Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Being a Stepparent: What You Need to Know to Make It Work

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Being a Stepparent: What you Need to Know To Make Them Work

I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).

Being a step-parent is up there with the hardest. My stepchildren are adults now and even though the fog has cleared, I still claim it to be one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

From the outset, there are things about a stepfamily that would likely hint at trouble if they happened in a biological family:

  • Another person (the other biological parent) has a hand in some of the big decisions that affect your family – the way the kids are raised (which will always have an impact on your home), weekends, holidays, family rituals, rules. Though you will have a say, there’s a third person with an investment who will potentially want to interfere be heard.
  • The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. In a biological family, both parents have an equal say and big decisions are made by the couple. In a stepfamily, matters to do with the child will often be between the biological parents, or the biological parent and child. Potentially, the step-parent will have less influence in decisions that effect the family and the individuals in it.
  • The step-parent is an outsider. There are years of shared history, memories, connection and experiences between members of the biological family that the step-parent will never be a part of. Of course in time the stepfamily will grow into something new and wonderful, but first there will be a bit of compromise.

Being the second wife/husband/important person does have benefits, the main one of which is that your partner has already has a realistic idea of the work that’s required to make a marriage work. There are no illusions the second time around in relation to the marriage, though there may be a few in relation to the family. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to smooth the bumps along the way, even if you can’t completely disappear them:

  1. Let go of the fantasy.

    It sounds simple enough (it’s not!) but it could be the difference between your relationship working or not. That’s not overstating it. It really is that important.

    An abundance of research has confirmed that unhappiness is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. It’s not so much the situation that causes distress but that the situation is different to what’s expected. 

    In a stepfamily, everyone comes with their own fantasy. It’s completely normal and inevitable – but if you hang on to the fantasy too tightly, it could very well fall you. Most couples come into a stepfamily thinking that the family will immediately gel, the relationships will be tight, everyone will feel the love and the family will be a happy one. But it really doesn’t work like that.

    In a biological family, there would be problems if there was no expectation that you will love your children, they’ll love you back and all will be close. In a stepfamily though, these fantasies set up the potential for profound disappointment. Why? Because all family members come with their own fantasy, some of which are completely incompatible.

    Patricia Papernow is a leader in the field of stepfamilies and has found that the following fantasies are typical in a stepfamily:

    •  Step-parent: ‘We’ll be one big happy family. The kids will love me. I’ll love them back. My relationship will be solid. I can’t wait for us all to be a family.’

    •  Biological Parent: ‘My partner will love the kids as much as I do and the kids will love him/her back. The kids will be so grateful for everything he/she gives this family. I just can’t wait to show everyone how happy we can be as a family.’

    •  The kids: ‘It’s only a matter of time before mum and dad get back together. They actually love each other a lot and as soon as they realise that we can be a family again.’

    Letting go of the fantasy allows for greater acceptance of the reality, more respect for what ‘is’ and more of the flexibility that’s needed to get to wherever you’re going as a family. A stepfamily can be as happy and successful as any other, but it will be different. It’s important to let go of the fantasy gently though, because your imaginings of what things would be like would have been a big part of the reason you decided to do this. And don’t worry, let go of the fantasy and reality will see to it that eventually something at least as good will take its place.

  2. See the rough patches for what they are – a progression not a fall.

    There are going to be rough patches and that’s okay. Accept them as a sign of progression towards a new kind of family – one with you in it. Your experience of the stepfamily might be different to what you expected but it doesn’t mean a happy ending isn’t coming.

    It’s likely that at some point you will feel like an outsider, as well as jealous, lonely, resentful, confused and inadequate. You’ll probably experience hostility, indifference or rejection from your stepkids and more than likely you’ll fight with your partner more than you expected. This is normal. Accept it, let it unfold and most importantly don’t take it personally, though I know that’s easier said than done.

    It feels like a shake up, and it is, but it’s all part of the adjustment the family has to go through to get to something better.  The family is recalibrating and changing shape to make way for you. That sort of adjustment was never going to be easy. Sometimes things have to fall apart a little so they can come back together in a different way. See the rough patches for what they are – a remaking, a realignment, a progression towards something new, rather than a threat.

  3. Understand and respond to the loyalty bind.

    It’s normal for children to worry that their acceptance of a step-parent might betray their biological parent. They might worry that if they like you, accept you or love you, their biological parent will be hurt or angry. This may increase their need to show loyalty to the biological parent by rejecting you or being hostile to you to ‘prove’ their love and loyalty to their parent. 

