Parenting in stepfamilies is not straight forward – for stepparents or biological parents. It doesn’t work like parenting in a first-time family. Parenting in stepfamilies is more complex to navigate, has extra complications and external pressures. It is also richer allowing for fulfilling relationships based on true acceptance . There’s a lot there! And so it’s no surprise then that building a stepfamily takes a whole lot of W-O-R-K.
In fact, research shows that the first few years of forming a stepfamily is likely to filled with a great deal of conflict while everyone – parents, stepparents, children, extended family, the Ex – adjusts to the transition. Conflict doesn’t mean you’re failing as a stepfamily. It just means you are working things out just as all couples, families and anyone in a relationship needs to do.
With conflict comes underlying tension and friction. Even though conflict will be inevitable, there are a number of things that a biological parent can do to reduce tension and friction in your stepfamily. For some parents and partners, this comes rather naturally. For others, your stepfamily can feel like a mine field. Tension blowing up everywhere with every move you make. If this is your stepfamily, we’ve got a few tips and strategies to help:
Have a good solid look
at your expectations for your stepfamily.
And, get rid of any first-family expectations. They have no place in stepfamily life. Deep down are you expecting your partner and your kids to love each other immediately? Are you assuming your partner will take on all the ‘motherly’ or ‘fatherly’ roles for the kids that your Ex used to do when you were together? Are you getting angry or disappointed when these things don’t happen? Having first-time family expectations for your stepfamily is a huge tension builder!
Both your partner and your kids may be anxious and wondering how to behave and what is expected of them in their new roles as a stepparent and a stepchild. You can help them by not placing any first-time family expectations them or your stepfamily. Your kids and your partner love you immensely, but that doesn’t mean they automatically love each other. And, they don’t have to for your stepfamily to be successful.
Your partner is a stepparent. Slotting them directly into a mother or father role is likely to cause confusion and loyalty issues for your kids, friction for the Ex and uncertainties for your partner. Many stepparents in this situation find themselves wondering why everyone is upset with them when they are just trying to do the right thing.
Want to reduce the tension? Stay the primary parent. Keep packing those lunches and doing the school drop-offs. Talk openly and often with your partner about what role he/she and the kids are comfortable with them taking. Develop a parenting plan with your partner for your home. And, while things naturally evolve you keep doing the primary parenting.
Model and make it
clear that civil and respectful interactions are the glue that makes it all
Between the kids and your partner. Between you and your Ex. Between your Ex and your partner. With your parents and siblings. Be clear that no one, including you, expects anyone to like or love each other (especially at the start), but everyone must be civil and treat each other with respect.
Remain the main
There are a number of things needed to make discipline effective for children, but first and foremost it must come from someone with whom they have an emotional bond.
In the beginning, a stepparent focussing too much on rules and discipline can and will stall their relationship with your kids. To help your partner and kids build a positive relationship especially in the very early days, it can be helpful for you to delegate authority to your partner much as you would with a baby-sitter. You telling your kids that when you are not around you partner will be enforcing your rules is important for reducing conflict.
You and your partner agreeing to those rules and what they look like is a great foundation to developing a parenting team that leads to stepfamily success. Whether you choose to share with the children that the rules were developed by you and your partner together is completely up to you! The important thing is that the children see the person they have the strongest connection with explaining and providing clear expectations around house rules.
Along with minimising the opportunity for your kids to be conflicted about taking directions from an adult with whom they do not yet share an emotional bond, it also takes the ‘bad guy’ status off your partner. It is in not a way to reflect an unequal relationship between you and your partner. What it does reflect is acceptance and acknowledgement of the different relationship your partner, as the stepparent, has with the children at this point in time.
Connection before correction is key for building a successful stepfamily.
Remain the main
It may be tempting to let your partner step in and deal with the other parent in an attempt to diffuse a strained relationship. But this typically ends up with raising frictions rather than reducing them and it’s unfair position for your partner.
Of course stepparents can join in with co-parenting if that’s what you both decide you want and the Ex is receptive. But it does mean another adjustment for everyone to manage. If your Ex isn’t open to it or your partner isn’t ready, it really can wait for however long is needed so as not to add additional conflict. As long as you include your partner in any parenting decisions that may impact them and/or your home, you can be the mouthpiece for you both with the Ex never even knowing.
Have a ‘both/and/and’
attitude with your time.
Spend time with your kids and partner together (both), spend
time with just your kids (and) and make sure to have couple time alone as well (and)
– even when the kids are with you. Even if you have them every other weekend
and are worried about missing out. Your couple relationship may be the only
healthy one that your kids have experienced. Let them see what works to make a
relationship work so they’ll know what to do when they are older.
It’s also important to maintain your ‘touch points’ with both
your kids and your partner. If your kids are used to you reading them a book
and putting them to bed since your separation,
keep that going. If you and your partner dance together every time you
hear a certain song, don’t stop doing it when your kids are present. Maintain
your touch points. They are provide some stability and reassurance during this
time of change and transition.
Help the stepparent feel
less like an outsider.
All kids go through stages where they feel closer to one parent than another. It’s a normal part of child development and growth. In first-time families, this closeness generally shifts back and forth from one parent to another and can cause a bit of hurt for the parent who isn’t ‘in’ at the moment.
In stepfamilies this same phenomenon occurs, but there generally isn’t any shifting back and forth between the adults as to who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The stepkids feel closer to their biological parent (rightly so) and the stepparent gets stuck in an outsider role, which hurts and creates frictions.
You can help your partner out by:
Acknowledging their feelings about being left out.
Take some steps to lessen those feelings by encouraging and supporting a relationship to build between the kids and your partner. Encourage your partner and kids to do one-on-one ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ activities like hiking, cooking or playing video games. These activities take the pressure of for both kids and stepparents because they are less conversationally intense. But, make sure you have your partner’s back. If making cupcakes or playing Monopoly is your kids and your Ex’s special thing, give your partner the ‘heads-up’.
Find activities you can do as a family that your partner and your kids are good at, but you aren’t. Letting your partner and kids have something in common puts them a little bit closer and places you in a bit of the ‘outsider’ role for awhile.
Reconnect with your partner whenever you are disrupted. Kids are disruptive to adult time. That’s what they do. Be conscious of when those times happen in your stepfamily and make it a priority to reconnect with your partner. A quick cuddle, bringing up the conversation that was interrupted as soon as you can, it all matters and helps to reduce tension in your home.
Keep your bedroom antics
in the bedroom.
You and your partner may not be able to keep your hands off each other, but if you want to reduce friction in your home save it for the bedroom. No kid wants to watch their parent getting it on. This can be a particularly sensitive area for kids if the Ex is not coping with the divorce/separation or you and your partner formed your relationship prior to you separating from their other parent.
We’d love to hear about other tips or tactics you have to reduce the friction and tension in your stepfamily. Let us know in the comments below.
Do you have someone you care about who is or is becoming a stepparent?
Do they turn to you for advice and support, but you feel a bit out of your depth when it comes to stepfamilies and feel a bit confused about how to support a stepparent who is having a tough time?
Then, this post is for you…and anyone else who cares about someone involved in stepfamily life.
‘First supporters’ or those people we turn to first for the support, advice and reassurance we need when we face difficult times are key to our wellbeing. Research shows having friends and family members to confide in is a buffer against poor mental health. We all need first supporters and it also has a positive impact on our own life outcomes when we can be a first supporter to others. If you haven’t already, you may find yourself becoming a ‘first supporter’ to someone involved in the stepfamily life.
Stepfamilies are the fastest growing family type in most Western countries.
People with kids divorce or separate. It’s a fact. Given the stats it’s bound to happen to someone you know. The question really is not IF you will be a first supporter to a someone involved in stepfamily life, but DO you feel equipped to provide the support and perspective to a friend, colleague or family member is seeking?
If not, you definitely are not alone. Most people, even those living in stepfamilies, aren’t well versed on the dynamics and relationship development involved in forming a stepfamily. But what any stepparent will know from their own personal experience is that stepfamilies differ significantly from first-time families. The standard solutions and relationship advice they tend to receive just doesn’t fit their stepfamily circumstances.
Unlike for first-time couples or new/expectant biological parents, there isn’t the same level of collective wisdom surrounding stepfamilies for those involved to draw on.
This can leave many stepparents feeling isolated and alone wondering why no one seems to really understand what it’s like for them as a stepparent. To avoid this, we’ve listed some tips and information below to help you better support the stepparent in your life who may be going through a tough time.
Research shows there are four key actions that make someone a good confidant to anyone in need no matter what the issue – grief, work conflicts, financial dilemmas and/or stepfamily dynamics:
1. Listening isn’t nothing. In fact, when being a first supporter listening is everything. People who turn to you to air a problem want space to talk. You actively listening is just what they need.
2. Most people don’t want to hear about a similar situation you have been in. Great news for those of you who don’t have any experience with stepfamilies. But, it is also true in all situations – whether you have similar experiences as the person confiding in you or not. People seeking support generally feel the person they sought out for advice telling them about their experience with a similar issue is pretty unhelpful. What they are seeking is acknowledgement of their unique circumstances and how it impacts them as an individual.
