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Blending Families: Surviving the Step-Parent Role 
 
by Jami Cameron May 19, 2005

You’ve found love again with an added bonus – more children added to the mix. Being a step-parent can be a wonderfully fulfilling role, but also has its ups and downs. Blending families can be a trying time, but you can get through it and build a loving relationship with your step-children.

Just when you think love isn’t for you, a wonderful person steps into your life and changes your mind. The relationship is great, and marriage is in the forecast. But, how do you grow a relationship with another person’s child who, after marriage, is considered one of your own?

Negative Factors in Step-Parenting.

Taking on the task of helping raise a child who is not biologically yours can be a great experience, but can also be overwhelming. You are coming into a situation where a child sees you as an outsider, and may not be too happy with it. Until you came along, that child probably had fantasies of his/her parents reuniting, but you changed everything.

You are also considered a double-threat – not only are you the reason why his parents won’t get back together, but you are taking up a lot of time of one of the child’s parents. The jealousy factor can be a quick deterrent for the child to get to know you.

The bad news isn’t over yet – you have one ex-spouse who, more times than not, has a bitter taste in his/her mouth over the marriage and the role you will play in their child’s life.

Add all of these issues up, multiply that by the age of the child, and more than likely, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Don’t worry, you can do this. You owe it to yourself and to your spouse.

You Are Not My Mother/Father.

Anytime you start a family, there is a period of adjustment. The first months of your marriage and new step-parenting role will be the hardest. Everyone involved is learning more about each other – house habits, likes and dislikes, discipline ideas, etc. – which can be a lot to digest in such a short time. When faced with this situation, many in a family may lash out or grow impatient with one another, especially step-children. Here are a few phrases you will probably hear:

  • You are NOT my mother/father!
  • You are not the boss of me!
  • I don’t have to listen to what you say!
  • I don’t like you!
  • Dad/mom always chooses you over me!
  • My mom/dad doesn’t like you!
  • If it weren’t for you, my parents would get back together!

Not so nice, but these statements are how the child feels. Yes, they haven’t given you a chance yet, but you have to earn that chance before anything will change.

To alleviate some of these feelings for the child, your new spouse and you must be a team. Prior to your marriage, sit down and discuss how you two together will handle the following subjects:

  • Disipline
  • Chores
  • Family Schedule
  • One on One time
  • One on One child time

Being prepared for a situation is much better than colliding head on with a crisis. A plan is always better than no plan at all; but, plans don’t always work.

Imagine this scenario: you meet the man or woman of your dreams – they are tender, kind, loving, responsible and love your kids. You are excited about the new life you two will create, and raising each other’s children is a wonderful thought. You have been working on building a relationship with his/her child already – and it is going well. Then, all of a sudden you are married and have a monster on your hands. He doesn’t listen to you, won’t look or speak to you, won’t even say goodbye when it is time for the child to go to the other parent’s house. What went wrong?

A couple of things. First, you weren’t married to their mommy or daddy when you met, so you weren’t around all of the time. You weren’t considered a threat. Another issue could be the other parent. If your step-child lives with the other parent and visits a couple of times a month, then they are heavily under the influence of the parent they live with. That isn’t always a bad thing, but it is when the other parent feels insecure.

It’s hard to believe that grown adults would put thoughts into the heads of their children; but unfortunately many do. This is something, that as a step-parent, you will have to learn to deal with.

While you are not biologically the child’s parent, you do play a very important parenting role in his life. Over time, hopefully the other parent will realize this, but don’t count your eggs before they hatch.

These sorts of issues will always be around, but there are ways to build your relationship with the child:

  • Discuss your ideals and discipline rules up front. Either before the marriage or within the first week of the marriage, the household should hold a family meeting. Discuss exactly what is expected from the children, as well as from your spouse and you. Explain the chores everyone is expected to do, and the consequences when something isn’t done right or when someone gets in trouble at school. You can post the rules and chore lists in a central location so they seen and understood by all. Doing this ensures that everyone is on the same page, and you are able to answer any questions the children may have. But, be sure to live by these rules. If you break a few, your credibility will go south, and it is hard to get back.

  • Have weekly or monthly family meetings. Set a family meeting schedule right away. This allows the family to discuss upcoming activities that need to be recorded on the family calendar, as well as give their thoughts and feelings regarding discipline or any other circumstance/situation in the home. While you and your spouse are the authority figures in the house, it doesn't hurt to create a democratic environment where the children feel like they play an important role in the family too.

  • Don’t let the child spend all their time with the biological parent. Take interest in your step-child’s life. If your husband has an errand to run, but the child needs to go to a ball game, take him/her yourself. This gives you one on one time to discuss everyday life, upcoming activities, feelings and thoughts. Spending time together is the only way you will build your relationship, and the child will begin to understand that you do love and care about them.

  • Don’t fall into the “ghost-parent” trap. When “You’re not my mother!” is popping out of a child’s mouth, it is easy to turn up your hands and let the other parent deal with it. This is a mistake. While you may not be the child’s biological parent, you are his parent regardless. You are a part of the family, whether they like it or not, and you must uphold the child to the same standards as you would your own children. Don’t allow your spouse’s child to be immune to rules while you are responsible for him. This will ruin your credibility, let the child think you are weak and will cause a rift with your own children. If the child refuses to listen, avoid backing down. You are in charge, and if you act that way, they will soon respond the way you want them to.

