When I started dating my now-husband, he had a 9 month old son from a previous relationship. Not having any children of my own, I wasn’t sure how I felt about a dating scenario in which I could one day become a stepparent to someone else’s child.
Every single co-parenting situation is uniquely different, and I am in no way naive enough to believe that everyone can have as much luck as we have had. But, there are some things that you, as a stepparent, can do to facilitate or improve the situation.
No. 1 – Be The Neutral Party
Your spouse’s co-parenting relationship with his or her ex is undoubtedly fueled by a lot of emotion. In most cases, it is a lot of negative emotion, hurt feelings, and jealousy over which parent the child or children prefer.
This was not your relationship and you don’t have to share or fuel your spouse’s negative feelings towards his or her ex. Understand that different people in your family have different feelings regarding the ex.
As the stepparent, you are automatically in a neutral position because your opinions and attitudes towards the other parent are not fueled by a failed romantic history. Do your best to maintain that neutrality.
From day one, I have refused to allow my husband to speak negatively about his ex in the presence of their son.
I do allow my husband to vent his frustrations to me, but only in private. I know that my stepson loves both of his parents and I don’t ever want to put him in a position where he feels bad about his relationship with his mother. I try my best to hold all family members accountable for this rule as well so that my stepson is not subjected to anyone badmouthing his mother over their own hurt feelings.
Make no confusion here, I have absolutely no relationship with this woman myself and I have no intention of ever developing one. Emotionally, it is far easier for me to advocate a neutral position if I have no negative feelings towards her.
No 2 – Show Common Respect for the Other Parent
We all learned in elementary school to be kind, to treat others as you would want to be treated. But, for some reason, when it comes to the supercharged situations of dealing with your spouse’s ex, the stress of the situation tends to bring out the absolute worst in us. It is natural to feel jealousy towards any person who was ever involved with your spouse and it is best when the past can stay in the past. But, when it can’t, such as when kids are involved, you just have to pull up your big girl pants and deal, okay?
Be mindful of what is posted on social media. I am careful in what I post on any form of social media regarding my stepson. I don’t post any pictures that are of just me and him. I feel that would be disrespectful, somehow suggesting that I was trying to be his mom. I am not, so that is a line that I refuse to cross. I will post pictures that include my stepson, because he is part of our family too, I just try to be careful of what pictures I post.
Do not dictate what name your stepchild uses for you. This is a personal deal-breaker for me. When I was growing up, there were a few adults in my life that tried to force me to call them by a specific name. I only resisted it, and honestly resented them for doing it. It is not appropriate for your stepchild to call you mom, but if they do, it should only be because they have chosen to. Your stepchild will refer to you by whatever name they feel comfortable with. Just go with it and don’t try to force them to call you a special nickname.
No. 3 – Make your home, their home too.
If you are the non-custodial half of the family, it can be far too easy to default to the child or children’s temporary status in your home. Whether you and your spouse have children together, or not. It important to make sure that your stepchildren feel welcome, wanted and comfortable in your home.
Give them their own space and their own belongings that are just ‘theirs’ in your home.
Your stepchildren deserve to feel like they have a home with each parent. They deserve to feel like the belong at both homes and it is as much of the responsibility of the stepparent as it is the biological parent to make sure that is happening. If you are the non-custodial family, the children probably spend less time at your home already. It can take a bit of extra effort to make it feel like a home for them, rather than just a place that they visit their other parent.
Be fair to all of the kids in your family and have the same rules, expectations and consequences for your own kids and your step kids.
From the child’s point of view, they need to feel included in the family. As a side-effect of being the non-custodial family, the step children will automatically feel some disconnect with your family. Try your best to bridge that gap keeping the same rules for everyone in the home.
No. 4 – Be an advocate, be a friend. Don’t try to be another parent.
Navigating the do’s and don’ts of becoming a stepparent is tricky territory. It is an almost natural reaction to want to take on a parental role with your stepchildren, but the truth is that this doesn’t work well in most situations.
Be an adult that your stepchildren can trust.
Your stepchildren already have parents and they don’t need any more cooks in the kitchen filling that role. But, as another adult in the equation you have to find the role that you fit into. The children neither need, nor want another adult projecting the ‘parental role’ onto them. All relationships take time to build, you won’t have the benefit of a natural bond as you may have experienced with your own child and that is okay because your relationship with your step child is like any other relationship that you build in life, it will take time and effort.
Be kind, consistent and fair. Your step children may never come around to the idea of including you, but it is far more likely if they respect you as an adult that they can trust.
Don’t interfere in the co-parenting relationship between your spouse and the ex.
This can be one of the most tempting traps to fall into as a step parent. Every person who has an interest in a child’s well-being, has strong feelings about how the child should be parented. As a step parent, you have to keep yourself in check and remember that you are not part of the co-parenting relationship and trying to interject your voice there will only cause more drama and negative feelings.
You are allowed to have a say about the parenting in your home, but it is only appropriate to discuss your opinions with your spouse. When it comes to co-parenting between your spouse and their ex, you should strictly not involve yourself in the equation.
No. 5 – Blended families don’t fit into traditional family definitions, and that is okay.
Trying to force your blended family into traditional family definitions will only make you crazy. There is nothing traditional about raising kids in two separate households that each function independently. There are a different set of rules, different traditions, and different expectations from each household. And, even with the best co-parenting relationship, the children are still forced into a less-than-ideal situation.
Understand that your stepchildren are dealing with constant change and instability. Do your best to bridge the transition to your home.
Having a little bit of understanding and patience with your stepchildren can go along way into making the time that they spend at your home more pleasant. Within reason, if they behave poorly or act out on the first day or the last day at your home, understand that the behavior is probably more of an effect from the change of households and less of a sign that he or she needs more discipline.
Try approaching this behavior with a little more patience and focus on making this transition a little more pleasant or easy on the child rather than defaulting to enforcing punishments. If the behavior problems are stress-related, they will ease with time.
You don’t have to love your stepchildren, and that is okay. You do have to be kind, consistent, and fair.
I think that society, in general, tells us that if you take on the responsibility of becoming a stepparent, then that means that you automatically have to love your stepchildren. Most people think that they will love their stepchildren just like their own children simply because they marry the other parent. And, as a result, a lot of stepparents carry around a lot of guilt because they don’t feel that some love for the stepchildren.
It is okay to not feel the same love for your stepchildren as you do for your spouse or your own children. But, you must be able to embrace your role as a stepparent and treat your stepchildren with kindness and compassion.