In last month’s article, “Parenting Another Man’s Kids”, we offered suggestions to men dealing with this difficult situation. This month we will focus on women who parent the children of their spouse or significant other. While some of the issues are the same, how women approach them are different.
Moving into the role of stepparent is not easy. If you have children of your own, it means working to comfortably incorporate them into the newly formed family. If you have not parented before, it means learning a new set of skills with children who may not be as receptive as you would like. Regardless of your situation, there are some guidelines that can assist in making your role as stepparent both easier and more rewarding.
Many women are born nurturers. They fall easily into the role of caretaker. While your role as a stepmother is one of caring for and loving the children, you are not replacing their mother. Sometimes this is hard to remember. You bring your special talents to the children’s lives that will enhance the relationship while accepting that their mother will always be just that--their mother.
One of my friends married a man with teenage children who lived with Anne (not her real name) and their dad. Anne was a hair stylist. The new stepdaughter loved having her fix her hair for dances or special events. This girl’s birth mother did not assume an active role in parenting; however, she wanted to be at all the special events and enjoyed helping her daughter choose outfits for the occasions. This young woman liked the attention from both Anne and her mom. She felt proud when her friends asked Anne to style their hair. Anne brought to the relationship loving, acceptance, and a willingness to see what her teenage stepdaughter wanted from her.
Sometimes children want to make you feel like the mean ogress portrayed in fairy tales. They talk back and say hurtful things to you. While this is a way that they are handling their frustration, anger, and fear, it is not appropriate. You need to deal with it. It is never acceptable for children to verbally abuse you.
Sit with your spouse or significant other and tell him the situation using “I messages”. You might say, “I feel hurt when the children tell me they wish you had never met me. I need us to talk to them together.” By using an “I message”, you will engage your partner without him becoming defensive.
After you and your partner have talked, sit with the children together. Tell them your feelings using “I messages”. You and your partner both need talk about your concerns and offer the children alternative ways of expressing their anger and fears.
Some women try too hard with kids. They may gush over them or, if the children are older, they may try to act cool. Just be you. Be friendly and interested. Ask before you hug or kiss. It may be awhile before the children want to express this kind of intimacy with you.
A family meeting is a regular time set aside to handle family problems and plan family events. Discuss one topic at each meeting. One of the first should focus on setting standards for the newly formed family. Decide on what the standards will be and what the consequences will be for non-compliance. One standard for families needs to be ”We speak respectfully to each other.”
Sometimes when a man remarries, he expects his new wife to move into the role of primary parent. This does not work. Co-parenting is optimal in the best of family situations and mandatory in newly formed families. Decide together on discipline strategies and support each other in their implementation. Be clear with the children that you both agree with discipline that is employed so that they do not attempt to play you against each other. Share in the parenting responsibilities such as driving the children to school or soccer practice.
Plan to attend the children’s special events unless they ask you not to. Initially they may feel uncomfortable having you at an activity if their birth mother is also there. Their discomfort usually subsides with time. When you do go to an activity where their mother is present, they may ignore you or they may show their mother extra attention. Recognize that this is their attempt to let their mom know that she is still special to them even though they care for you enough to invite you to their functions.
Communication is the key to relationships. Listen to what the children say. Ask questions (but not too many!) about their activities. Reflect back to them what you have heard them say when they express feelings. The children want to know that they are important to you even though they may appear to be sabotaging the relationship.
The children need to know that you and your partner love each other and enjoy being together. Find time to spend alone with each other. Hire a sitter. Exchange sitting with friends. Create a romantic evening after the children have gone to bed. Let the children know that families work better and are happier when the parents have some time alone together.
Starting a new family is difficult. Establishing an intimate and dynamic family when the children have a relationship with their father and birth mother is challenging. It is also exciting. If you can develop patience, remain positive, and practice the best parenting skills you can learn, success is likely.
The responsibility of parenting your spouse or significant other’s children is a process. Rarely does the new family look like the fantasy that you and your partner had when you decided to become a couple. Do not become discouraged. Increase your parenting skills by reading other articles from The Informed Parent. Read books on effective parenting and step parenting. Attend parent groups. Sometimes the task is too big to handle alone or problems arise where you need special assistance. Seeking the services of a professional can be helpful during these times. Having an objective person listen to the concerns and needs of each family member, reflecting them in such a way that the family can hear, and offering suggestions can preserve both the family and the couple relationship. It is through the highs and lows of creating a new family that you will grow as an individual and reap the rewards of step parenting.