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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

Six Steps for Coping With Stepfamily Storms

 Over the week-end, we braved severe storms with damaging tornadoes in Central Arkansas. My family and I retreated to our “fraidy hole” more than once to seek protection from our frightful surroundings.

As I listened to the blare of tornado sirens and attempted to comfort my tearful 9-year-old son, I reflected on what options we have during storms. I compared weather storms to emotional storms that occur in stepfamilies. I thought about ways we can cope during stepfamily storms that allow a healthy outcome without a lot of damage. Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Stay calm – don’t overreact. It’s easy to raise your voice and exaggerate what kind of storm you’re dealing with during times of conflict. Solutions don’t emerge naturally when emotions are heightened . If you find yourself out of sorts, it’s best to take a time out and leave the conflict. Be sure to come back later and address the difficulty.

2. Pray for wisdom and guidance for the situation. Find a time and place to be still and listen for God’s direction. Meditate on Scripture and be patient as you search for answers.  James 1:5 tells us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

3. Brainstorm and talk through your options with another person. Seek out an objective party who can help you sort through your emotions and solutions for the conflict. Find a pastor, counselor, or friend who has your best interest at heart and can offer a healthy opinion. My husband and I used a professional counselor in the early years of our marriage to help us get unstuck during periods of heavy conflict.

4. Wait it out. Many times, storms dissipate with time. Don’t jump to conclusions or insist on taking steps that might make matters worse. When my stepson chose to continue living with his stepdad after his mom died, we were devastated. My husband could have demanded that he come live with us right after the funeral, but he believed it would alienate his adolescent son and cause further pain. We waited out his decision, tormented by some of his choices over the next year. Finally my stepson came to live with us with a willing heart after he took the time he needed to grieve with his stepdad and older sister.

5. Take one step at a time when the conditions are right. As solutions emerge, move slowly toward resolution. Take the next healthy step toward reconciling with those involved. Don’t expect harmony overnight but do your part to mend relationships.

6. Maintain a positive attitude and trust God for the results. We may not see an end to our storm, but we can trust God with the results. I love this quote by E.L. Doctorow as applied to stepfamily challenges: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” We may not understand what’s happening around us or see an end in sight but we can choose to keep going anyway while we Let Go and Let God. (AA slogan)

Storms are frightening. We won’t always react as we should or take the right steps, but if we refuse to give up on our stepfamily relationships, we will find solutions in our storms.

Other Posts You Might Like:

It’s Always Too Early to Quit

Confront Conflict Head-On

Conquering Conflict: Get a Grip on Your Pride

Trusting God’s Plan on a Difficult Journey

It’s easy to trust God’s plan when the journey is easy and comfortable. But it’s much harder when the days are long and the circumstances don’t make sense.

That’s the journey my husband and I found ourselves on several years ago. The events of our stepfamily didn’t make sense. I wanted to understand it. But I learned to live by faith, trusting God on the journey.

I included this story in our e-book, Stepping with Purpose. Feel free to download the book for more encouraging stepmom stories.

Trusting God’s Plan

 by Gayla Grace

During his sophomore year of high school, my stepson, Payton, suffered a back injury at an end of season football game that sent him to the hospital. As he was leaving the Emergency Room with my husband, Randy, he confided to his dad with tears in his eyes, “I’m thankful to be living here and be given the care I need.”  Unfortunately, that had not always been the case.

Two years prior, Payton stood by his stepfather in a custody hearing against his dad and boldly stated his desire to continue living with his stepfather and older sister.  His mother had passed away after a year-long battle with cancer, and his stepfather sought legal custody.  We lived more than 300 miles away, but longed to provide the stability and support Payton needed.

Fighting a custody battle came as a complete surprise after Payton’s mom died. But as his biological father, Randy felt certain he would be awarded custody of his son. However, we were unprepared for the accusations and false representation of our family. After hours of testimony at the pre-trial hearing, the judge ruled in favor of Payton residing with his stepfather until a complete custody trial could be scheduled.