3. Show up. Attention heals the soul. Many times it’s not about what you say, but what you do. Showing up and being available for the drink after work, the Saturday early morning jog or afternoon coffee makes a hell of a difference all by itself.
4. Open ended questions are always the way to go. Instead of listing a number of fixes to the problem that has your friend/relative feeling low, try asking open-ended questions. Questions like the ones below are definitely worth a try:
• How are you managing that?
• What does that look like for you?
• That must be tough. How are you coping?
• How is it going with co-parenting… the new mother-in-law… the teenage stepdaughter?
What a stepparent (or anyone for that matter) won’t find useful when turning toward you for help and advice is criticism or judgement. Open-mindedness and acceptance always. No matter what.
When it comes to stepfamilies, there is also a great deal of well-intentioned but useless advice out there for public consumption.
You may find you having been steering your friend or relative down the wrong path without even realising what you were doing.
It is also important to acknowledge that being a stepparent is hard. Any stepparent turning to you for support is not dramatising. It is absolutely normal for a stepparent to feel overwhelmed, uncertain and anxious – especially in the early years of their stepfamily forming. Academics and researchers have been studying stepfamilies for decades and have found that not only is forming a stepfamily a complex process full of conflict, but it also can negatively impact on a stepparent’s mental wellbeing.
Helping a stepparent find her or his way through the numerous myths and unrealistic expectations held around stepfamilies is some of the best support you can provide.
Myth: Being part of a stepfamily is uncommon and something to be embarrassed about.
Reality: According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, approximately one in ten couple families contain resident stepchildren. The Pew Research Center reports that more than 40% of American adults have at least one step-relative in their family. Being a part of a stepfamily is far from uncommon or anything to be embarrassed about.
Myth: We should be ‘blended’ or feeling a happy family within a few months, or at least a year.
Reality: Research shows that it generally takes several years (like 5 to 7) to truly establish trusting relationships and family ties. This is especially true when the kids are between the ages of 9-15. This doesn’t mean your friend/relative is doing something wrong. It’s just that stepfamily formation is complex and really are a marathon process not a sprint.
Myth: I love my partner, so of course I will love their children (and, vice versa).
Reality: There is no instant love in stepparent-stepchild relationships. Loving someone does not mean we automatically love every other person they are related to. Just think of your in-laws! It is completely normal for your friend/relative not to feel close to their partner’s children—certainly at first and maybe ever. Stepparents do not need to love or even like their stepchildren to have a successful stepfamily. Working towards cooperation, civility, and respect key to stepfamily success and many times to a stepparent’s sanity!
Myth: Once a stepfamily forms, the Ex no longer matters.
Reality: Barring abuse, kids do best when their biological parents are involved and an important part of their lives. All adults should work to make maintain the children’s relationships. Unresolved feelings about an Ex won’t just disappear because someone has fallen in love or remarried.
Myth: Stepchildren should immediately accept a stepparent as an authority figure in their lives.
Reality: Experts agree that it is often best for birth parents to take the lead on discipline – especially in the early months/years of the stepfamily forming. Connection before correction is the mantra of all successful stepparents. Older children and teens can become quite resentful at a new adult trying to ‘boss them around.’ It can be helpful for a new stepparent to see themselves taking on the role of an Auntie, mentor or adult friend in these circumstances.
Myth: All relationships in a stepfamily should be treated as equal.
Reality: It’s not productive or realistic to pretend that step-relationships are identical to relationships between birth relatives. They are different for a variety of reasons – some of which are listed in the image below:
Myth: First-time families are best for children.
Reality: Researchers have consistently found that family type (first, adoptive, single parent, same-sex or stepfamily) does not determine how happy, academic progress, or social adjustment of the children. What negatively impacts children is exposure to prolonged conflict. It is the quality of relationships, that matters – not type of family structure.
Myth: Having a parenting agreement/custody arrangements in place means there will be no more changes.
Reality: If kids are involved, parenting schedules can definitely change – legally or due to the child’s preference. While this can be upsetting, it’s important to know that it isn’t atypical.
Myth: Stepfamilies must blend to be successful.
Reality: Whipping everyone together until you can’t see where the members of a family start or finish should NOT be the goal of any stepfamily. In fact, what works for developing successful stepfamilies is quite the opposite of ‘blending’. The reality is you can’t force togetherness and expect to get a positive outcome. Members of stepfamilies are much better off celebrating the differences in their family than striving to be tight-knitted. It is also impossible for a child to be ‘blended’ in two different homes – (think two separate blenders filled with completely different ingredients and contrasting flavours) – and feel completely integrated anywhere.
Myth: The kids should always come first.
Reality: A leading stepfamily academic, William Dyer, tells us that ‘children first’ is the starting point, not the end point in stepfamilies. In first-time families, by the time the children come along, the couple has worked out their obligations to each other around loyalty, love, commitment and spending time together. In stepfamilies, the couple relationship forms after the children are born. Working out the loyalties in the stepcouple relationship happens at the same time and sometimes in direct contrast to the child-parent loyalties in the home. Children coming first may be all you need in a first family. But, in a stepfamily it doesn’t stop there. The adults also have to work out where and how the responsibilities to your couple relationship fit in. Prioritising one relationship over another is a ‘no-no’. All relationships in stepfamilies require equal and separate time and attention for a stepfamily to thrive.
In supporting the stepparent in your life there are also some typical responses that are best to avoid:
Avoid: You should love your stepkids as your own. It’s unrealistic to expect or suggest that someone should love their stepchildren or feel for the stepkids as they do for their biological children and vice versa. Stepparents and stepkids do not need to love each other for a stepfamily to be successful. Relationships take time to develop and there are significant differences between the relationship between a biological parent and their biological children versus a stepparent and their stepchildren as summarised in the image below:
Try this instead: Of course, it’s normal to feel different things for different children. Building relationships take time. Is there something you enjoy about or doing with your stepdaughter?
Avoid: Your partner should be putting you first. Many well-intentioned people will say that putting the stepcouple relationship first is imperative for the success of a stepfamily, but that really couldn’t be more wrong! Stepfamilies, unlike first-time families, have additional relationships with contrasting levels of connection and attachment in the immediate family. All of these relationships need to be navigated at the same time and in different ways. Giving priority to the couple relationship, ignores the needs of the children in the stepfamily – who different from first-time families were present prior to the couple relationship starting. For stepfamilies, it really is a case of ‘both/and/and’ (the couple, the parent/child, and the stepparent/stepchild) rather than ‘either/or’ (the couple or the parent/child).
Try instead: Balancing family time versus couple time can be challenging. How are you finding it?
Avoid: Shouldn’t their mother/father be doing that? It’s more likely than not that a stepparent will take on more and more parenting duties as their relationship with the children and time in their stepfamily builds. As the title implies, stepparents are parent figures. They pack lunches, do the school run, attend sporting activities, schedule appointments and play dates and many other parental tasks. Many times, like any other family type, who does what in the home is determined by who is available when the task needs to be done and not because it ‘belongs’ to one parent or the other.
Try this instead: What’s it been like for you becoming an instant parent?
Avoid: You knew what you were getting into. Nope, they didn’t. No stepparent does. Just like you wouldn’t tell a new parent who told you that parenting their newborn was harder than they anticipated, ‘you knew what you were getting into’ is not an appropriated response to a struggling stepparent.
Try this instead: That must be really tough. Can you tell me more about it?
Avoid: Too bad the kids aren’t with you full-time that would be easier. The evidence is clear, barring abuse, kids do best when they have access and opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both their biological parents.
Try this instead: How is the kids’ schedule working out?
Avoid: The Ex must be freaking out. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not our place to predict or assume how someone you haven’t even met is feeling.
Try this instead: How are things going with co-parenting?
Avoid: They’re just being kids. For children, all stepfamilies are formed on a foundation of grief and loss. The emotions, behaviours and actions of a child when becoming part of a stepfamily are complicated and complex. Many times their hurt, loss and anger will be directed at a new stepparent in ways outside of typical child development.
Try this instead: Sounds like your stepdaughter is having a difficult time. How about you?
It’s also perfectly okay to say ‘I just don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.
You showing up, providing your full attention, putting down your devices and listening is literally the best way to show the stepparent in your life you care.
Can a stepparent share the unconditional love that exists between a parent and a biological child?
If we asked that question to a room full of stepparents from around the globe, it’s likely there would be just as many resounding ‘yeses’ as shouts of ‘no way in hell’.
We’d also hazard a guess that if that same room was full of biological parents (particularly those co-parenting but not co-habitating with their child’s stepparent) their honest answer would be that there is no way a stepparent could love their child the way that they do.
And, the fact is that everyone would probably be right. At the end of the day love is a feeling and feelings like people need to be accepted.
But, love is also unique because just as it can’t be forced it also can’t be avoided.
