When a man falls in love with a woman who has children, he may wonder if he is up to the task of parenting them. He may even have cold feet about committing to marriage or a partnership because of the children.
Parenting in the best of situations presents challenges. Stepping into a ready-made family can push every button inside a man, challenging both his abilities and his masculinity.
If you are a person who has decided to enter into a relationship with a woman who has children, following certain guidelines can assist in making step parenting or being a significant other in the children’s lives easier for both you and the family.
This sounds controversial, doesn’t it? It is. When entering a ready-made family, to be successful you must recognize that it will take time for the children to accept you as part of the family--perhaps one or two years. This does not mean that you will be out of the loop during this time. It does mean that you will be working your way into the family structure slowly.
The kids may warm up to you initially, and then cool off. They may ostracize you in the beginning, and then let you in. It takes most children a while to develop trust. So, expect that each person, including you, will do his or her utmost to make the new family work. By keeping your expectations low while expecting the best, you will lessen the disappointment you may feel in how long it takes for the new unit to evolve as a family.
Let the children know that you care for them. Some men come into a family like a whirlwind, wanting to let everyone know how happy he is in his now role. He is shocked when the children do not respond in kind. Another man is so cautious that he waits in the wings, hoping the children will reach out. He is disappointed when they do not. Neither of these ways work.
So that you do not fall into either of these traps, communicate your desire to be an integral part of the family by showing interest in the children’s activities. Go to school or sports activities unless they ask you not to. Initially they may feel awkward if their birth dad also attends these events, and they may not want you there. Do not take this as a personal affront. Recognize that forming a new family is as difficult for them as it is for you. As the children grow to know that you are not a threat to their relationship with their birth dad, they will want to have you at their functions.
Invite the children to do activities that you enjoy. They may or may not accept, but your invitation lets them know that you care. If you offer, and do not insist, it usually does not take long for the children to want to participate.
Listen, listen, listen! Children want others to know how special they are. The children of the woman you love will usually talk if they know you are genuinely interested. Do not press for too much information, and do not be judgmental. When they ask questions, make the answers full but brief. The last thing kids want is for an adult to ramble on in his conversation.
A mistake that takes years to overcome is when a man comes into a family and wants to take over as head rule-maker and disciplinarian. Children will resent the man who does this. So that you avoid this mistake and also have input into family discipline, talk with your wife or significant other and the children. Find out what the house rules are. Establish consequences that both you and your partner can enforce equally. When both parents participate in agreed-upon discipline, the children know that they cannot play one of you against the other, and you do not become the bad guy by being the primary disciplinarian.
When you first move into your new partner’s home or when she moves into yours, you can expect that the children will say some mean things. Phrases like, “You can’t do that,” “You’re not my father,” and “I hate you” are common. As much as these comments may hurt, try to not take them personally. This is how children act out their anger at the changes in the family and their fears that this new family may not work out any better than their previous one.
Moving from dating to living as a family changes the relationship you have with your partner. During the courtship, when you were together she could focus exclusively on you. Now that you have become a family, she needs to divide her time between you and the children. If she needs to help with homework, find a task to do around the house that will help her. Let her know that you are helping because you want her to have time to be with you later. If you resent the time she spends with the children or if your attitude implies that you are competing with them for her time and caring, she may build up resentment toward you.
Sit with your partner and plan a date night once every week. If you cannot hire a sitter for the kids, work out an exchange with another couple. If that does not work, plan one night a week where you will spend the evening together after the children are in bed. If the children are older, talk to them about the importance of moms and dads having alone time. Tell them that on the night of choice they will need to keep themselves busy in their rooms after 8:00 p.m. Initially there will be a resistance, but soon it will be apparent that both you and their mom are happier when adult time is built into the family structure.
Respect the traditions of the existing family while creating new ones together. As a stepparent coming into a family, you may feel threatened by existing traditions. Hang in there. If the kids know that you do not want to change everything about their lives, they are more receptive to the ideas that you bring.
Keep positive about the new family. It takes time to create feelings of intimacy. There will be ups and downs as this new family unit develops. Remind yourself that this is a process. All families have their highs and lows. Discuss any negative feelings or concerns with your partner. Most importantly, be patient.
Regardless of how you feel about the children’s birth dad, avoid talking negatively about him. The kids may try to bait you by saying something unkind about their dad, hoping for an agreement. Do not take the bait. Once you do, you become the bad guy. If you attempt to turn the kids against their biological father it reflects poorly on you.
It is not uncommon for a birth dad to attempt to turn the children against the new stepparent. If this happens, ride it out. Seek counseling if you need assistance in handling this painful situation. Ultimately the kids will discover the truth. As long as you remain neutral about their biological father, you are on safe ground.
Step-parenting or parenting the children of a significant other takes courage, patience, and maturity. It takes a willingness to use effective parenting skills consistently while knowing that the children may not always accept or respond to you. It means developing enough inner security that you can trust that your spouse or partner chose you and wants to be with you even in the difficult adjustments with her children.
Use the suggestions from this article and read other Informed Parent articles on effective parenting. Read books on effective parenting and step-parenting. Seek professional assistance when necessary. Taking these steps will ensure that your experience as a stepparent will grow into one that feels rich and rewarding.