stepparent.

Stepfamily authority Ron Deal says, “Kids will love an unlikeable parent, but rarely even like an unlikeable stepparent.” 

Tough words. It doesn’t seem fair. But it’s reality.

Stepparents cannot afford to overstep their boundaries. If we want to establish a long-term, loving relationship with our stepchildren, we have to start as a friend, rather than a parent.  The biological parent needs to take the primary disciplinary role as much as possible.

With younger stepchildren, the disciplinary role may move quicker into the hands of the stepparent if a loving, trusting relationship develops. But with older stepchildren, ages eight and up, it’s likely to take longer.

Other factors influence stepfamily relationships. My daughters’ father resisted any type of relationship between them and their stepdad and made confusing, negative remarks about my husband. It slowed down the relationship-building process because of the loyalty conflict they endured.

When my stepson lost his mother after a battle with colon cancer, our relationship took several strides backward. Grief, anger, and confusion surrounded my stepson. Although I had moved into a disciplinary role after several years of marriage, I reverted to a friend role. I allowed my husband to take over the primary disciplinary position again because my stepson began fighting against my maternal role.

If the biological parent takes a passive disciplinary role, problems ensue. Children need to be held to behavioral standards, and if the biological parent neglects his/her role, it’s natural for the stepparent to step in. But that’s not the answer. In The Smart Stepmom, co-authors Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal commit an entire chapter to the importance of engaged fathers: “Dad Smart: She Can’t Do It Without You.” Recommended reading if you’re suffering in this area.

Stepchildren come in all sorts and sizes. Some will embrace a stepparent in their lives, quickly developing a loving relationship, which allows you to begin a disciplinary role almost immediately. However, most will not. Allow the child to set the pace and determine your role as your relationship develops for a better chance at a meaningful, long-term relationship.

Do you agree? What has been your experience as a friend or parent to your stepchildren? I would love to hear your comments.

Related Posts:

Learning to Accept the Things You Cannot Change

What is our Role as a Stepparent?

The Danger of Comparing Your Stepfamily to Another

Five Great Ways to Celebrate Mother’s Day as a Stepmom

One of the hardest hurdles to cope with as a stepparent is the reality that we make the same sacrifices as a biological parent but  reap very few rewards for our efforts. In his book, The Smart Stepfamily, Ron Deal gives three reasons why the stepmother role is even more difficult than the stepfather role.

“First, children tend to maintain more frequent contact with their noncustodial mothers. Second, children’s attachment to their biological mother is believed to be stronger than their attachment to their father, making the acceptance and bonding with a stepmother even more difficult. Third, because society expects women to achieve a higher relational standard than men, stepmothers feel greater pressure to build a strong attachment with stepchildren.”

We know it’s not easy being a stepmother, right? Thus, we have every reason to celebrate and affirm ourselves on Mother’s Day for what we do for our stepchildren. But we don’t have to wait and let our stepchildren’s response control our day.

It’s natural for stepchildren to honor their biological mom on Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, that could mean the stepmom gets left out.

So why not choose to create your own special day? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Spend Saturday night at a Bed and Breakfast and wake up Sunday morning to a scrumptious breakfast prepared for you. Re-connect with your spouse as you reminiscence and celebrate the good things happening in your stepfamily.

2. Find another stepmom who’s  having a difficult time and spend the afternoon with her. Encourage her efforts and talk through her challenges. Laugh together and affirm each other for the special role you’re playing as you’re making a difference in your stepchildren’s lives.

3. Abandon your house and spend the day at a nearby lake, beach, bike path or hiking trail. Absorb the beauty of nature and remind yourself of God’s love for you through His creation, His sovereignty over your life, and His willingness to walk with you through difficult times.

4. Attend your favorite church service with a beautiful corsage on, signifying the important role you play as a stepmom. Then spend the afternoon with your spouse creating a “God box” that outlines prayer concerns for your stepfamily on small pieces of paper. As you drop each concern in the box, pray for your family’s needs. Keep the box going for an entire year and re-visit the box next year to see how God has answered your prayers.

5. Give yourself the gift of relaxation with a good book, time at the movies or a day at the spa with a girlfriend. Eat at your favorite restaurant and tell your family you’ll be taking the day off from chores. Pamper yourself in whatever way feels special to you.

Mother’s Day doesn’t have to be a difficult day for stepmoms. Plan your own celebration! You deserve it!

How are you celebrating this week-end? I would love to hear about it!

Related Posts:

Celebrating Mother’s Day as a Stepmom

More Mother’s Day Thoughts

Overcoming the Pain of Rejection

Helping Stepchildren through Loss

“So how do you tell the world you have lost your baby and they have lost her too. Stella is gone from here and suffers no more. She left us around noon and we are thankful for her peace. We are exhausted with grief, which is the best description I can give of the way I feel.”
These words were penned this week by the mom of the young girl pictured. I’ve prayed fervently for this family as I’ve watched their child suffer through aggressive chemotherapy for brain cancer — to no avail. Stella Rose fought a hard fight but the cancer won. And this family will never be the same.

Coping with loss is never easy. I can’t imagine how this family will deal with the loss of their baby girl.

The death of a young child is not the same kind of loss experienced in a stepfamily. However, the losses our stepchildren encounter as a result of death or divorce are significant. And when we don’t acknowledge their loss or we choose to minimize their feelings, it hinders their ability to work through their feelings and adjust to stepfamily life.

So, how do we help our stepchildren cope with loss? First, we allow them to talk about their other parent when they’re in our home. We ask if they want to have pictures of their parent in their room, or other items that help them feel comfortable. We don’t compete with the other parent or try to replace that parent for our stepchildren.

It also helps to remember that loyalty conflict is a result of the loss our stepchildren feel. My husband and I had been married more than 10 years when my stepchildren lost their mother to cancer. I had a good relationship with my stepchildren but after her loss, my stepson became very distant for awhile. He struggled with how to integrate his grief over his mother’s death with his feelings toward me. As he worked through his grief with a counselor and allowed time to heal his hurt, he was able to come back to a relationship with me.

Loss can affect everyday temperament, causing mood swings and emotional outbursts. Some children naturally handle emotions better than others, but if your stepchild shows unstable emotions regularly, it might be time to consider professional help.

Stepfamilies are born of loss. Especially in the early years of marriage, it’s likely that stepchildren will struggle with a confusing set of emotions because of loss. Be sensitive and compassionate toward them, encouraging them to talk through their feelings while helping them process their loss. Don’t be reluctant to seek professional help if necessary.

How have you helped your stepchildren cope with their loss?