    If you suspect a loyalty bind might be at play, see it for what it is and don’t take it personally. Let your stepchild know that you aren’t trying to replace his or her biological parent and that you know nobody could ever do that. Let them know it’s okay to feel as they do and that you will work through it together.

    Next, gently put the idea out there that they can care about you and love their other parent at the same time. Acknowledge that you know that their relationship with their biological parent will always be special and different to anything else. Let them know you would like to try to have a relationship that is good for both you and the child, and that you’ll follow their lead as to what that looks like.

  4. When your stepchild is ready, work on creating the new relationship.

    Don’t try to replicate the relationship your child has with their biological parent. This runs the risk of inflaming the loyalty bind but it also takes away the opportunity for you to create something new. You have qualities, wisdom and experience that will be different to those of the other adults in the child’s life. It may take a while for your stepchild to appreciate that, but be patient. Find new things to share that are different to what the child has with his or her biological parent. 

  5. Decide on what’s important. And let the rest go.

    There will be plenty to argue about. The fact that a stepfamily is in the making means that nobody’s story has ended the way they thought it would. Nobody goes into marriage anticipating divorce and children don’t look forward to the day their parents live in separate houses. There’s a lot going on – broken hearts, endings and angry people. People won’t always be on their best behaviour.

    Decide on the things that are important to you and let the rest go. Push gently for the change that needs to happen but at the same time, respect the rest of the family’s need for stability.

    The balance will get precarious at times but it’s an important part of getting to where you need to be. You won’t be able to function as a new family until differences are worked through and people have enough of what they need to not feel compromised. Without a doubt, your new family can be phenomenal but it will take time.

  6. Appreciate the small stuff.

    Understand that it may be difficult for your stepchild to accept you or show affection for so many reasons, none of which will have anything to do with how they feel about you. The upheaval, their own grief and loyalty binds all make for shaky ground. Appreciate the small moments of contact. It’s easy to overlook them but when they happen, know that it’s big.

  7. Respect that it will take time.

    In her extensive work, Papernow has found that stepfamilies take about 7-12 years to adjust and to exist as a healthy, well-functioning system. Quicker families might do it in four but some families never really get there. I wonder how much of the time frame has to do with the stepchildren reaching independence and establishing a relationship with their step-parents as adults, rather than children.

  8. Be open to letting go.

    Be open to the possibility that you may never be close to all or any of your stepchildren. One may have less need for another adult in their lives or may feel the conflict of a loyalty bind more than the others. You might also just be too different from each other to make it work. The most important thing is that when they are younger, you are committed to making it work, but that doesn’t mean it will work out as planned. There is enormous grace and courage in being able to let go, which is different to giving up.

All stepfamilies are different but they share common vulnerabilities. They can be as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family is smooth sailing all the time but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges at the start that are unique. Within that is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.

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42 Comments

Hollie

I liked the article a lot but wished it had been told from the death perspective a bit more. Most articles like this are written for divorced families. Death is similar but not the same. I especially wish the letting go of the fantasy had addressed the kids that are dealing with grief. Obviously, the hope of biological parents getting back together is not part of their fantasy. Only one job more difficult than parenting and that is step-parenting.

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heysigmund

There are so many more stepfamily articles to come. Because of my own experience as a stepmom – which hasn’t all been smooth sailing! – it was a bit ‘where do I start’. I will be dealing with it all in more detail over the coming while. The suggestion of writing one from a death perspective is a great one that I hadn’t thought of and I’d love to write something for that. Leave it with me. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

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Lawrence

My situation is rather unique. I was 14 years younger than my wife and only 7 years older than my eldest step daughter. My wife died 2 years ago and i met someone new shortly after her death. We were together almost 25 years. The eldest stepdaughter never met her biological father…my younger stepdaughter’s father divorced from her mother when she was 2 years old. The youngest accepts my new wife..my eldest step daughter feels betrayed and wants nothing to do with me. I think of them both as my daughters.

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Dame Sonnier

I loved this article. I’m almost 10yrs in, now, and like many of us, learned most of these the HARD way.

1, 2, and 5 were key for me. 8 kind of dropped in my lap as our kids aged.