How a stepparent will answer the question about whether they love their stepchild as much as their biological child is likely to depend on four things:
The age of the stepchild when the stepparent entered their life,
How long the stepkids and the stepparent have known each other,
Whether the stepparent decides the relationship with their stepchild will begin as a marathon or a sprint, and
Whether the child’s other biological parent facilitates or undermines the relationship.
My stepson was just over 2 ½ when we met and 16 years on I feel the love.
You know the protective, full-on kind of love. The -‘I’d jump in front of a bullet or cut off my right arm to not see him hurt’ -kind. The unconditional kind. The kind I feel for my partner and for my biological kids.
The difference for me is that unconditional acceptance came first with my stepson before unconditional love kicked in.
I had no choice really.
I’m a white, pasty-skinned, blue-eyed, blond haired female and my stepson has the olive skin, deep brown eyes and dark hair that I dreamed of for myself as a little girl. I am an American. My stepson is Australian. I am Protestant. He is Catholic.
I grew up in a rural community in Midwest USA with a total population of 450 people. My stepson has been raised in one of the biggest and most multicultural and diverse cities in the world. My parents have been together my entire life – married over 50 years. My stepson’s parents separated just after his first birthday. He understands and speaks a language I can’t even pronounce.
I had no choice. We are fundamentally different and there was nothing I could have done or tried to do that was ever going to change that.
With my biological children, the love was immediate.
I know that isn’t the case for every birthing mother. Nor is it a requirement for motherhood. It just happened to be my experience, but if I’m honest the unconditional acceptance part has not come as easily.
I’ve often wondered why the experience of acceptance was so different between my stepson and my biological children:
Maybe, it’s partly because I haven’t known my biological children for as long as I’ve known my stepson? Acceptance does take time.
Maybe, I can see more of myself in their faces and that brings with it unconscious (and perhaps unwanted) expectations.
Maybe, because they have two parents instead of three and live with me full time instead of half the time I feel I have more sway in what they will become?
All of these things probably play a part.
But, mostly I think it comes down to choice.
I have more of a choice around acceptance but less around love with my biological children than with my stepson. And, as we know, choice can sometimes get in the way.
But if there is anything my stepson has taught me about parenting it is that making a deliberate choice of acceptance as a (step)parent is just as important as choosing love.
How about you? What’s your view or experience with loving a stepchild as much as a biological child – or not? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Stepfamily life doesn’t always end when the kids turn 18. sometimes it’s just beginning.
Stepfamily life doesn’t always end when the kids turn 18. Sometimes it’s just beginning. Click To Tweet
When we think of stepfamilies, we generally picture a couple with one or more primary school children and perhaps a teenager thrown into the mix for good measure. It’s rare both in the research and in the currently available stepfamily supports to find much of anything that focusses directly on adult stepchildren.
But, ‘late in life’ marriages/partnerships are on the rise.
We are living longer. We are more socially connected. We are more likely to be working until 65 and beyond. And that means, we are seeing an increase in older people ending and forming new relationships – and may of those involve and impact on grown children. In fact, there are some family demographers who believe counting stepfamilies with adult children would double the number of stepfamilies in the USA.
We are also having fewer children, so relationships between adult children and their parents are increasingly important. Stepfamilies require big adjustments for children no matter if they are 4, 14 or 44 years old at the time. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, notes that stepfamily dynamics can be just as complicated and stressful in stepfamilies with grown children as for stepfamilies with younger children.
Some challenges in stepfamilies look similar for both grown and younger children.
A child, no matter what their age, is likely to experience the following to some extent when a parent enters a new relationship:
Feelings of grief and loss
Feeling uncomfortable, rejected or betrayed by a parent’s decision to remarry
Feeling angry at their parent and/or stepparent
Disliking their parent showing overt signs of affection such as embracing or flirting with a new partner, and
Problems coping with parental pressure to develop a close relationship with a stepparent.
BUT, There are some stepfamily challenges that look very unique from the adult stepchild’s perspective:
While the burden is on the stepparent and parent/s alone to help a younger child adjust to stepfamily life, an adult child is capable of, and can rightfully be expected to, significantly contribute to working out relationships. It is true that an adult child has more control over the parent-child relationship than younger more dependent children. However, relationships need to be reciprocal. Biological parents and stepparents of adult stepchildren have significant roles to play in maintaining and/or building positive relationships with the children.
Shift in parental focus
Older parents who are re-partnering need to invest time and energy into their couple relationship. Depending on how this is managed and the amount of time the parent previously spent with his/her children and grandchildren, this can result in the parent spending less time with their children and grandchildren.
Parents with adult children in the midst of a new courtship/relationship may overlook that their adult children still have developmental milestones to achieve – i.e. further studies, employment promotions, home ownership, travels, new relationships and children of their own, etc.
Adult children do need their parents to remain interested and supportive of their activities (and those of their children) and celebrate their achievements even if they are no longer living together or seeing each other daily. Given their children are adults, a parent may give less regard to their achievements and spend more time and effort on their own couple relationships. A woman completing her master’s thesis provided Dr Papernow the following example:
“I have accomplished a lot. But it’s like there’s no place to take it to! My dad’s acting like a teenager in love and my mom is going nuts. They’re both too self-absorbed to notice.”
TIPS: It’s important for parents/stepparents to continue to acknowledge and be involved in the important milestones in their children and grandchildren’s lives.
If an adult child is feeling neglected, it’s appropriate to let their biological parents know – without blame or finger pointing.
Stepparents who are unable to have a relationship with their adult stepchildren (for whatever reason) can support their partner by encouraging him/her to continue their relationships with their biological children and attend and celebrate the children’s important milestones even if they choose not to be involved themselves (for whatever reason).
Stepfamily formation following loss of a parent
Grief and loss of a loved one can play out in unexpected ways – particularly when mixing in with stepfamily dynamics.
Generally speaking and depending on the timing of the new relationship, adult children are often pleased that their parent has found companionship. The ongoing care and support of aging parents can be a significant concern for adult children. However, the new relationship and how it is managed can also bring with it renewed grieving.
From an adult child’s perspective, stepfamily formation following (or during) the death of a parent is likely to result in difficult and unexpected interactions and situations. There can be painful feelings, for example, if the family home is sold because a parent is moving in with their new partner. Adult children may find it challenging to watch their mum or dad’s new partner share what was once their family home. Furniture, family photos and other keepsakes being replaced can also trigger feelings of significant loss. Aging parents may give away items without thinking of the effect on their adult children. For the adult child, those objects may represent pieces of themselves or special memories lost.
Tip: It’s key to remember that everyone grieves at their own time and space.
Remembrance is important. It helps if everyone can work together to find appropriate ways of honouring the parent and remember his/her significance – no matter how awkward it may feel.
Biological parents participating in remembrance rituals with their children and grandchildren without their partner present can be very important for adult stepchildren. It’s important for stepparents of adult stepchildren not to take this personally or as a reflection of their relationship with their partner’s adult children.
If the children are not accepting of the stepparent or vice versa, it is still important for the biological parent to initiate/accept connections and participate in rituals with their adult children and grandchildren to remember important dates such as the deceased parent’s birth and death dates.
Uncertainty about stepfamily roles
All stepparents and stepkids grapple with some role ambiguity at the beginning of their relationship. They may find themselves wondering: How am I supposed to be with this person? What’s expected of me? Who am I to him/her?
With adult stepchildren and their stepparents, the questions can be more pressing – and puzzling. It’s easy to slip into a pseudo-parental role with a six-year-old stepchild who skinned her knee. But what happens when the child is 36 or 46-years old?
Adult children don’t need (and may not want) another parent in their world. Particularly if the stepparent is the same age or younger than the stepchild.
Grown stepchildren can feel more comfortable relating to a new stepparent initially as their dad or mum’s new partner/spouse. This provides an opportunity for stepparents of adult stepchildren that is not typically available to stepparents of younger children – i.e. not being burdened with an expectation or requirement to be ‘parental’.
Adult children and stepparents have the ability to develop a relationship that suits who they are as individual people, rather than something dictated by child-caring responsibilities.
TIP: Give adult children the time and space to determine the kind of relationships they want with both their parent’s new partner as an individual and their parent’s new relationship as a couple.
In other words, it assists to let the adult children define the quality and extent of the relationships, including with the grandchildren.
Financial issues in stepfamilies are emotionally laden at the best of times. Financial issues for late in life stepfamilies can be a source of emotional turmoil for all involved for obvious reasons – more wealth has been accumulated, wills have been written (and perhaps re-written), and decisions about inheritances need to be made.
A late-life marriage with adult children can bring about changes in income and death benefits, which may cause stress and uncertainty for the children. Adult children are sure to have questions about what the future arrangements will look like, such as – Will the family home end up going to the new partner? Will the previous decisions/discussions around inheritance be changed?
Some older couples may feel dividing assets ‘equally’ among all of their children seems fair, but each parent’s biological children are unlikely to agree. Older children whose parents re-partner or start a second family that includes younger children and/or new biological children can often feel cut off financially.
