Of all of the jobs and titles I’ve ever had in my life, “stepparent,” has by far been the most challenging. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a handful of people about my 13+ years experience as a stepmother. As I’ve considered my time in step-parenthood, there are definitely things that I wish I had known and done differently.
Here are my top 10 best practices for stepparents who have already taken the plunge or those who may be considering a blended family.
1. House Rules:
Once you become an official family, or even before, sit down together and establish house rules. This is the best way to avoid phrases like, “Well, it used to be okay before you married her!” or “But dad lets us do this at his house!” By establishing house rules, the rules belong to the house, not the parent or stepparent. This way everyone has a chance to voice their opinion and feel a sense of contribution to the rules AND the consequences.
2. Yours, Mine, and Ours:
Get rid of the labels. Most of the terms used in blended families come with an emotional charge, and sometimes it’s difficult to gauge if that charge is positive or negative. Initially, I had a hard time knowing how to refer to my stepchildren until one day a coworker encouraged me to refer to them as “my kids”. I noticed that once I started leaving off the “step” label, I felt closer to the kids, and I think they felt closer to me. No child wants to be known as the “stepchild” in the family. You don’t owe it to anyone to have to explain your situation. If someone says, “But you don’t look old enough to have kids that age,” or “Your kids don’t look anything like you!”, you can reply with a kind smile and move on.
3. It’s Not About You:
Know that the situation is more difficult for the child than it is for you. I had a significant moment of clarity about three years into our marriage. While I was thinking about how hard it was to be a stepmother, the thought came to me, “And it’s even harder to be a stepchild.” No matter how old your stepchildren are (toddler, child, preteen, teenager), they are still kids trying to navigate some very difficult situations and relationships that they have absolutely no control over. So when they are raging, crying, thrashing, feeling sad, and/or grumpy, validate them, love them, and know that they are having a hard day. And that they will have lots of hard days.
4. Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate:
Talk to your kids. Ask them questions about their day, about their friends, about their life. And if they don’t answer, that’s okay, keep asking. And when they do answer, validate them. Their feelings are real, and they should be given space to feel them. Tell them you love them, and if you’re not quite there, make sure you let them know how much you like them and care about them. Support them at their extracurricular events, Meet them where they are at whether it’s on the soccer field, building Legos, or reading bedtime stories. Establishing a regular family meeting schedule or a nightly check-in/family tuck-in routine also helps.
5. The Disneyland Family:
Make happy memories together. One of the easiest traps to fall into is planning fun activities for when the kids are at the other parent’s house. Make sure you plan fun things to do when you have the kids with you, even if it’s just going to a park for a picnic, or going to the beach for the day. Building memories and laughing together is one of the best things you can do to have strong and healthy relationships with your stepchildren.
6. If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say:
Don’t criticize or speak poorly about the child, their siblings, or the child’s other parent in front of them. Ever. Children often identify themselves as extensions of their parents. If he hears you complain about or criticize his mother or his father, he will most likely feel defensive and take your comments personally, as well. And this advice applies to the biological parent, as well.
7. See a Family Counselor:
I cannot recommend this strongly enough. Having a family counselor is like having a referee in a boxing match. It’s worth every penny, mile, and hour to have a third party help each member of the family understand how their contribution affects the family dynamic. Counselors have great suggestions of how to have a happy marriage and a successful blended family. It’s also helpful for the kids to have someone that they can vent to–someone who is safe, who will validate their feelings and teach them strategies to manage their personal stress and emotion.
8. Get Over Yourself:
You won’t be able to walk around the house in your underwear; your bed will become blanket mountain in which forts are made and Saturday morning cartoons are indulged; your stepdaughter will borrow your clothes; your stepson may lose your tools, and that’s okay. Welcome to family life! When it comes to maintaining important relationships, those things don’t matter. And years later you’ll look back fondly on happy, family memories.
9. Put Yourself in Time Out:
Every parent needs a break. Make sure you are taking time for yourself, whether that means working out, reading a good book, meditation, a quick nine holes of golf, or a jaunt to your local Target store. Whatever the oxygen mask is in your life, make sure you are breathing from it deeply and often. Self care is important.
10. Nurture Your Marriage:
Marriage can be challenging enough without adding the dynamic and drama of ex-spouses and accumulating children by way of a wedding. And yes, it’s okay to acknowledge that the stepfamily unit is one of the most difficult to maneuver. However, the success of your family ultimately depends on the security of your marriage. Take time for each other, present a united front, and love each other and your children unconditionally.