When I got to my #1/5 break over point is when I first realized that our family was “newborn” and only up for small, quick outings when the stars were all aligned, or visits (again, brief) with those who we really trusted and loved. Even though we were all the 11+ years and up crowd, we just couldn’t function as ANYONE expected for a weekend away or full-fledged holiday.

Our best events were when we threw all tradition and expectation out the window and did what was right for us.

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heysigmund

Do you know, I think that letting go of expectation and doing what works is the best thing you can do. I also learned the hard way – gosh I’m wondering if another way to learn even exists, particularly in relation to step-parenting! It’s so hard to let go of the fantasy and go with what comes, but it was the thing that made the difference for me. Once I was able to do that, then I could let go of expectation and, like you, do what was right for our family. The path we took looked nothing like I ever could have imagined but we got there in the end. It’s so important that we talk about it though. When my step kids were little, I didn’t know anybody else in a stepfamily so compared myself to these ridiculous ideals I had in my head, or to non-stepfamilies (sheesh!). Over time, talking to other step-parents has been one of the most helpful things – makes me realise that we’re all just doing our best, and that the ‘right’ way looks different for everyone. It’s so good that you’re alive to the issues – you’ll make a huge difference to the stepfamily experience. Thank you for taking the time to share your story. I’m very grateful.

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Dame Sonnier

I also wanted to touch on the grief aspect. My kids were essentially abandoned by their birth mom. In our neighborhood I could only find death of parent support, though our kids were grieving too…

I think it goes back to the fact that each person and family are different and thank goodness the “family mold” is cracking/evolving and freeing us all up to do what’s right instead of what’s “normal” or expected.

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heysigmund

So well said! The family mold is certainly changing shape and it’s fast getting to a point where there is no ‘typical’ – which is a good thing.

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Andrea

Loved the article, I am recently married however my husband and I have been together for 4 1/2 years, particularly because when we began dating his son was 2 and we wanted to be sure everything was right before jumping into something. He was never married to his son’s mother, but that was not how she saw the future pan out and we have faced a lot of challenges with her. As his son was so young when I came into his life we actually have no functioning issues in our family, he sees me as a mother figure and couldn’t be happier that I am his step mom (he still throws himself into my arms hollering Stepmom as loud as he can!). My husband from day one has always supported anything I have said from pick up your clothes to more important things. We have him 50% of the time, and his son clearly sees me as a mother figure. I am currently struggling to adjust to the anger being thrown at us from his ex that was never a major issue until about a week before our wedding, and seems to get worse every day. As my stepson was curled up asleep between my husband and I last night I made the decision that I have no control over how she feels, only how I react to it. That she clearly has unresolved anger and insecurity issues but that me being involved is not going to help that. To separate myself from her and have all communication go through my husband, and to continue to love his son like my own and disregard her fabricated claims until my husband tells me otherwise. Dwelling (and responding to!) her ficticious accusations will only make us both more angry, which will eventually upset the balance in our family.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Andrea. You sound as though you have such a wonderful, loving relationship with your stepson. You’re both so lucky to have each other. You’ve made a really great decision here with his mum. You can’t control what she does and there would be all sorts of reasons for her anger – there is potential for plenty when there are kids and a mother figure involved. If she’s making up stories, she’s at desperation stage and the best thing you can do is to step away. You’ve made this decision made in strength and for the love of your stepson. It’s so important that you want to love him more than you want to argue with his mother. Let go of her is such a wise thing to do and such a protective thing to do for your family. Sounds like you’re a pretty awesome team.

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Laura

I love this article, i read it and saved it a while ago, and this morning an incident came up that really made me need the help and solidarity of reading about other step-families.
I snapped at my 6 year old step son after a night of no sleep (up with my biological daughter of 20 months in the night) and rushing to get out the door to work. His dad (who is the most amazing parent), felt I was being unfair on him. He used the incident to address my parenting style as he is concerned I am not loving enough to my step-son in particular in relation to our baby daughter. Although this is painful it has opened up a dialogue between us for me to try and explain some of the feelings I have for my step-son and around our family life. We are currently embroiled in a second round of year long battling with his mother who is alcoholic, with is putting us under enormous financial and emotional strain due to the vast legal costs and the constant unending grief we get from the birth mother. We love each other dearly but the situation is incredibly challenging and upsetting and this all comes on top of having 2 young kids and us both working and commuting from 7-7 each day in high stress jobs. Right now likfe is a lot about existing and trying to make the best of things rather than really living, but we know we are stronger together.
But gosh if I had known what I know now when I was younger would if I would have made the same choices… I think I would, but I also would have warned myself to be very brave!

