It’s a given that not every wedding is a first-time marriage. In fact, many of you may be marrying someone who has tied the knot before, and you’ll become his children’s stepparent — about a quarter of all new marriages form stepfamilies. In order to help you navigate any potentially sticky situations down the road, we turned to Dr. Patricia Papernow, psychologist and Harvard instructor and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t. Dr. Papernow’s must-read book is filled with lots of sage advice for couples dealing with the emotional issues that often arise in blended families.
We asked Dr. Papernow a few key questions about stepparenting issues. Here, her words of wisdom:
Q. What is the top challenge faced by a stepmother?
A. In a stepfamily, parents and their children have a pre-existing, hard-wired attachment to each other. They also come with established agreements about everything, from whether Grape Nuts is a breakfast food or a form of cardboard, to the “appropriate” price for a new pair of sneakers. If you also bring children, the same is true for you. This means that, even though you and your sweetie are very much in love, every time a child enters the room, or the conversation, the parent feels pulled, engaged, visible and needed. Conversely, the stepparent very often feels unseen, ignored and invisible. These stuck insider/outsider positions are one of the biggest challenges of living in a stepfamily.
Q. How should a stepparent handle those feelings?
A. When you feel left out, work on reaching out for comfort (“I could use a hug.”) rather than attacking (“How could you be so clueless?”). Connection will not come from the two of you feeling the same way about the kids. It will come from being kind to each other about these differences and really trying to empathize with each other. Try to remember that your husband’s feelings of being caught between the people he loves are just as painful as yours. Carve out some regular alone time as a couple. It is also important to find activities outside the family where you feel connected and valued.
Q. Any advice for how stepmothers should relate to their stepchildren?
A. You and your new love are thrilled to have found each other. However, in study after study, stepchildren express a deep sense of loss when their parents re-couple. For many kids, adjusting to a stepfamily is harder than adjusting to divorce. Stepfamilies are easiest for children under eight. They are also easier for boys than girls, and they're hardest for young teen girls.
Some tips: You and your husband may be, understandably, eager to get on with your new lives. However, your stepfamily will be healthier if you take things one step at a time. During this major transition, children need to feel the secure comfort of their parent’s attention. Balance your time alone together as a couple with regular, reliable parent-child time. While your partner spends time with his or her kids, go see a friend, have a pedicure, or veg out with your favorite TV show.
Q. What about discipline?
A. Stepparents often want more firmness, order and control. Parents feel protective of their kids and may have become more lax as a single parent. The research is very clear: Until or unless stepparents have a trusting relationship with stepchildren, discipline must stay in the hands of the parent. Concentrate on getting to know your stepkids. Spend one-on-one time with each of them without your husband. Meanwhile, on disciplinary matters, remember that stepparents have input but parents have the final say.
The research also shows that the most effective parenting is both moderately firm and empathically warm. Stepparents can often help parents to “firm up.” Do remember that most parents are incredibly sensitive about their parenting and their kids. “You are a wimp and your kids are slobs,” is not going to pull your sweetie closer to you. Use what John Gottman calls a “soft start up” to bring up issues. “I know you love your kids. I think they are old enough to wash their own dishes. Can we talk about that?” Your husband does not have to say yes. But you can ask him to listen respectfully with an open mind.
Q. How should a stepmother best handle the relationship with her husband’s ex-wife?
A. For better or for worse, your husband’s ex-wife is part of your family. It is not divorce (or living in a stepfamily) that contributes most to compromised well-being for kids. It is conflict — even moderate conflict. Do your best to support your stepchildren’s relationship with their mother. Work with your husband to protect your stepchildren from adult tension and conflict.
Q. What are the husband’s responsibilities toward his new wife (the stepmother)?
A. Your husband cannot ask his kids to love you. However, he can insist that they be civil to you. “Civil” means, at the very least, saying hello and giving you eye contact. Keep in mind that it is not always easy to be polite to someone who represents a major loss and too much change. A parent in a stepfamily has two different, often conflicting, responsibilities. Children need caring and consistent parenting. Stepparents need connection and empathy. When you feel left out, he can help you a lot by giving you extra hugs and a good dose of empathy and compassion (“That was tough.”), rather than becoming defensive. Encourage your husband to spend time alone with his kids and ask for time alone as a couple.
Fabulous advice, Dr. Papernow!
Check out stepfamilyrelationships.com for ongoing assist with future snafus. And be sure to look for Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies on this website, as well as amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and routledge.com. After reading this invaluable guide, you’re guaranteed to be the best stepparent ever!