Parenting in stepfamilies is not straight forward – for stepparents or for biological parents. It doesn’t work like parenting in a first-time family. Parenting in stepfamilies is more complex and involves extra complications and external pressures. And so it’s no surprise that building a stepfamily takes a whole lot of W-O-R-K.
In fact, research shows that the first few years of forming a stepfamily is full of conflict. Conflict within the stepcouple relationship. Conflict within the co-parenting relationship. Conflict between the kids and siblings. Conflict between the kids and the adults. Conflict while everyone – parents, stepparents, children, extended family, the Ex – adjusts to the transition. But, conflict doesn’t mean you’re failing as a stepfamily. It just means you are working things out as all couples, parents and anyone in a relationship needs to do.
With conflict comes underlying tension and friction. Even though conflict in stepfamily life is inevitable, there are a number of things that a biological parent can do to reduce tension and friction in your stepfamily. For some, this will come naturally. For others, you might feel like your in the middle of a mine field. Tension blowing up everywhere with every move you make. For you, we’ve got a few tips and strategies that may help:
Have a good solid look at your expectations for your stepfamily.
And, get rid of any first-family expectations. They really have no place in stepfamily life. Deep down are you expecting your partner and your kids to love each other immediately? Are you assuming your partner will take on all the ‘motherly’ or ‘fatherly’ roles for the kids that your Ex used to do when you were together? Are you getting angry or disappointed when these things don’t happen? Having first-time family expectations for your stepfamily is a huge tension builder.
Both your partner and your kids may be anxious wondering how to behave or what is expected of them in their new roles as a stepparent and a stepchild. You can help them by not placing any first-time family expectations on them. Your kids and your partner love you immensely. That’s a given, but that doesn’t mean they will or must automatically love each other. And, if they don’t, that’s okay. In fact, it’s pretty normal and does not reflect in any way on how much they do (or don’t) love you as an individual.
Your partner is a stepparent. Slotting them directly into the role of a biological mother or father is likely to cause confusion and loyalty issues for your kids, friction with the Ex and uncertainties for your partner. Many stepparents in this situation find themselves wondering why everyone is upset with them when they are just trying to do the right thing and live up to expectations you have for them.
Want to reduce the tension? Stay the primary parent. Keep packing those lunches and doing the school drop-offs. Talk openly and often with your partner about what role he/she and the kids are comfortable with them taking. Develop a parenting plan with your partner for your home. And while relationships between you partner and kids naturally evolve, you keep doing the primary parenting.
Civil and respectful interactions are the glue that makes it all happen.
Between the kids and your partner. Between you and your Ex. Between your Ex and your partner. With your parents and siblings. Be clear that you don’t expect anyone to like or love each other (especially at the start), but everyone must be civil and treat each other with respect.
Remain the main disciplinarian.
There are a number of things needed to make discipline effective for children, but first and foremost it must come from someone with whom they have an emotional bond.
In the beginning, a stepparent focussing too much on rules and discipline can and will stall their relationship with your kids. To help your partner and kids build a positive relationship especially in the very early days, it can be helpful for you to delegate authority to your partner much as you would with a baby-sitter. You telling your kids that when you are not around you partner will be enforcing your rules is important for reducing conflict.
You and your partner agreeing to those rules and what they look like outside of earshot of the kids is a great foundation to developing a parenting team that leads to stepfamily success. Whether you choose to share with the children that the rules were developed by you and your partner together is completely up to you! The important thing is that the children see the person they have the strongest connection with explaining and providing clear expectations around house rules.
It also takes the ‘bad guy’ status off your partner without creating the opportunity for an unequal parenting relationship to form between you and your partner. Instead it allows each of you – you, your partner and your kids – the ability to accept and acknowledge the different relationship your partner, as the stepparent, has with the children at this point in time. As their relationship grows, your parenting partnership should evolve with it.
Connection before correction is key for building a successful stepfamily.
Remain the main co-parent.
It may be tempting to let your partner step in and deal with your Ex in an attempt to diffuse a strained relationship. But this typically ends up with raising friction rather than reducing it and it’s an unfair position for your partner.
Of course stepparents can join in with co-parenting if that’s what you both decide you want and the Ex is receptive. But it’s not necessary. If your Ex isn’t open to it or your partner isn’t ready, it really can wait – for however long is needed – so as not to add additional conflict. As long as you include your partner in any parenting decisions that may impact them and/or your home together, you can be the mouthpiece for you both with the Ex never even knowing.
Have a ‘both/and/and’ attitude
Spend time with your kids and partner together (both), spend time with just your kids (and) and make sure to have couple time alone as well (and) – even when the kids are with you. Even if you have them every other weekend and are worried about missing out. Your couple relationship may be the only healthy one that your kids have experienced. Let them see what makes a relationship work so they’ll know what to do when they are older.
It’s also important to maintain ‘touch points’ with both your kids and your partner. If your kids have become used to you reading them a book and putting them to bed since you separated from your Ex, keep doing that. If you and your partner dance together every time you hear a certain song, don’t stop doing it just because your kids are now present. Maintain your ‘touch points’. They provide needed stability and reassurance during times of change and transition.
Help the stepparent feel less like an outsider
All kids go through stages where they feel closer to one parent than another. It’s a normal part of child development and growth. In first-time families, this closeness generally shifts back and forth from one biological parent to the other and can cause a bit of hurt for the parent who isn’t the ‘in’ parent at the moment.
In stepfamilies this same phenomenon occurs, but there generally isn’t any shifting back and forth between the adults as to who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The stepkids feel closer to their biological parent (rightly so) and the stepparent gets stuck in an outsider role, which significantly hurts and creates friction.
You can help your partner out by:
- Acknowledging their feelings about being left out.
- Take some steps to lessen those feelings by encouraging and supporting a relationship to build between the kids and your partner. Encourage your partner and kids to do one-on-one ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ activities like hiking, cooking or playing video games. These activities take the pressure of for both kids and stepparents because they are less conversationally intense. But, make sure you have your partner’s back. If making cupcakes or playing Monopoly is your kids and your Ex’s special thing, give your partner the ‘heads-up’.
- Find activities you can do as a family that your partner and your kids are good at, but you aren’t. Letting your partner and kids have something in common puts them a little bit closer and allows you to take on an ‘outsider’ role for awhile giving your partner a much needed break.
- Reconnect with your partner whenever you are disrupted. Kids are disruptive to adult time. That’s what they do. Be conscious of when those times happen in your stepfamily and make it a priority to reconnect with your partner. A quick cuddle. Bringing up the conversation that was interrupted as soon as you can. It all matters and helps to reduce tension in your home.
Keep the bedroom in the bedroom
You and your partner may not be able to keep your hands off each other, but if you want to reduce friction in your home save it for the bedroom. No kid wants to watch their parent getting it on. This can be a particularly sensitive area for kids if the Ex is not coping with the divorce/separation or you and your partner formed your relationship prior to you separating from the Ex.
Being the biological parent in a stepfamily is a fine-tuned balancing act. It isn’t easy, but there are a number of things you can do to ease the tensions while you, your partner and kids get on with the journey of building a stepfamily and life you love.