TIP: Experts who work with couples with adult step/children often advise having frank discussions and even consultation with a trust and/or estates lawyer to consider different options and lessen the likelihood of confusion, dashed expectations or anger over inheritance issues.
Less support all around
Research on European couples conducted by De Jong Gievald & Peters (2003) indicates that re-partnering may hurt the biological parent-child relationship resulting in less family support for both biological parents and their adult children.
There is also some evidence that stepcouples with adult stepchildren live further away from their children geographically, see their children less often and have lower-quality relationships than biological parents. This can mean that adult children whose parents re-partner find themselves transitioning through adulthood receiving and providing less parental support.
Older stepparents have been found to give less advice and household help, provide less companionship to adult stepchildren and receive less support from them. Ganong & Coleman (2006) also found that adult stepchildren are perceived to have fewer obligations to their stepparents than to their biological parents, which may impact on the level of support provided and received.
TIP: Social and family connections are important for wellbeing – both for aging parents, stepparents and adult children.
Parents and adult children should work to maintain the same level of interaction that occurred prior to the parent’s forming a new relationship. New stepparents can help by supporting and encouraging these connections.
We’d love to hear your experiences and any tips/strategies you have for managing relationships in stepfamilies with adult children in the comments below.
Generally when we talk about stepparent-stepchildren relationships it’s from the adult perspective – not the kids. The research into stepfamilies over the years has also tended to follow the trend of an adult focus.
What’s been missing from these conversations is the children’s view.
The reality is that positive stepparent-stepchild relationships actually predict stepfamily stability. In fact, Dr Claire Cartwright from the University of Auckland found in her research that stepparent-stepchild relationships not only impact on how stepparents feel about themselves, but they also affect a stepchild’s self-esteem and the closeness of the step-couple relationship. The relationship you and your stepchild have with each other really does matter – for all of you.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a systemic review of the available research to find out what children who live in stepfamilies believe makes or breaks a relationship between a stepchild and their stepparent. And, we think it’s important information to share because every stepparent knows their stepkids have a significant role in the stepfamily and play a big part in how bumpy (or not) stepfamily life may be.
Children in stepfamilies tell us there are 4 practical things that their biological parent can do to help them feel closer to their stepparent:
1. Be a role model of respect in the home.
2. Help create positive moments between the stepparent & stepchild.
3. Don’t bad-mouth the other parent.
4. Allow the kids to decide what to call their stepparent.
Close ties between children and their biological parent have also been found to have a positive impact on the stepparent-stepchild relationship in the home. In other words, the better the relationship between your stepchild and your partner the more likely your relationship with your stepchild is going to be a good one. Providing that one-on-one time for your partner and their kids actually helps you get along better with your stepkids. You taking that time to establish a self-care routine or do something fun for yourself is an added (and needed!) bonus.
Stepchildren also say that when they have the ability to talk openly to their parent about their stepparent it helps their relationship with their stepparent. This can be difficult for a stepparent to accept. But at the end of the day, everyone – including children – need someone they can confide in about what’s happening in their life. Kids that are able to do that with the parent that lives with their stepparent feel more comfortable in the home.
From a stepparent’s perspective, it’s in our best interest that the child shares their insecurities, qualms and questions with our biggest supporter and the person who loves us most. These conversations allow your partner to be the bridge between you and your stepkids. Let’s face it. All relationships take time to develop and form. You and your stepkids need time to get to know each other. Why not let the person who knows you both the best help you both? It’s much better than the alternative: your stepkid confiding in their other parent, who definitely doesn’t know you and may not like or accept you being in their child’s life, about your relationship.
Children and adolescents in stepfamilies also tell us that they feel closer to stepparents who:
• Put effort into developing a friendship with them – (even if it isn’t always reciprocated)
• Accept them and their family situation
• Treat their parents well
• Don’t attempt to discipline the child early in their relationship
• Have a flexible parenting style
• Are affectionate to the child – (keeping in mind that showing affection doesn’t always need to be physical particularly for preteens and adolescents)
• Share or show an interest in the child’s interests
• Don’t try to replace their other parent,and
• Communicate with the child often and regularly.
In general, stepkids say that they have closer relationships with stepparents who invest more in their lives than with those who don’t.
Stepkids who have close relationships with their stepparents also report that their stepfamily as a whole:
• Openly communicates about feelings
• Is flexible and able to adapt
• Uses positive communication their everyday talk and their nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expressions, etc)
• Spends time together
• Has clear rules and boundaries that everyone knows and understands
• Uses humor and family problem-solving to create common ground
• Engages in active listening with each other
• Directly confronts problems, and
• Talks about their sense of belonging and togetherness.
The way you speak to each other in your stepfamily also matters according to the kids. Verbal aggression, sarcasm and criticism are the top communication no-no’s if you and your stepchild are to develop a healthy relationship.
And what about your stepcouple relationship?
Surprisingly or not, the couple relationship wasn’t high on the list of things that kids reported make them feel closer to their stepparent. The idea that focussing on your couple relationship will fix any issues in your stepfamily is … well, it’s wrong. Stepfamilies are much more complex than first-time families and successful stepfamilies spend time focussing on each relationship separately (i.e. birth parent/child, stepparent/stepchild, and couple) as well as spending time together as a family too.
Of course, you and your partner arguing excessively and being generally dissatisfied with your romantic relationship, isn’t good for anyone. In stepfamilies, it’s not focussing on EITHER your couple relationship OR the child relationship, but giving equal attention to the couple AND the parent/child AND the stepparent/stepchild relationship that works.
There will, of course, be times where a relationship between a stepparent and a stepchild is just not possible.
In these circumstances, the focus for everyone should be solely on the two of you being civil to each other. As a stepparent, you can and should control how you speak and interact with your stepchild. If your stepchild is unable or unwilling to do the same, it’s time for your partner to step in and set boundaries around respectful and civil behaviour and communication in your home. Having no relationship and engaging in civil communication when it’s required is much better for a stepfamily than an openly negative relationship occurring regularly between you and your stepchild.
As with most things in stepfamilies, stepparent-stepchild relationships, are complex and dynamic. But it is just that which makes them so rewarding and gives us hope they can change. As Dr Lawrence Ganong, a stepfamily expert with the University of Missouri, says –
“…even if stepchildren initially reject their stepparents, it shouldn’t be viewed as permanent. Relationships among stepchildren and stepparents can grow in acceptance, friendship and bonding, regardless of how they begin. Negative relationships don’t have to last forever.”
We’d love to hear what tips and strategies you have used to develop a close bond or civil relationship with your stepkids in the comments below.
A stepparent’s relationship with their partner’s Ex could definitely be top contender for one of the most awkward relationships of all times.
Having to make small chat repeatedly with someone who has slept with your partner repeatedly is just not what most people want in any of their relationships.
But, here you are…in love with an individual that has other individuals attached.
And, you’ve got to manage this… to work out how you and your couple relationships fits in with all of these additional attachments.
Some times people just click.
Your partner has a positive, functioning co-parenting partnership with his ex and she accepts you as an integral part of her children’s lives. Their interactions are healthy. Their boundaries are clear. And, if you are one of these stepmums, this article isn’t for you.
Other times the relationship with the Ex is a great deal more messy.
It’s awkward and ill-defined. Boundaries are non-existent or getting stampeded on all over the place. If that’s you, then read on.
The relationship with the Ex (or lack of) may be driving your partner crazy resulting in him being detached, distressed and/or fuming. You may desperately want to be the bridge that transports all of the adults to the wonderful world of civility so your partner can stop hurting and your stepkids flourish.
The relationship may be driving you crazy. An Ex that doesn’t accept you when your partner still needs to co-parent effectively can bring a great deal of stress to your stepfamily. Or maybe it’s you that isn’t able to accept the Ex bringing about its own set of challenges. As a grown woman, choosing a partner with kids does not mean you have to choose or be involved in co-parenting with the Ex. Alternatively, you may be dealing with an overly involved Ex. Good intentions, but allowing no space for your family to develop and grow outside of her continually presence.
No matter what the circumstances, the relationship with the Ex can be extremely challenging for stepmums and stepfamilies alike.
All relationships take two except when it comes to stepfamilies. These relationships take three or four and sometimes more.
Stepfamily dynamics are different than first-time families. Interactions come with baggage and history. They can be awkward and tense. Boundaries can be complex. Being a stepparent is hard.
There are times, in any relationship or stage in life, when faking it until you make it is the best strategy. The sensible way forward when so much is unclear and you need time to adjust or find your place. For a stepmother, managing the relationship with the Ex can be one of those times.
When you find the idea of seeing or needing to interact with the Ex weighing on you. If you find yourself worrying how you should behave when she is around. If it is impacting on your thoughts and taking up way too much time in your day, then it is absolutely okay to just be a complete and utter fake and get on with the relationships that need and deserve your time – those with your partner, your stepkids and yourself.
There is research that shows ‘faking it until you make it’ works in relationships.