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Hey Sigmund

Stepfamilies are really hard work – worth it – but hard. All parents get cranky and snap now and then, but one of the things that makes step-parenting so difficult is that if you snap at your own biological child, it can be put down to a bad day or a bad moment and nobody looks up, but when you snap at someone else’s child, it can come across as abrasive and unloving. It’s important for everyone to remember that though you can love and feel deeply committed to your stepchildren, this can take more time and can be more fragile than the relationship with a biological child – that’s just the truth of it. Biological parents can find it difficult to understand why you might not have the same bond with their child as they do, but the connection will likely be different, especially if you haven’t been bonding with them since they were a baby – and that’s okay. The love and connection with your own child is instinctive – it’s hardwired in us, otherwise we would be feeling that maternal bond with, and wanting to take responsibility for every child in our lives. The love and connection with someone else’s child can still be very strong and can grow to feel the same as a biological child, but it will take time – sometimes years for this to develop. The fantasy that this will happen quickly is the biggest thing that gets in the way of stepfamilies.

What you’re doing is enormous – young children, the normal issues that come with being in a stepfamily, working in high stress jobs. Be kind to yourself and patient – this takes time and there are challenges with a blended family that other families will never have to deal with.

Patricia Papernow wrote a brilliant book called ‘The Stepfamily Cycle’ and it really helped me when I was going through what you’re going through. I used her model in my work with stepfamilies because I know from my own experience that it made so much sense. She takes about the stages that stepfamilies go through and says that it can take up to 12 years for a family to finish the cycle (though in some instances I think that’s because the kids become adults). I know that you probably have absolutely no time to read, but if you do, it’s really worth it. It will help to make sense of what you’re going through and will let you know how normal your experience is.

The most important thing is to remember why you came together in the first place. It sounds as though you have a really solid foundation and a strong, close relationship. The rest will take care of itself.

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Tilly

This article was great, and really hit home for me. The fantasy issue is so true & I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one! I am a step-mom (unofficially, as my partner & I are not married) of 3 kids, and don’t have kids of my own. One of the biggest issues for me was that reality was so very far from what I’d imagined life to be. In fact I think I grieved for the life that I’d hoped I’d get & never did.

Everyone kept telling me how great it must be to finally have kids in my life, and people generally expected this to be a substitute for wanting (& not being able to have) my own kids. This is so very far from the reality, as your article says… you don’t really get to raise them as you’d imagined all these years, you do as much for them as their biological mum, but don’t get the unconditional love, sometimes you get the resentment etc…

All the little things you’ve stored up in your mind over the years like traditions you wanted to start etc.. can be met with pure bafflement from the kids (as its not their way of doing things) & you finally realise that you need to put some of your expectations to rest.

However, you can find a way to move forward & you can become a part of a new unit. My step-son referred to me as his step-mom the other day (we are two years into our blended family), my step-daughter informed me that when I’m having a little moan she now sees it as she would her parents & I thought to myself… I think I’m finally there!!

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased the article helped you. Letting go of the fantasy was a big one for me too. It sounds as though you’re commitment has paid off though – it’s great to be able to recognise this. Step-parenting is really hard, and you deserve to celebrate what you’ve achieved so far.

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Lotta

Thanks for this article. I am a step mum of 4 years and it’s been – and remains – tough. The guilt at feeling so much love for my biological child and so much ambivalence towards my (teenage) step child. I’ve battled with myself over this and while some days are fine, others feel unbearable. I look forward to further articles (and I too recommend Patricia Papernow’s research).

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Hey Sigmund

Step-parenting is tough. You don’t have to love all children as you love your own, though the expectation is often that step-parents will. It’s just not realistic. The teenage years can be hard enough when you’re dealing with your own child, let alone when you’re dealing with someone else’s. As long as you can act with love and kindness towards your stepchild, your feelings are your feelings and their completely valid. Be kind to yourself – it will make the road a little easier for you.