 

  • Have family time. A new family is hard for all involved. Be sure to take time out from the day to day, rushed life and do something fun. Have game night, take walks, go to the movies – do anything where everyone in the family will have conversation and fun at the same time. You will be surprised at how attitudes can change just by taking an interest in everyone collectively.

  • Say I love you. Sometimes you may have to grit your teeth because of the day you had with the step-child, but you need to say "I love you" at least once a day. At first, you may hear “No you don’t,” or “I don’t care,” but as time moves on, they will begin to see that you do, in fact, love them. This is very important – children of divorced families often feel like they are the reason why their parents divorced. We may know otherwise, but they can oftentimes feel hated, especially if it was a bitter divorce. You need to reassure the child that they are loved a lot, and always will be.

Don’t Give Up!

 Many step-parents don’t understand why the step-child is still reacting hatefully toward them after they’ve tried everything for a month or two. It takes time. You cannot give up on a child because of the situation. Try again and again, over and over until it hurts. A child can see if you have thrown in the towel, and while they may feel some satisfaction regarding the situation, it does break their hearts as well.

Here are a few suggestions for what to do when faced with hard situations:

  • The other parent is saying bad things about you. This sort of thing is mean, and can break a person’s heart – especially if they are trying so hard to be a good step-parent. Don’t feed into this. The only reason why the other parent is doing this is to get back at the spouse, and ruin your relationship with their child. They are very insecure, and possibly didn’t want the divorce to begin with. Bottom line – the child will get to know you, and as they become older, will understand what the other parent is doing. It kills you now, but it will get better. Ignore the ugly words from the ex, and be sure to correct misinformation the child tells you that their parent said. Don’t say anything terrible about the other parent, take the high road. A good way to give the correction is “I understand that your mom/dad may think that about me, but that is not who I am. You know that. I love you and would never hurt you. They have a right to their opinion.” Always end the conversation with “your mother/father loves you a lot.” It may kill you to stick up for the ex-spouse, but it shows the child that you don’t have ill will towards the person they love.

  • The step-child is always angry with you. A couple of things – this happens to biological parents once their child reaches puberty, so don’t get so bent out of shape; and they have a right to express their opinions too. This too is a hair pulling experience. It is okay if the child is angry with you, but probe them for the reason why. Have a discussion – “I know you are angry with me, but I want to better understand why. Can you tell me?” is a great way to start off. Usually, kids can’t come up with a logical explanation, or they go back to the tried and true “you broke my parents up.” This is your time to explain to them that your actions weren’t meant to hurt them, but you are sorry if they did. Ask them how you both can make it better. Showing the child that you are a team makes them feel secure, and will definitely help in the long run.

  • The step-child won’t talk to you at all. This is the most frustrating of situations – picture a child who won’t look you in the eye, and when asked to tell you something by the other parent, shies away into the parents arm. He/she is obviously avoiding you for some reason. A lot of step-parents give up here, but don’t. Depending on the child’s age (if he is younger this may take a little longer to grow out of) and personality, he will definitely grow out of it with time. Instead of feeding into the indifference, or what you take as indifference, don’t act any different. Still look at the child when you are talking to him, address him just as much, if not more – this give you the opportunity to probe conversation – and explain your feelings. Letting them know that when they react that way really hurts your feelings and makes you feel alone, they may express what is bothering them too.

And a few things to avoid all together:

  • Don’t ever fight with the ex. When things get heated, it may be your disposition to confront the other person. If that person happens to be the ex of your spouse, don’t do it. This can only lead to bigger problems in the future. Grit your teeth and bear it. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to have contact with them, so don’t.

  • Don’t ever say “I hate you”. No matter how hard it is to deal with your step-child, no matter how bad they are – never, never, never tell them you hate them. Not only will you sound like a 5 year old, but you can’t take that back once it’s been said.

  • Don’t ask them to call you mom. It isn’t your place to request a title to be called. If they decide to call you mom, that is their choice to make, not yours.

  • Don’t put your spouse in the middle. Any sort of riff in a family comes with its stress, but don’t make your spouse fight for you. Your relationship with his son or daughter is just that – yours. You can discuss the difficulties or issues and get his insight, but don’t make him fight your battles. This will only be an added stress, and possibly cause distance in your relationship.

There aren’t any black and white “this is the way to blending a family” rules. Everyone’s situation is unique. The only thing they have in common is they are divorced and are starting a new family including their child from the previous marriage. Nothing in life comes easy, and this is one situation that can take years to change.

Perseverance, hope, faith and love are the only qualities that can make blending a family a great experience. You have to want things to change, and work at changing them. Nothing comes easy, but when you see your step-child’s eyes light up at something you said, or you get a kiss on the cheek – it is the best feeling in the world – and it’s worth all the pain you have gone through to finally arrive at that happy place.


 




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