Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist practicing in the Austin, TX, area, and is the author of more than 10 books on parenting and stepparenting, including the best-selling Keys to Successful Stepfathering and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children and Divorce. He credits his own stepmother and stepfather with positively influencing his life. Here, Pickhardt shares his expertise about how to adjust to your new role as a stepparent.
Many individuals have positive relationships with their spouse’s children before they get married. Therefore, they may not feel much fear at the time of the wedding, believing that this experience will continue after the honeymoon as well. They feel love will simply conquer all. But this is an unrealistic expectation. The reality is that once you and your spouse make it official, you need to expect that all relationships involved are going to change. Don’t be surprised to find your spouse’s children to be far less welcoming than they had been previously. Your relationship with them changes as they begin to adjust to sharing with you the same living space and family resources. You are in daily competition for the other adult’s time and attention. So, you need to confront disagreements about the stepparent role and influence and get used to lifestyle differences between you and them that they didn’t have to live around intimately before.
It’s important for parents and new stepparents to anticipate various kinds of tensions, conflicts and grievances during this transition. These are normal and shouldn’t be taken personally. This is a no-fault collision.
There is a presumption that a stepmother is socially expected to be more of an active parent as a mother than a stepfather is as a father. A stepfather can be distant and not involved with the stepchildren and somehow that is considered more socially acceptable than a stepmother who is distant and uninvolved. It's a sexual double standard. In general, most stepmothers do a lot more “parenting” than most stepfathers do.
The stepfather is often most comfortable doing things with stepchildren, being an activity companion. The stepmother is often most comfortable talking with stepchildren, being more of a communicator with them. “I do more stuff with my stepdad,” “I talk about more stuff with my stepmom,” reflect a common difference between the two kinds of family connections.
Please note that these are tendencies, not certainties, since many stepfathers are good talkers with stepchildren and many stepmothers are wonderful companions to stepchildren.
Don’t try to win them over. As a new stepparent, you may make the mistake of giving too much of yourself too quickly. Then, you realize that you’re are giving much more than you’re getting back. This in turn, makes you increasingly frustrated because your wholehearted efforts have not been acknowledged and appreciated in the manner that you expected. But why should the kids give back? They didn’t ask for this to happen. While your intentions as a stepparent are well meaning, the best thing that you can do for your stepchildren and yourself is to practice some restraint and not try as hard. You need to go slowly in terms of what you’ll give to the kids.
Children may feel in competition with the stepparent for attention from their parent. This situation may affect their behavior toward the stepparent. When a stepparent feels undermined or unappreciated, she will turn to the parent for support. The parent is then caught in the middle because he feels unable to defend his children without causing conflict with his spouse. Likewise, if he sides with his spouse, he may anger his children. That is the agony of the parent—not being able to satisfy one party without frustrating the other. As a result, the relationship may suffer if the resentment from the stepparent continues to build. If the children are not voicing their appreciation, it is up to the parent to express understanding and gratitude on their behalf. Making the stepparent feel less invisible will go a long way.
If the child is under nine, the stepparent will probably have an easier time bonding. Adolescents, by contrast, may be more difficult to connect with. In general, they carry more grievances than children do and are less receptive to spending time with adults. It’s important to remember the stage of the child’s growth in terms of how successful bonding will be and not to take any discourse personally.
Discipline is a touchy issue for many stepfamilies. While the impulse for parents may be to allow their new spouses to set a tone of authority early on, discipline should only come from the biological parent for at least the first six months to a year. The parent can give corrective authority because he or she has a connection with the child that has been developed over time. The stepparent, by contrast, should feel welcome to offer input. He or she, after all, has perspective and the ability to be objective that a parent does not.
When a stepparent wishes to communicate an issue, he or she should proceed with tact and sensitivity so that the parent doesn’t feel criticized or become defensive. For example, if the child has misbehaved, a stepparent should neither reprimand her nor tell her spouse to do so. It may be a natural reaction to express negative feelings about the child to the spouse—“your child is being rude and I can’t believe you let her get away with that. I would take away her phone privileges for a week.”—but it’ll be better for everyone, including the stepparent, to express any concerns in a non-evaluative and calm tone. For example, “I disagree with the way your child is behaving. This is why and this what I think could make a difference in the future. What do you think?”