We were baffled. We didn’t understand the judge’s decision. But we knew God was in control and sought His divine plan for Payton. I trusted in the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In the upcoming weeks Randy and I agonized over the reality of fighting this battle. We had three other children at home and knew they would be exposed to negative and stressful surroundings. We didn’t want to alienate Payton and finally opted to give up our right to a custody trial, focusing on our long-term relationship with Payton rather than a short-term fix.  We sensed God’s hand at work and wanted to surrender to His plan.

The following year was harder than we expected as we strove to support Payton through his grief while living hundreds of miles away. We were confused, anxious, and discouraged as we watched Payton live in a neglectful environment with unhealthy choices. The journey was hard, but we remained committed to draw closer to Payton and support him through the healing process.

As the months marched on, we noticed subtle changes. Payton began asking to spend more time with us. He seemed to enjoy hanging with his siblings and it appeared that healing and growth were taking place.

And then one day, a turn of events led to an unexpected call from Payton.  He confided in his dad about some drug-dealing activity his step-dad was involved in. Payton had temporarily retreated to his aunt’s house and didn’t know what to do. Randy determined he had to remove Payton from his step-dad’s home immediately. Surprisingly, without opposition or legal proceedings, Payton came to live with us the next week.  It was truly a miracle that only God could orchestrate.

It had been 18 months since his mother died, and Payton seemed relieved to come into our home. It was a smooth transition because he had been given the time he needed to grieve the loss of his mom with his sister and half-brother. He had worked through much of his anger and bitterness with a hospice counselor and could now allow others to reach out to him to further the healing process.  He settled in easily, making new friends and comfortably starting a new school.

Surrendering to God’s plan for Payton was humbling and disappointing at times. I wanted to offer my support as his stepmom through the early stages of his grieving process, but wasn’t given the opportunity.  I came to understand that he couldn’t have accepted my help in the beginning. God had a better plan that allowed Payton to grieve and heal with his stepfather and biological siblings who had suffered the same loss.

By trusting God’s sovereignty, our family gained renewed relationships with one another. I learned to seek God’s guidance and cling to His Word for direction. And although God’s plan might include a difficult journey that I don’t like or understand, I know I can trust it and commit to follow it.

How are you trusting God through a difficult journey? Will you share it with us?

Related Posts:

Overcoming the Pain of Rejection

When Do You Seek Custody of a Stepchild?

Mother’s Day is Coming: How Will You Celebrate as a Stepmom?

In honor of Mother’s Day in 2011, Heather Hetchler and I put together an e-book of encouraging stories written by stepmoms for stepmoms. We offered the book, Stepping with Purpose, to bring hope to stepmoms who often have a difficult day on Mother’s Day.

Stepping with Purpose as a Stepparent

The ebook is still available on my website and Heather’s,  but for the next few weeks  I want to post some stories from the book. I hope you find encouragement from them as we approach Mother’s Day.

Acceptance by Jackie Brown

 There are many events in our lives that are life changing; marriage, childbirth, divorce, death and remarriage. I remarried in October 2006 and I became an “instant full-time stepmom” in February 2008. My husband and I received a phone call on the way home from a beach trip in late February 2008 informing us that my stepdaughter’s mother was in the hospital with heart problems and may not live through the night. Hope’s mother passed away four months later.

My dreams did not consist of being a full-time stepmom at this time of my life. My sons were grown, and raising a child again was a very devastating thought to me. I was still a newlywed and had plans and dreams of traveling with my husband and spending time together. I was also used to going and coming as I wanted. My husband works in the evenings so I had “me” time while he was at work to do things that I wanted to do.

Having a stepchild come into your home to live is very challenging. There can be a war of wills since everyone is adjusting to different lifestyles. I realized my stepchild was entering a different environment in which she had to abide by different rules, habits and traditions. I learned to be patient.

Having my stepdaughter 24/7 was not what I planned. My life became a roller coaster of angry, sad, unhappy, and at times, depressed feelings. The reality is that “I” suffered a loss too … a loss of the way things were and the way I wanted them to be. I learned firsthand that there are many things you have to accept in the role of being a full-time stepmom:

Accept that your time, space and privacy are different than they once were.