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manu

Hey Sigmund.. (nice reference to the pyschologist) i came across this article in google, as i have recently started seeing a guy with 2 kids (5 and 3) and have been wondering on the complications on taking it forward. I have exactly the same fantasy you mentioned, and reading at the other posts and comments, seems like its not a cake walk. Nevertheless, he’s a great guy and looking to get through things well, hope to gain more insight into some of things to do before I step into the relationship so I can avoid some of the pitfalls (if ever this was possible)

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Hey Sigmund

As a stepmother myself, I can tell you that letting go of the fantasy is critical and will make so much difference. Understand that they are their own little unit and though you will be an important part of it, they have a history that came before you. They will love you all the more for anything you do that will preserve that and to not take it personally if you feel a little bit separate from them sometimes. Let the parenting decisions be his and avoid wherever possible being the one to hand out discipline or redirect behaviour. This is important because they don’t have the history and relationship with you that they do with him. In time this will change, but for a while it’s best if you let him make the decisions around his kids. He will love you for supporting him and for not making it difficult, and they will love you for not trying to replace the absent parent. Above all else, if you can understand that this is such an enormous adjustment for them, and that anything they do which feels personally, most likely isn’t but a reaction to a situation that they would probably prefer was different. You sound open and warm and ready to connect with these little people and create something new and wonderful with them.

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Felicia

Thank you for this insightful article. It is also great reading about other step parents out there. This is my first time being a step mother!!! Whew, it’s been very, very challenging. My husband have been married for 1.5 years. We are in our mid 50’s and he has two sons 9 and 8! Yes, I wrote that correctly – ages 9 and 8! (LOL). I have 5 adult children – youngest is 23. Part of my problem is that it has been a long time since I’ve had to “raise” children. Next is during the first year the boys have gone back to tell their mother fibs. I was shocked! I understand there are adjustment times for children to get acclimated to the new adult and the possible hopes of their parents getting back together. I understand–I really do. My husband is a wonderful man and a wonderful father–he explained to the boys that I’m his wife, that he loves me and has told them to respect me. I appreciate him for that! I think my husband believes we should automatically and immediately become a loving family unit and expects me to love his children. However, the truth is I care for them but I don’t love them yet. Also, I am struggling with what’s mine, what’s theirs and what’s ours. I recently bought a puppy. The kids at one point thought and probably think the puppy is theirs. I told my husband that I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but to please let them know that the puppy is not theirs…but they can play with her (there have been times they have been a little rough and we’ve straightened that out). As for general care for the puppy, my husband and myself take responsibility for her. Any, any advice would help.

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Hey Sigmund

It is completely understandable that you don’t feel a maternal love for your husband’s children. The truth is that although you may be very fond of them, there is you have no more reason to feel maternal love for them than for any other child. You might feel it one day or you might not. It is very normal for your husband to believe that you should love them – it’s all part of the fantasy. The sooner he is able to let go of this, the healthier your family will be. The pressure of ‘shoulds’ that are contained in the fantasies are what puts so much pressure on stepfamilies.

As for the puppy, it is for you to decide the boundaries but I expect the kids are thinking that the puppy is part of the family, (as they are, as you are), so she is an ‘ours’ puppy. The risk with keeping the puppy separate in terms of ownership is that you will also be seen as separate, rather than as part of their family. It’s so complicated isn’t it!

The best piece of advice I can give you is not to let go of the fantasy, and not to take anything personally. Keep an open mind and a sense of humour, and be ready to receive with love anything they give to you. It sounds as though you and your husband are a great team.

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Samantha

Yes, stepfamily life is hard. We have been married for coming up to 7 years, together nearly 10. My kids have just moved out together but we still have his kids with us. (they are a bit younger) For the first few years we had mine full time and his 50%, after that it was all of them, all the time. His ex lost the plot and mine never had it!

We’ve had issues all the way through and yes, it does take it’s toll. I think open communication, good support systems including people ‘living’ a similar situation, and being open to counselling is a must.

If you think step-parenting with small kids is hard, wait till they’re teens! You will need all the support you can get.

And as you say, let go of the fantasy, remember ‘who’ you both are, (morals/values) and be kind to yourselves.

x

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Hey Sigmund

Beautifully said Samantha. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so powerful to hear from others who are going through a similar experience. You never know who you will be giving comfort and strength to.

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Samantha

Thank you. I’m just glad more and more people are talking about it, and in realistic terms.

The point is, I think, going in with open eyes and learning from your past relationships.

Actually, you know what else? Having boundaries.

Having boundaries doesn’t mean you are being mean to the ‘other parent’. It means you are protecting your relationship and your family. If the situation calls for boundaries, don’t feel bad about enforcing them.