Psychologist James Laird confirmed the theory that we can cheer ourselves up by just smiling ‘as if’ we are happy. Absolutely worth having a go in the mirror on those days that you are feeling a bit down in the dumps. Or when the Ex is on her way and you’re feeling stressed about it.
A further study outlined in the book, Rip It Up, shows that action can lead to emotions – not just the other way around. Richard Wiseman, author and study lead, states “Behaving like you are in love can lead to actually falling in love. People are always going on about positive thinking when this suggests positive action is just as valid.” In fact, he says “actions are the quickest, easiest and most powerful way to instantly change how you think and feel.” So, it can help to behave or act like you respect the Ex even when you don’t. Or in other words, just fake it.
There are some other reasons specific to stepfamilies for why faking it can work well for stepmums when managing interactions with their stepkids’ other parent:
• Stepkids can and do grow up just fine when their stepmother has nothing to do with their mother. It is absolutely okay for your partner to do all the heavy lifting in the co-parenting with the Ex while you keep your distance behind polite and fake smiles. The expectation that stepmothers need to be heavily involved with co-parenting of the children is just that – an expectation. It is not a requirement to raise healthy and happy stepkids or to have a loving relationship with your partner. What is a requirement for your own wellbeing and that of your stepfamily, however, is to let go of any and all unrealistic expectations.
As Brene Brown states ‘expectations are just resentments waiting to happen’.
• Divorce doesn’t hurt children. Parental conflict does. If you and the Ex just can’t get along for whatever reason, then it’s best to fake it for the sake of the kids and yourself. You don’t need to attend every argument you get invited to. There is also no need to go over the top with niceties. Faking it doesn’t mean you have to invite the Ex into your home for a cup of tea at handover. It can look more like you waving at the front door while the kids head out to their mum’s car with your partner. It means civil, respectful and polite whenever your are with the Ex or your stepkids are in earshot.
• It’s easy for the relationship between the Ex and a stepparent to become exaggerated into more than it actually is. The two of you might not be as close as it feels you are or think you should be. In looking at the level of the relationship from a perspective outside of stepfamily dynamics, you two only know or interact with each other due to a mutual connection – your partner. In typical relationship terms the two of you would fall into the category of a casual or mutual acquaintance.
Having personal knowledge about each other doesn’t automatically mean you have a close, personal relationship. Neither does separately parenting the same children. But it may feel that way. Or feel as if you should because of the added stepfamily dynamics. But the reality is the two of you are most likely closer to that of a casual acquaintance on the relationship continuum. There is no guilt or shame in faking politeness with someone you don’t know very well or don’t need or want to know very well for the sake of your mutual connections and your own wellbeing.
Being a complete fake may just be one of the best strategies to reduce stress, anxiety or conflict you may hold around interacting with the Ex – for both you and your family.
We’d love to know what other strategies you use in the comments below.
Let’s face it. Stepfamilies are an absolute breeding ground for resentment. Where else do you find so many opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstandings, for feelings of disappointment and hurt.
If left unmanaged, those feelings can quickly compound into lingering frustrations, anger and bitterness leaving many stepmums living with a resentment that seems way too overwhelming to overcome. A resentment that many stepmums carry around like a secret. Scared of being judged. Ashamed to admit that they really are quite angry with the 6 year old they share a home with for what seems on the surface to be for no other reason than that the child exists.
Resentment is closely related to anger.
We can think of them as first cousins. Resentment is anger but deeper … and longer. Although there are times when anger and resentment are appropriate and justified, research by Enright & Fitzgibbons (2015) has shown resentments that occur over long periods of time can be unhealthy – leading to unhappiness, irritability and even depression. Although untested, resentment may be part of the reason that stepmums are prone to experience more depression than other adult members of stepfamilies.
It’s not uncommon for stepmums to struggle with feeling resentful.
Being a stepmum is hard. The stepfamily situation itself can set stepmothers up to be resentful in a number of ways. Managing rejecting stepkids, a high conflict birth parent and unaccepting in-laws is not an easy task. And to it a number of other factors below that impact on stepfamilies and it’s easy to see why feeling resentful as a stepmum is so common:
• Expectations of immediate love and intimacy.
Stepfamilies are the biggest growing family type in Australia, but we still expected to behave like a first-time family. Despite the fact that we know there are inherent differences in the family structures that means stepfamilies and first-time families will not, nor should they, function in the same ways.
Forced anything causes resistance from both sides. That resistance can lead stepmums to immense amounts of frustration and experiencing an anger that feels as if it just can’t be resolved.
Unrealistic expectations of stepmums come from all angles not just ourselves. They are placed on us by our partners, our friends, our families, our neighbours and even the Exes. Love takes years to develop and sometimes in stepfamilies love doesn’t ever develop between a stepparent and stepchild. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Stepparents should not feel, or be made to feel, guilty for not instantly (or ever) loving their stepkids. When they do, that guilt – if ongoing and unaddressed – can morph over time into deep-seated resentment.
• Categorising emotions in stepfamilies is not something we’ve done in Western society.
We don’t have language for stepparent-stepchild relationships so we talk about them in feelings – it feels like being a mother, like an auntie, maybe a sister or friend – but the relationship really is none of those. It’s unique and different. It’s not like any other relationship that occurs between an adult and a child who are not biologically related.
The lack of ability to accurately reflect the relationship in our language and societal norms adds to the pressure for kids and stepparents to conform to expectations and meanings that don’t fit. Wearing an ill-fitting outfit for any length of time is uncomfortable. Doing it day in and day out without any relief in sight Isco likely to result in feelings of resentment.
• Someone else that you don’t really know, and maybe don’t like, has control in your household.
Whether we like it or not, a stepchild’s relationship with their other parent and how that parent accepts or doesn’t accept you as a stepparent matters. In extreme cases, it can make or break your relationship with your stepchild. At a minimum, it can make everything just that more challenging.
Scheduling time, events and important occasions between two homes also provides the other parent some sway over what’s happening in your world. Having to get agreement (repeatedly) with someone who does not have your best interest at heart to be able to have your family all together for special occasions sucks. Depending on how you choose to respond, it’s easy for stepparents to spend a great deal of time being angry and resentful over something that just isn’t going to go away.
• There are constant reminders that you are an outsider.
Dr Patricia Papernow (leading stepfamily expert and academic) describes the ‘stuck insider’ and ‘stuck outsider’ roles that exist in stepfamilies, but not in first-time families. These roles are present in almost every new stepfamily and they hang around for years – or for as long as the family exists – depending on the age of stepchildren, personalities and co-parenting dynamics.
In first-time families, children will feel closer to either their mum or their dad at different times while they grow and develop. This closeness generally shifts back and forth from one parent to another and can cause some hurt for either biological parent when they aren’t the one who is ‘in’ at the moment. The toddler who will only let dad put her to sleep is a good example. This may happen for a few nights or weeks and mom may feel a bit put out. Especially if she’s a stay at home mom. In stepfamilies this same phenomenon occurs, but there generally isn’t any shifting back and forth between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The stepkids feel closer to their biological parent (rightly so) and the stepparent gets stuck in the outsider role.
Many times when stepkids aren’t present and it’s just the couple, stepparents go back to being just an ‘insider’ and feelings of resentment against the stepchild, whose existence places the stepparent in an ‘outsider’ role, may start to bubble up.
• Despite what the media or your Instagram feed is telling you, ‘blending’ isn’t the goal.
The bottom line is that forcing or expecting yourself, your partner and the kids to ‘blend’ is not going to get any of you anywhere but down the long road of resentment. In fact, Wednesday Martin, PhD and author of the book ‘Stepmonster’, believes ‘failing to blend’ is essential for developing positive stepfamily relationships. This is because in failing to blend you aren’t trying to change yourself, your partner or the kids into something new and perfect. Nor are you trying to replicate a first family.
• Co-parenting between you, your partner and the Ex isn’t always possible.
Although there are some families (that the media loves to love) where all parties are able to parent together (but separately) well, this is not the case for the majority of stepfamilies no matter how hard the stepparent tries. The prefix ‘co-‘ suggests ‘more than one’ and that is exactly what successful stepfamily co-parenting takes. If everyone isn’t able or willing to cooperate, co-parenting by the standard definition simply can’t happen. However, given all the hype of perfectly co-parenting stepfamilies where the Ex and the stepmum are best of friends, a stepmum can find herself relentlessly trying to build a cooperative parenting relationship with the Ex to no avail. Leaving a stepmum to blame herself, feel inadequate and live in a nightmare of rejection from the Ex (and possibly her stepkids) despite all of the goodwill. Overtime, significant feelings of resentment can develop and fester.
• Additional children cause additional financial strain.
Finances, particularly child support, can be a significant issue of contention for stepfamilies. This becomes all the more apparent with an ‘additional mouth to feed’. Your biological child missing out on things that your stepchild had been provided at his or her age due to financial pressures can be very difficult. Thoughts about what would be possible for your child if your partner was not paying child and/or spousal support are likely to make an appearance in the minds of most stepparents at one time or another. And, when they don’t leave resentment isn’t far behind.