While it’s important to give every family member personal space, it’s essential to be together in order to adjust to the new family structure. Spend time altogether as a family. Spend time with the children without your spouse. Have your spouse spend time with his or her children without you. And spend time together without the children. Cover all of the combinations so that the individual components of the family unit are nurtured. Remember that everyone doesn’t have to spend every minute together in order to be a successful family.
A second thing to remember is that you are coming into a family that may have very different values than you have. You and your spouse need to recognize these differences. Instead of arguing to see who is right, focus on respecting each other’s separate values and negotiate an agreement on the level of “wants.”
It’s important to be exactly who you are—the stepparent. There’s a lot of freedom in that role to define the relationship in any way you, your spouse and your stepchild wish. Oftentimes, you will hear a frustrated stepchild say, “you’re not my real mother.” The best way to respond is, “yes, you’re right. But I am your real stepparent and you’re my real stepchild. Before we talk about this issue, I’d like to know how you are feeling about this…etc.” Asking the child to express his feelings is a statement of concern that the child will hear and appreciate, even if he doesn’t voice it. And making it safe to exchange thoughts will keep conflicts from building. Stepparenting takes a lot of maturity, perspective, restraint and sensitivity. The key is not to take the tensions personally. These disturbances are inevitable in this type of system.
Change is a process of substitution. You are substituting one set of payoffs for another. As you move forward to something new, you need to give up something old. That’s the compromise. If the change is unplanned, such as in death, you need to keep in mind that the other side of loss is freedom for growth.
…growth. The pain of growth is giving up something. The gift of change is that it creates a new opportunity.
Becoming a parent.
For more information about Dr. Carl Pickhardt, visit www.carlpickhardt.com.
I could not have written “Keys to Successful Stepfathering” without having had Frank, my stepfather, in my life. A brave man, he married a woman with three children, two already in adolescence. And so with marriage came his commitment to support this instant family, a responsibility about which I never heard him complain.
Back in the 1950’s, there were no books or organizations around to guide reconstituted families through the minefield of step relationships, but somehow Frank managed to find a way that worked. Looking back, it seems to me that he did a lot of things right. Of course he wasn’t perfect, but then neither was I, but that was okay. Because he accepted and respected me as I was, I did the same with him. In all my teenage years, I don’t remember him ever criticizing me. What I do remember, however, is his occasionally questioning some of my choices and offering measured, clear advice--like suggesting that I might want to stick out college a second freshman semester before impulsively dropping out in frustration. So, my college graduation is partly due to him.
A quiet, steady man of few words, Frank made little effort to parent or act like a father with me. He was just there in what, even back then, I realized was a powerfully stabilizing way for the family. And I learned many lessons from who and how he was as a person, among the most powerful was this: As an engineer, he was a professional problem solver--a role that was absolutely consistent with how he was away from work. For him, problems of any kind were simply part of life, nothing to ever get upset about, just to figure out as best one could and then move on to the next. Although I will never be as patient and practical as Frank was, what patience and practicality I do have when confronting problems I believe I owe to him.
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist practicing in the Austin, TX, area, and is the author of more than 10 books on parenting and stepparenting, including the best-selling Keys to Successful Stepfathering and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children and Divorce. He credits his own stepmother and stepfather with positively influencing his life.
Recent books from Palgrave Macmillan:
THE CONNECTED FATHER--about parenting in general, and fathering in particular, when a child begins the journey through four stages of adolescence. (2007).
THE FUTURE OF YOUR ONLY CHILD--about the formative effects of being an only child and how parents can influence that growth. (2008).
STOP THE SCREAMING--about how to constructively manage parent/child and parent/adolescent conflict. (January 2009).
Parenting expert Carl E. Pickhardt brings his considerable experience to tackling the most pervasive and difficult problems parents face in childrearing. Pickhardt shows parents how to turn the daily battles into opportunities for growth....