If there’s no stable parental team, the whole thing falls apart. And no-one wants that for a second time for the kids. (or themselves) x

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Melissa

I just found your site through FB and it has been enlightening. I am widowed without children, remarried for 3 years with 2 step daughters (20 and 12). In trying to create a relationship with his daughters, I decided to call them my bonus daughters. (I find the step term to be distancing.) I married their dad and I got the bonus of 2 beautiful girls. I was pleased on our first mother’s day to get a bonus mom card.
This is a fantastic resource. Thank you.

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Melissa

I just found your site through FB. It is a great resource I will continue to use. So much information I need to read and come back. I am widowed with no children, remaried with 2 bonus children (I find the step term distancing). Thank you for this site.

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Kate

Found your article interesting as these sorts of conversations aren’t held as I don’t know anyone else who is a step mum. I struggle with my feelings and opinions when it comes to my stepdaughter and how her biological parents are with her. I am currently struggling to make a decision on having kids with my husband due to my stepdaughter and how this may affect our marriage (more than having his daughter in our lives as we do now). I wouldn’t want arrangements to change in terms of having his daughter stay with us but he would like us to have her more if we have kids so don’t know how to broach this as I know guilt influences a lot of his decisions with his daughter. Also, we love our weekends when we don’t have her and sometimes think I don’t want anything to take that away from us as we don’t get much quality time with his job taking him away and his custody arrangements with his daughter. I envy the love they have for each other which is my main reason for wanting a child of my own but don’t know if this is reason enough to have kids?! Please advise as very confused.

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Hey Sigmund

Kate I completely understand your confusion. One of the tough things about step-parenting is being on the outer of so many important decisions. This is really normal. Step-parenting is one of the only situations in which important decisions that affect the couple, are actually made with another adult outside the relationship. Having your own child might help you to understand the things that you struggle with now in terms of your stepdaughter and the way her biological parents are with her. I would love to help you with this, but you are the only one who can decide whether or not to have a child. What I can do is tell you from my own point of view as a mother. When I had children, my life changed dramatically, in ways that I could never have expected, but not once have I wished for it to change back. Of course I have wished for more sleep, more time to myself, more time with my husband, more flexibility, but never enough to wish things could go back to the way they were before they came along. That’s how I feel, though the decision as to whether or not to have children is a personal one and one that only you can make. It’s a difficult decision, and I wish you all the best.

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Eluot

I have a dire need for help and advice…truth is I’ve tackled being a step father wisely…with time, not wanting to bark orders and change whats has been in place for years before ive arrived. Im convinced i want to marry this woman and be with her forever. Ive applied the true facts mentioned in this article prior to reading them here- making my interaction with kindness being sincere having patience KNOWING it will take time. My partner seem to think i should cater to her teens regardless of their actions. Ive been even keeled with a positive attitude and tone but still get perceived by my partner as being cold and separate. Ive done my best with what little experience i have.The problem is the expectations my partner has for me to baby her teens and make excuses for things that just arent right in my eyes. Respect is so important to me and she blatantly makes excuses for why they dont show the proper respect to me only.She has expectations for me aka her fanasty without communication just lashing out at me when they arent met. At this point im beginning to question a lot. I know her love for kids is tigher than anything i could understand but confused why she is willing to stand so firm about her kids not doing wrong and willing to lose what she only wants when they arent around.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

This is difficult on two levels. First there are issues that come with any stepfamily but adding to this are the difficulties that come as a normal part of adolescence that all parents struggle with. It can be difficult to know how to respond to teens. The truth is we don’t have control so we have to go for influence. Raising a teen is about gentle guidance. I absolutely agree with you that respect is everything – it’s how to go about making this happen in a way that preserves your influence and acknowledges their right to disagree with you. Here are a couple of articles that will help you to manage this …

> Parenting an Adolescent – 11 Insights That Will Make a Difference http://www.heysigmund.com/parenting-adolescent-11-insights-will-make-difference/
> What Your Teens Need You to Know http://www.heysigmund.com/what-your-teens-need-you-to-know/
> The What and the Why of the Changes that Come With Adolescence http://www.heysigmund.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-adolescent-brai/
> Understanding and Avoiding Teenage Flare-Ups http://www.heysigmund.com/understanding-and-avoiding-teenage-flare-ups/
> How to increase your influence with your teen http://www.heysigmund.com/increase-your-influence-with-your-teen/

Hope that helps.