• For many stepparents the lack of acknowledgement from your partner, stepchildren and/or the Ex around all the parenting you do, can feel like a punch in the guts.
More so, if you have been in the picture for a long time, significantly contribute to their care and upbringing and/or do not have children of your own.
• There are quite a few stepmums who made a decision not to have children of their own.
When the reality of living with a partner with kids means that you aren’t able to be the ‘hands-off’ stepmum you desire, it can lead to feelings of resentment towards your partner and, at times, misplaced resentment towards your stepchildren. Single parents will rightly use all of the help they can get. Your partner is no exception. You residing in the home with the kids present means that your partner may start taking advantage of your assisting with or helping care for the children – even when you were entirely clear that you made a conscious choice not to be a parent. You may also find you are financially contributing to your household expenses that includes the child part or most of the time despite this never being your intention. Trying to speak to your partner about these issues can be challenging. It’s a touchy and emotive subject. If your partner sounds or seems defensive, it can’t lead you to clam up, bottle the frustration and have you feeling like one very resentful stepmum indeed.
The best way to deal with resentment is not to set yourself up for it Wherever possible.
As Brene Brown says ‘expectations are resentments waiting to happen’. There are very few places where you find more unrealistic expectations than in the life of a newly forming stepfamily.
Enter your tweets Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. – Brene Brown Click To Tweet
Understanding the differences between first time families and stepfamilies is an essential step to minimising and overcoming stepparent resentment.
We have a wealth of this type of information on the blog to increase your knowledge base. These posts are a good place to start:
When it comes to prevention it’s also important to remember that no is a complete sentence.
And, one that resentful stepmums may need to be using on a more regular basis.
Want to overcome those feelings of resentment you already hold?
The research says it’s time to start working on forgiveness.
Many of us, stepparent or not, struggle to forgive. Letting go of hurt, helplessness and anger is good for our health. It’s good for our wellbeing. It’s good for our relationships. But not always easy to do. And the deeper your hurt the longer it can take to move past.
Dr Fred Luskin at the Standford University Forgiveness Project has found 9 steps needed to move on from a grudge and to let go of resentments:
1. Awareness – You need to be aware and be able to name your feelings of resentment. To begin to forgive, you have to know what the root cause of your resentment is and be able to articulate how you feel about what happened – angry, sad, ashamed, conflicted, etc.
2. Forgiveness is about you, not anyone else. You can’t forgive just because somebody else wants you to do it or tells you that you should. You must make a commitment that you will do what you need to do to feel better for your own sake.
3. Peace not reconciliation– don’t expect to make up with the person you feel hurt by. You are looking for peace and closure. Nothing more. Nothing less.
4. Stay in the present. Heal the hurt feelings you are feeling now – not the offended or hurt feelings that happened 10 mins or even 10 years ago.
5. Do a calming excercise. At the moment you get upset, do some deep breathing or other stress management excercise to bring your mind back to a calm state. This is particularly important to do if seeing your stepchild or knowing that he or she will be coming home soon brings up feelings of resentment for you.
6. Concentrate on what you can control. We have to stop expecting things from other people, that they don’t choose to provide. An apology is likely to be one of those things.
7. Consciously move on. Instead of replaying the situation over and over in your head. Leave it. Fill that space with an activity that brings you joy. Force yourself if you have to. It will get easier the more you make it happen. Practice makes perfect.
8. Be the change you want. The best revenge is living a life well lived. Focussing on the hurt gives the person (or things) who hurt you the power. Take it back by finding the joy and kindness in and around you.
9. Change your story. You might not have been able to create the beginning of your grievance story, but you do get to write the ending. Make it one of heroic forgiveness.
While you are working on exchanging your resentments for forgiveness, remember you and your partner are a team.
Don’t shut out the person who introduced you to stepfamily life and who loves you the most. Leaning towards your partner will help – especially if you find or she is contributing to your feelings of resentment in your stepfamily.
We’d love you to share how you are overcoming resentment in your stepfamily in the comments below.
Mother’s Day is annually observed in Australia and New Zealand on the second Sunday of May. It is an opportunity for everyone to pay tribute to their mothers and to thank them for all their love and support. For stepfamilies however, this day of appreciation of all things mothers can raise a whole lot of something, and not all of it always feels good.
For many reasons, it can be difficult for children in separated families to celebrate both their mother and their stepmother. Even those children with the most amicable of co-parents can struggle with this Hallmark celebration. Mother’s Day can often highlight the most intractable problems between mums and stepmums. It can bring to the children’s attention an underlying sense of competition or jealousy and even leave them feeling like they are fighting the ‘Battle Royale’ of internal (emotional) battles out in public, for their whole world to see.
For many stepmothers being ignored or overlooked by your stepchildren on Mother’s Day can feel like a punch to the gut.
For many stepmothers being ignored or overlooked by your stepchildren on Mother’s Day can feel like a punch to the gut. More so, if you have been in the picture for a long time, significantly contribute to their care and upbringing and/or do not have children of your own. Putting yourself in your stepchild’s shoes and trying to look at the situation from their perspective can help your head to know that it is not personal. But the heart can still experience the sting of being overlooked on an occasion heavily marketed and advertised as being a special day for “all” types of mothers.
So, what are the reasons a stepchild might ignore or overlook their stepmother on Mother’s Day?
Their focus is elsewhere – If your stepchild does not acknowledge or celebrate you on Mother’s Day, it may just be because they are focused on celebrating their actual mum, with whom they will most likely be spending most, if not all, of the actual day. Their failure to acknowledge all you do for them on a day set aside for giving thanks (to mother’s) could actually just be an innocent omission, with no spiteful or malevolent intent. Depending on their age they may also not have actually made the connection between your role as a stepmother (and all the mothering-type things you may do for them) and Mother’s Day. In their head they may view you as “Dad’s [rather nice and lovely] wife/partner”, as opposed to a mother-like figure and not put two and two together when it comes to showing appreciation for you on Mother’s Day.
The protective factor – Following a parental separation and the ensuing family break-up, some children can become their mother’s champions and reject a stepmother on Mother’s Day, (or on any other day for that matter), for reasons which are not entirely their own. These children are intentionally or unintentionally led to believe liking or celebrating your role in their life, may cause their Mum hurt or (emotional) pain. In this scenario, because they love their mother very much, your stepchildren may adopt somewhat of a protective role with regard to their Mum and will do anything to protect her from hurt and emotional pain. This includes ignoring you on Mother’s Day.
Loyalty binds –It may be just too emotionally hard for your stepchildren to reach out to both you and their mother on Mother’s Day. This is particularly relevant for children who have been exposed to parental conflict, parental insecurities or adult issues relating to their parents’ marriage, separation and post separation parental relationship. In unfortunate situations where there is an element of competition in the mother and stepmother’s attitudes to one another, children may have received a message that their mother does not want them to show their stepmother any positive affection on “her” day. Little Joey and Matilda might therefore worry that to show their stepmother any type of thanks would be seen as them being disloyal to their mother and might result in their mother feeling sad or upset or angry (which no child wants to have happen).
Different expectations – Adults and children can have different perspectives about what is going on in their worlds. They can be in the same situation and experience and react to things very differently. Relationships and Mother’s Day are no exception. There may well be a positive vibe and warmth displayed in your day-to-day interactions with your stepchildren. However, it could be that they perceive this relationship to be less significant and that the two of you are just not as emotionally close as you perhaps do. As a result, they may not consider celebrating or acknowledging you on Mother’s Day as being necessary, needed or required.
Permission – In an ideal situation, a child would freely celebrate both their Mum and their stepmother on Mother’s Day. However, in order for this to happen, a child must perceive that they have permission to do so from their parents – their father and their mother. Not only do children need both parent’s permission, they will also more than likely need their father’s help and encouragement to buy or make a card, bake a cake or determine an appropriate gift to bestow on their stepmother.
Lack of support – Generally speaking, society doesn’t make celebrating stepmothers easy. It’s only been in recent years that you could find a Hallmark card appropriate for a stepmother on Mother’s Day. Even now, depending on where you live, suitable cards can be few or far between. Your stepchild may have looked for a card to give you and just couldn’t find one with an appropriate message. Or, how about those special Mother’s Day mementos kids bring home from school? It is rare for a teacher to offer or help a child make two – one for their mother and one for their stepmother. Sometimes a lack of gift is about nothing more than a lack of support and resources.
So, as a Stepmother, what can you do?
Ultimately the best celebration around Mother’s Day for any stepmother would be the freedom in knowing that you are secure in your place within your family and in life. But there are also practical things that you can do to ensure that the day is as comfortable as possible for everyone. This includes:
Talk to your partner about how you feel and your concerns and expectations for this specific day. Plan ahead to ensure that your partner knows what they can do to support both you and their children over the Mother’s Day weekend. Remember no one is a mind reader.
Disengage from any power play.
