Step Up to Step Parenting
Let’s talk about step parenting. Oh sure, there are lots of books from many experts on this topic. Or I could tell you how I coped with becoming the a mother to four step children, from two different mothers. But let’s face it, step children don’t come in one size fits all. Each child is a human with their own tastes and personality. Each of them have their own feelings and issues to deal with. So let me just give you a few pointers that might just ease the tension. Some I learned that hard way, some should be common sense, or so you would think.
The first piece of advice I’d like to offer up is this: Don’t force yourself in to the picture. It is important to take a back seat to children’s needs. You have heard the old saying and it is still true. Children do not ask to be born and they most certainly do not have a choice when divorce hits. It is important to understand their emotional distress. Many still hope that their parents will reunite and they can all go on living happily ever after. Forcing yourself in to the picture will only push them away.
If you encounter hostility, it is important to remain calm. Understand that you are a threat to their family. You have invaded their turf and they now want to defend it. Avoid confrontation at all cost. If a confrontation does ensue, be gentle and kind. It’s all right to walk away, rather then blow up and trying to stand your ground. Never engage in to a shouting match, you will always loose in the end, as the child will resent you.
Be smart not, smart-mouthed. You are the adult and if you lose control you will not gain respect, only resentment. If you walk away from the situation, it will not only give you a change to think, but also the child. You will win more points with gentleness and patience then with a war of words or force.
Here is another point to remember, and this is a really important one. Never, and I mean, never ever say anything bad about the other parent. Even if the child can see that the other parent has issues, do not bring them up or talk about them. Children are smarter then you think and will figure those things out on their own. Also, you take the risk of the child going back to the other parent and repeating what was said. There is no way that you can ever win by speaking bad about the other parent. Avoid this at all cost. If the child wants to vent, let them, but never add your own thought, or even facts, about the other parent. This is a situation during which you want to show concern and interest in what they say, but do not add anything of your own. Show compassion and keep you opinions to your self. If anything is said that disturbs you, report this to your spouse and let them handle it. No matter how you may feel about the other parent, never encourage the child to be disrespectful toward a parent or authority figure. If you tell a child do be disrespectful to them, they will probably come back and do the same to you.
If a child wants to spend some alone time with the parent, back off. You don’t need to be part of everything all the time. Do not feel threatened by this. If your step child sees that you care about what is important to them, they will respect you more, rather then resent them. It’s okay for your spouse to handle things without you. This is important even if your spouse wants you to be included. Politely excuse yourself and give your step child the time they need. If you are in a situation that does not allow you to just go away, fade in to the background for a little while. Children need to feel that they are important and that their feelings are validated. You do not need to be center stage all the time.
It is also important that you do not discipline your step child. At least until you have established a good relationship. That is not to mean that you should let them get away with murder. But doling out punishment early in a relationship is the worst thing you could possibly do. Let the parent handle this. And if you are someone that believes in spanking, that is a definite no. If anything that severe need to take place it is not your place to do so. Also, keep in mind that you are the adult and surely you can find a better way to deal with a situation rather then spanking. Sometimes a time out, cool down time for both of you, is sufficient to show who is boss. This is not to mean that a slap on the hand of a small child about to touch hot stove is wrong. You must keep things in perspective.
It is also important not to use the parent as a threat. Words, such as, wait till you father/mother comes home, are not a good way to deal with things. Be calm and find a creative way to deal with any discipline issues. Humor can ease the tension as well. For younger children you can find a silly punishment, such as telling them that they need to balance a pencil on one hand for three minutes or face more serious punishment. You will be surprised by the outcome. If a situation does need more serious discipline, don’t hit your spouse with the news as soon as they walk in the door. Go on about the normal routine and keep the child in suspense. Sometimes just knowing that punishment is coming is enough to get a child to straighten up. If the child behaves well for the rest of the day, pull them aside and thank them for their good behavior. Then add, since you did so well after we had trouble, let’s just keep what happened today between us. But if you do that again, I’m going to tell mommy / daddy about it. Voila, you have just added a bit of trust, love and care to your relationship. You are showing the child that you want them to succeed and not just get them in trouble.
Also, it is important that you don’t try to bribe. Don’t buy them something they want just to get brownie points. However, you can do that as a reward. That is, if they achieve a goal the has been set, then by all means get them that present. Don’t keep score either. By that I mean, that every time you get upset or the child talks about the other parent, don’t start listing all the things you have done for them. This is not a competition between you and the other parent. You should never put a child in the middle of a bidding for affection war. The other parent may not have the financial position you have. While you may temporarily gain the child’s approval, it will not form a lasting relationship. Go for respect and love not for toys and candy. Only love and respect last, things will be forgotten. If the child tells you about what nice things they received in their other home, be happy for them. Don’t spoil their excitement with your own jealousy.
If your relationship has reached the point of “move in with each other,” or even “marriage,” include the child. Let the parent talk to the child first and alone. You must consider your step child’s feelings. If there is a lot of opposition, acknowledge this. Even if you have to put your plans on hold for a little while. It will show the child that you genuinely care about their welfare. Private discussions away from everything will help you with this situation as well. Take your step child out for ice cream or the park and just talk, while the parent does something else. If the child does not want to be alone with you at first, ask your spouse to just fade in to the background for a bit, so that you can talk. Writing an older child a letter they can read in private, is also fine. Just make sure you include them in the decision. Don’t force this issue; give the child some time to think about it. Include statements such as, I really love your mommy/daddy, or, I would really like for us to be a family now, or, what do you think about? are all great ways to communicate that you care about their feelings.
Weather it is a, move in with each other, or marriage situation, include the child in major decisions. Let them pick something major. So what if your wedding bucket is blue instead of pink, it will not change your marriage. But allowing a child to contribute in some way will pave the road ahead.
Finally, and this is usually a big issue. Never force your step child to call you mom/dad. If that is something they wish to do, that is fine. But remember that something so small can cause a huge amount of stress for a child. Usually it is not the child that will care, but the other parent will get upset, as they feel their status threatened. Let your step child and you work out what the child should call you.
If you try to apply some of these suggestions, you will be well on your way to becoming a good step parent. Just remember that you are not in competition with the his/her ex. You are a whole new person in the child’s life and it is only your step child that you need to win over.