Accept that being a stepmom is unfair and lonely at times.

Accept that you may not see the fruits of your sacrifices until the stepchildren become adults.

Accept that there will be many sacrifices that go unnoticed.

After some time and crying out to God, I realized that I had to ACCEPT these circumstances. In the dictionary, acceptance is the “willingness to receive or to welcome.” To accept, you have to believe. You have to come to terms with a reality and choose to live in spite of it. Acceptance has been (and still is at times) a huge battle for me. Here are some things that have helped me through this:

First, I firmly believe this is God’s will for my life at this time. I know without a doubt this is not an accident. I feel that I was put in Hope’s life and she was put in my life for a reason that only God knows. There have been times that I questioned the why’s, but I’m trying to live with acceptance and faith.

Accept this time in your life and take the steps needed to honor God in this. Trust God in ALL areas of your life.

Second, have a plan or a vision about your relationship with your stepchildren. think about your impact and influence on the child today and how it will impact them later in life. What you put into this relationship is what you will get out of it. Spend time with them developing traditions just the two of you have together and traditions as a family. My stepdaughter and I do a Bible study together at Starbucks. It gives us both a time of talking and getting to know each other.

Be yourself with your stepchild and realize that you and her are different. Develop a relationship of trust, love, and guidance.

Give the relationship time to develop. It will not happen overnight. Have patience during this time.

Third, take time alone to unwind, release and relax doing what you enjoy doing – hobbies, exercise, blogging, journaling. Do whatever releases stress for you. Don’t keep stress bottled up. Also, make time to spend alone with your spouse. Have a regular date night without the children.

Finally, have a sense of humor. Laugh at yourself. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Enjoy this time in your life with all the ups and downs and struggles and rewards that come with a stepmom.

In closing, understand that life is just hard at times. As women, we juggle the responsibilities of wife, mom, stepmom, daughter, sister, aunt, friend and employee. Yes, it is scary and unpredictable at times. Recently, my mom told me that I should be honored and humbled that God chose me to be Hope’s stepmom.

Yes, I’m honored and humbled that God chose me. In doing so, He is teaching me to be more like Him. How awesome is that!! And now, I continue on the journey!

Jackie Brown said “I do” for the second time in 2006 to a wonderful man of God. She has two sons, 25 and 28, and step-daughter, 16.

What has been difficult for you to accept as a stepparent? I would love to hear your comments.

Step-Relationships Change as Time Passes

Our family enjoyed a long Easter week-end with four of our five children home. As I watched our kids interact, I couldn’t help but reminisce of times past when we encountered constant bickering and conflict among them. But now, with four of our children in their young adult years and only one child at home, the relationships have matured and grown beyond what I could have ever expected.

In the Easter picture of the kids, it’s interesting to take note of how they arranged themselves. My two biological daughters are on each end with my stepdaughter in the middle. In early pictures of our family, my bio children always stayed close to each other and stood side by side. But as years have changed their relationsips, they easily assume positions next to their step-siblings.

I would love to give easy, pat answers on how to mold relationships in blended families. But there are no easy answers.

It requires time, perseverance, and unending prayer. It requires constant nurturing of your marriage.  It requires going the extra mile when you don’t feel like it. It requires sacrificing some of your needs and wants for the sake of others.

But I can tell you from experience, the rewards are worth the effort.

I know there are days you want to quit. I’ve been there. Especially during the early years of our marriage, I remember thinking that single parenting was easier than trying to blend our family. If my first divorce hadn’t been so painful, I would have probably walked out. But after 16 years as a stepparent, I’m thankful I didn’t give up.

I’m also thankful that step-relationships change as time passes. It’s worth investing your time.

How have your relationships changed? Will you share it with us?

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  Galatians 6:9

Related Posts:

Are You Willing to go the Distance as a Stepparent?

Nuggets of Wisdom from Co-Author Laura Petherbridge: The Smart Stepmom

Coping with Change

 

 

 

 

 

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?