Don’t let your feelings about the day put your stepchildren in a difficult or compromised position. “Give” Mother’s Day to your stepchildren to celebrate with their mother. Let them, and yourself, off the hook and let go of any expectations that they have to do something to recognise you (and all that you might do for them) on this particular day. After all, it is one day out of the year and it represents only that which we assign to it. It is not a test of your stepchildren love or appreciation.
Celebrate in your own way.
Make a conscious choice to use Mother’s Day to celebrate and pamper yourself in whatever way feels special to you. Tell your partner what you would like to do that day. Use it as an opportunity to develop special traditions for your stepfamily in relation to your role as a stepmother. Use the child-free time to connect with your partner and strengthen your step-couple relationship. You choose.
Allocate another date and time.
Find another day for you and your stepchildren to celebrate what it is you that you do for them. It may be the anniversary of the first day that you met them or any other day of the year for that matter. Make it fun, make unique and make it yours.
Help your stepchildren celebrate their mum.
Let your stepchildren know that you are 100% okay that they want to celebrate their Mum and that you actually want and expect them to do so. Let them know that they should do what’s best for them. There’s absolutely no guilt on your end. If necessary, ask them if they need any help and then firmly direct their father to help them out.
If your stepchildren want to do something special for you on Mother’s Day, it’s your partner’s role to help in purchasing and picking out gifts or planning something special. Just as your partner should be the one to help the children purchase a gift for their mother or speak with the teacher/school if his child is worried about only making one Mother’s Day craft instead of two.
Don’t do anything.
If Mother’s Day is not something that holds much meaning for you then that is okay too. Rest assured that choosing to celebrate or not celebrate Mother’s Day as a stepmother does not in any way, shape or determine the success of your stepfamily.
Research tells us that stepfamilies are at greater risk for divorce and separation than ‘first’ families due to the unavoidable stresses that accompany stepfamily life. The first two years in particular are considered a period of greatest challenge for “newly” formed stepfamilies. Whilst jumping right on in and hoping for the best is one approach stepparents and their partners can take when getting married and/or deciding to all move in together, taking the time to talk about difficult issues will help give both your relationship and your stepfamily a better chance of overcoming stressors and of success. The types of tricky topics on that difficult conversation list can include: talking about roles and responsibilities with regard to the children, parenting and household duties; space (or lack thereof); how you plan to make time for the couple relationship; how to manage discipline; how to manage the Ex; what are appropriate boundaries (and how you both plan to enforce them); financial responsibility for your stepchild; and the management of household finances general. They aren’t necessarily the most romantic conversations or discussions that either of you want to have. But they are necessary and do need to be addressed at some point if your stepfamily is to beat the odds.
It can be extremely frustrating however, when you want to talk something out with your partner and the only response you get is, “I don’t know”, “I don’t want to talk about this” or perhaps even worse, a blank stare. So, what do you do if one of you is very good at avoiding talking, just won’t engage or is refusing to “play along”?
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution to making someone sit down and talk if they really don’t want to. But for those that are just struggling with a partner who is more avoidant than completely unwilling, we have put together some tips and strategies that might increase the chances of them partaking in conversations and responding from a more solid (and hopefully helpful) place.
Where to Start?
Sometimes before you even get to talking about the big significant things, you need to hold a conversation about the pattern you’re experiencing whenever you try to address critical issues – i.e. the way in which the two or you talk or don’t talk about things that are important. That’s the conversation that might go something like this: “Hey Hun, I feel that we really need to talk about our household finances, especially now that your child support obligations seem to have increased. The last couple of times I’ve tried to broach the subject with you, you’ve said, “not now”, “it’s under control” and last week you even said, “I don’t want to talk about that” and walked out of the room. I know that this is not the most pleasant conversation for us to have and I really don’t want to make it a big deal. I just want us to be able to talk about these, types of things, as a team, and make sure we are both on the same page. Why do you think it’s proving difficult for us to have these talks? What’s going on?”
If your partner still refuses to talk, try asking, “Will you please think about it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just want to us deal with some of these issues, together. Could we perhaps set some time aside over the weekend when the kids are at their mum’s house and talk about how we might manage these types of conversations?”
Preparation.Manage your expectations. If you assume that having a “talk” about a sensitive issue will start an argument and make the situation worse, it probably will. You need to define your expectations of the conversation and to do your best to think in positive terms.
It also pays to manage your expectation about what can be achieved in any one conversation. Some difficult or sensitive issues can be resolved through in one sitting and some cannot. Some topics, by virtue of their content, may require multiple conversations. Sometimes the first conversation merely sets all the issues out on the table and allows you to prioritise topics.
It terms of your expectations, it also pays to not assume your partner knows what you want to talk about and why. Remember no one is a mind reader.
Know why you want to have the talk. Do you want to talk with your partner about a difficult issue to gain a better understanding of their perspective on the issue? Do you want to clear up a misunderstanding? Do you need to talk to your partner about their children or about inequities that you feel exist in parenting or in the running of the household? Are you concerned about your spouse’s Ex intruding into your home and want your spouse to do something about it? It really does help if you are clear in your own mind about what it is that is driving the conversation and what you hope to achieve.
Accept it may be a stressful conversation (and that really is okay). Although you don’t want either one of you to be stressed, hurt, or angered by the conversation, it is important to realize that you both may become defensive, anxious and emotional as you talk. This increases the chances of one or both of you resorting to counter-productive behaviours. Don’t get side-tracked by emotion or poor conversation etiquette. If you notice that you or your partner are getting stressed, pause and get yourselves under control rather than getting into it about what the other is doing “wrong.”
Ways to Start the Difficult Conversation. Start smart. Start soft. Start calm. Try starting your conversation with a statement that acknowledges that the topic is difficult, sensitive, confrontational, or a bit touchy. Blurting out “We have to talk,” or “We need to talk” when you’re upset after a rough day of nothing going right, usually makes people fear the worst, which tends to increase the chances of them trying to avoid or escape the dreaded conversation.
Alternatives to start these types of conversations could be:
“I’ve been thinking about …”,
“What do you think about …”,
“I’d like us to begin to talk about …”,
“I want to have a better understanding of your point of view about …”
“Hey, how do you think we could …”
“I’d really like to seek your input about …”
“When might be a good time for us to sit down and have a chat about …?”
One step at a time. It pays to only try to talk about one difficult subject at a time. Couples can get into a “while we’re at it” mentality and try to cover too much in any one conversation (possibly motivated by a fear that this is the only chance they’ll get to ever talk about things). However, trying to cover everything in one go tends to only make both of you feel exhausted and overwhelmed. The goal should be to have a supportive and helpful conversation with your partner, not to bury one another!When and Where to Have Difficult Conversations.Agree on the where. Unless you both agree to having the talk in a public location such as a restaurant or the local park, wait till the kids are with their other parent, get a babysitter or drop them off to their grandparents, and have the talk at home. This gives you both privacy and the space to take a time out if needed, to get up and walk around or make a cup of coffee if either of you start to feel stressed or overwhelmed.
Don’t manipulate or trick your partner. Don’t invite your partner out to dinner when you really plan on instigating “the talk” at a restaurant. In a similar vein, don’t surprise your partner with a difficult conversation when you have them trapped in the car or on an airplane and there is no escape. People tend to respond better when they know what is coming, what is expected of them and they have had a little bit of time to prepare.
Timing. It goes without saying that you need to pick the right time for the conversation. Don’t ask your partner to agree to a time to have a talk when one or both of you are wound up, angry or upset, drunk or hungover. Don’t have a difficult conversation before or after sex or when the children are around or if one of you has to leave in 20 minutes to pick the children up from sport.
How to Increase Chances of Success?
Slow things down and take it in steps.
Always address your partner with respect. Don’t make it personal. Don’t speak down to your partner and do your best not to constantly interrupt them when they are speaking.
Be prepared and if appropriate back up your concerns, thoughts, with research and facts, but keep it simple. Pay attention to the point(s) you’re trying to make and articulate them clearly. Keep your conversation on the topic you agreed to discuss. Don’t talk on and on and on.
Your partner does not have to agree with everything you say in order for you to say it. The goal is to voice your ideas, concerns and/or experience, which is about you and does not need to be validated.
Make sure that you take the time to also listen to your partner’s perspective and concerns. Do your best to be open to your partner’s point of view, whether or not you agree with it. Acknowledge what you hear with the understanding that acknowledgment is not necessarily agreement.
You should always aim to first listen to understand and don’t rush straight into problem-solving or worse, blaming.
Be willing to look below the surface to understand what your actions and responses say about what is happening for you.
Make sure your emotions are in control before you open your mouth.
Aim to reach a resolution that you both can live with, not necessarily the one that makes you happy. Then set a time to follow-up to see how you are both dealing with the issue and if the original resolution needs to be tweaked in some way.
Do your best to avoid thinking there are winners and losers. Keep sight of the fact that this is love, not war.
Having the difficult talk shows you care enough about your partner, your relationship and your family to have the conversation. There is however, a difference between someone being unable or struggling to engage in these difficult conversations and someone who is just plan unwilling. Know how to spot the difference and if the issue or situation continues to create problems in your relationship and for your stepfamily know when to perhaps seek professional assistance and advice.
Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances, love is complex. Within stepfamilies however, love can be very complex. Especially when it comes to stepparents and stepchildren. This is thanks, in part, to a really distinctive attribute of the stepparent-stepchild relationship, which is that love, is ultimately a decision. Think about it. People become stepparents because they fall in love with a man/woman who just happens to have children from a prior relationship. You didn’t necessarily choose your partner just because of who their children are (or get to choose the qualities of their children), any more than his/her children had a choice about who their mum/dad fell head over heels in love with. In this way stepparents and stepchildren are “forced” into some sort of relationship whether they want it or not.
Many stepparents try hard to create an instant bond with their partner’s children. Some, with the encouragement of their partner, rush towards closeness and family unity which can be easy, hard or damn near impossible depending on the age of the children and the nature of relationship between your spouse and their ex-partner. However, feelings of love and warmth for your stepchildren do not suddenly materialise just because you want them too, because you love your spouse, because that is the way family members ought to feel about one another or because society (and others) may expect or demand it.
Back in 2007, Janet Reibstein, a psychology professor at Exeter University who specialises in family relationships, observed “Categorising the emotions that develop in step-relations is something we haven’t done as a society. We don’t have direct analogies and that’s part of the problem. Instead we talk about feeling – or not feeling – like a mother, or a bit like an aunt or uncle, a sister/brother or a good friend; but it’s none of those.” Referring to the stepparent/stepchild relationship Reibstein said “It’s a different and important relationship that needs to be thought through and understood.”
Whatever you might or might not be feeling towards your stepchild, the reality is that love really only evolves after time. I mean you can have intense feelings for, or be irresistibly attracted to, someone when you first meet or as a mother or father bonding with your newborn baby, or even an owner connecting with your new puppy. You may also immediately care for someone’s feelings and want to look out for their general wellbeing. But love isn’t something that generally happens instantly or automatically in any relationship. Love is ultimately a decision, followed by a series of actions. There really is no getting around the fact that getting there takes time, shared experiences, the courage to be vulnerable and an investment of energy in making the relationship work. And even then, it might not happen. And that’s OK.
When it comes to stepfamilies, there are a number of TV programs out there past and present that can encourage unrealistic expectations about the presence of love and affection between a child and their stepmom or stepdad – think The Brady Bunch, Step by Step (starring Suzanne Somers), Nickelodeon’s Instant Mom, Drake and Josh or even ABC’s Modern Family. These sitcoms tend to depict stepfamilies as having a bond underpinned by genuine affection and stepparents who are not only always well intended and exceptionally patient bit (for the most part) also seem to function in harmony with their partners. (Ex-spouses and shared care, post separation parenting arrangements seem noticeably absent in their day to day lives!). These shows typically tell stories of stepparents and stepchildren who, despite repeated conflict and misunderstandings, seem to not only care, but stick up for each other sooner or later or at very least, they commiserate together in the end. Real life step-parenting is not always like that.
Being a stepparent is a difficult and complicated role.
In my experience as a therapist, I have found that stepparents can feel love or lack of positive feelings towards their stepchildren. They may feel fond of their stepchildren and enjoy their company but not love them. They may like them only because they love their spouse and their spouse loves their children. They may think their partner’s kids are great but are not feeling “it” (love that is). They may feel hopeful that feelings of love will come down the track or are content with the way things are. They may also feel other emotions, such as ambivalence, jealousy, resentment, frustration or even anger and disappointment. They can feel a twinge of something or nothing at all. Their feelings towards their stepchildren may even change from week to week, as feelings are prone to do. Despite the messages that endure on social media, in society, television programs, movies or fairy tales, there really is no right or wrong way for a stepparent to feel towards their stepchild.
The expectation of love between a stepparent and stepchild can be, well, unrealistic. Forcing love… Click To Tweet
It is definitely encouraged and OK for stepparents to want, and to aim for, establishing a loving, close relationship with their stepchild. But lofty expectations that you will love one another or that your relationship with your stepchild will be the same as your relationship with your biological child or as your stepchild’s relationship with their biological parents, can lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict and more often than not failure. Being a stepparent is certainly not easy. It is therefore important to not add the extra pressure of forcing yourself to love your stepchild. Forcing love (rather than letting it evolve naturally) can create resistance in both stepparents and child, which can in turn create other problems. It is far better to let go of unrealistic expectations and to assume that it will take time for a genuinely affectionate relationship to develop with your stepchild. Maybe years. If at all. Don’t’ push it.
Read more about the unavoidable differences between a parent’s relationship with a biological child and with a step child in our post “The Relationship Difference”
When (or if) your heart doesn’t swell with deep unconditional affection for your partner’s child many stepparents, although in particular stepmothers, can feel very guilty or ashamed and beat themselves up that they don’t like or love their stepchildren. Most women are raised to feel like they’re going to love being a mother and therefore feel confused and self-critical when those feelings don’t spring eternal for their partner’s kids. Shame, guilt and self-criticism are hard feelings to live with. They can take their toll on your self-image, your sense of worth and, if you’re not careful, on your relationship with your partner. It is important for stepmother’s (and stepfather’s) in this position to work at accepting the way they feel and realise that having such feelings doesn’t make you an ogre. Moreover, feeling ambivalent towards your stepchildren, thinking bad thoughts about them, looking forward to them leaving your house and returning to their other home or wishing them away, does not make you a “wicked” stepmother or a bad or evil person. It merely makes you human. After all, we’re all capable of some fairly shocking thoughts; it’s whether we identify and attach ourselves to them and how we resolve them that matters.
If you really don’t like your stepchild, what can you do about it?
While you don’t have to like or love your stepchildren (or them you), it is helpful to try to find some common ground with them. Common interests help people bond at a personal level, and they can help bridge people of different ages and life experiences – something that is key to stepfamily success. In situations whereby you can’t seem to stand your stepchild, see if you can find something, anything, that you might have in common with them. It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy: a TV show, an animal, a musical artist, a love of a certain kind of food, a celebrity or an Instagram influencer, a dislike for a certain sport – just some foothold of similarity from which to create a more positive connection.
It’s also vital that you are honest with your partner about how you are feeling. In this context you should share your lack of feelings or dislike of that child with your partner, in private and when you both have time to talk. Take care not to take out your feelings on the child or to raise it with your partner when one or both of you are upset or in the middle of an argument. Talk to your partner about what bothers you the most about that child and their behaviour: do they talk on the mobile phone during dinner, talk over each other all of the time, come across as self-entitled, lazy, needy, don’t acknowledge you when you are talking to them or start gagging at the table when they have to eat something other than a chicken nugget. Talking (with your partner) allows you to release some of your own frustrations and feelings about the situation. If you can do this, half the battle is won.
Ask your partner to step in more or take over more of the practical parenting duties. If they can alter even some of their children’s behaviour or attitude, that’s a good thing. But don’t assume that they can change all of the children’s behaviour overnight, if at all. If your stepchild behaves in ways that are directly disrespectful to you, it’s better for you and your partner to set limits with them in the same way that you would set limit with anyone else who was treating you poorly or with disrespect.
Do your best to remain mindful of your feelings and any runaway thoughts. Just because you think it doesn’t make it true! So, if you bolt awake at night with the thought, “I can’t love my stepchild,” that doesn’t mean that you won’t. Or if over a family dinner you think “I wish that little monster would just shut the f#$%k up” that doesn’t mean you are a mean and nasty person. Make room for these darker feelings or thoughts without assigning to much meaning to them i.e. I am a terrible (wicked) person for thinking such things. By noticing those pesky thoughts or less than comfortable feelings you can acknowledge them and then consciously set them to the side without becoming invested in them.
Practice basic good manners, kindness and compassion. Despite your dislike of your stepchildren, act and treat them in caring and respectful ways. It may also be helpful to remember that sometimes stepchildren are difficult, rude or downright unlikeable as an expression of loyalty to their other parent. Their guilt at liking, or about becoming close to you, may make them feel more conflicted and less likeable than they really are. It may also make it difficult for them to be nice to you. This can be hard for you, but rest assured it is not uncommon. Your stepchild’s difficultness or unlikeable personality may also mask feelings such as resentment, helplessness, confusion or sadness or even a desire that their parents will someday reunite. Remember that the transitions between two homes, the loyalty binds stepchildren have for their parents and the loss of their parents being together adds up to a lot of grief that often goes unacknowledged.
Understand where your stepchild is at and what they are realistically capable of given their age, stage of development and their experiences of being cared for and parented by each of their parents (both prior to. and since the separation). This can help you tremendously, and is particularly important if you have no, or limited, experience with children. Your expectations of what your stepchildren can or should do when they are in your home might not match up to your stepchild’s capabilities.
Above all remember, you and your stepchildren may never develop a close relationship. And, that really is okay. You do not have to love or like your stepchildren for your stepfamily to be, and feel, successful; you just have to be a good-enough (step)parent.