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Moshni

Thank you very much for the article. I believe I’m stuck right in the beginning and I have been for some time now… I’ve been dating my partner for more than 3 years now, we have a 22 year difference in age. When we met he didn’t live with his family anymore but hasn’t officialy separated from his wife yet (I guess they both were too afraid to make the final step). They have four daughters together and always it has been a huge thing for me, an inmense source of resentment and jealousy that I couldn’t control. He was going to see them every other weekend and every weekend of those I was climbing the walls, feeling lonely, abandoned, betrayed and desperate. I kept it for myself for some time and then bit by bit it started to show.. I thought it would end once he speaks to the wife and they start the official proccedure but when that happened I felt no relief. I guess him being stressed with a huge sense of guilt didn’t help this either. I went to see a shrink for some time but just got nowhere. And more time I ignored this problem, deeper and deeper I was getting stuck. Every friday that he was going there, even before that, when he’d just give me the date or I find out about tickets, I felt a rush of anger and hate inside, I couldn’t help crying. I coudn’t speak to him for some time, couldn’t touch him. When he was there.. I’d imagine him in That Apartment, sleeping i don’t even want to think where (although I know she always leaved when he is there), taking children for a walk and not replying to my calls… I felt lonely, excluded, betrayed… Everytime when he saw me in this state of anger, he’d attack me even more so we’d end up fighting… I can’t listen to his calls to them, it makes me feel horrible when I see their “family” chat whether they send hearts and photographs to each other and then I just keep thinking how Big that relationship was if they had four children, not one or two… Now we spend more and more time together, he doesn’t go there often but when he tells me he will I get this wave insde again that I can’t cope with. I tried to be indifferent, I tried to distract myself, do other things but then I just think of him there and it all goes to waste. Of course in my ideal world it would be just me and him and I know how wrong it is to wish his life away and how unfair it all is to him but I just have no idea what to do. Like if I’m stuck in a corner and I just see no way out. Often I think that I maybe should drop it…And I guess it is about facing the reality but how?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

This is an important issue for your relationship. Your partner sounds like a very devoted, loving father. Anything that gets in the way of this will come between the two of you. It will be difficult for your relationship to move forward until there is closure with his marriage. You both have something the other wants and this is where the compromise has to happen. He wants you to accept his relationship with his daughters and be supportive and loving in relation to that. You want him to finalise his marriage. Until these happen, your relationship will struggle. Talk to him about what you need and what you are able to give him in return. It is understandable that until he brings closure to his marriage, you might feel insecure and jealous. Similarly, it is understandable that if you get angry or upset when he is with his daughters, he may feel suffocated by that.

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sydney

To Eluot:

Being a “bonus mom” or a “stepmom” for 35 years allows me this reflection and to offer my honest opinion,

I never had the need to be their mother but I had expectations of respect and that was a clear boundary from the beginning. My spouse respects me and just by example they respected me too. That said I would never marry someone who didn’t respect me in front of their children.

However on another topic about toxic relationships my angst, stress and disconnect didn’t come about with my “stepchildren” who are now in their 40s until they were much older and clearly became their own people. There have been problems with the biological mother but more in recent years due to weddings, grandchildren etc. whereby she feels territorial and not because I’ve interfered. She truly loves to be the center of attention and all we ask for is respect.

My problems came as I said later when I have seen his children act self-centered to the point where I cannot be around them and I’ve decided to disengage. My husband had a really rough time with my decision and I felt that I had to defend my feelings at every turn. I will no longer ever do that again. He’s not deaf, he does get it and it’s not going to change. I will in future call out behavior in others in the moment and not internalize it so it festers so as to make the person who hurt me be accountable for their insensitivity. People cannot read our minds and it is our responsibility to tell the offending person what we think too.

Lastly, I have said to our biological daughter who has witnessed the self-centered, insensitive behavior of her half brothers and supports my feelings of disconnect but does not involve herself in anyway to defend me to them. I don’t want her to be the messenger. My husband their father seems to FINALLY get it took a lot of mental masturbation to get here.

I’d suggest you and your partner get counselling and not even contemplate marriage until you are united. When her parenting skills are a cause for derision and it’s in your face everyday then why sign up for a life of misery?

My point is this, if it’s bad now the hurdles coming down the pipe are going to make you’re head spin.

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Julie

This article was extremely helpful, although we are not married my significant other moved in with me and my two boys a year and a half ago. They were 10 and 13 at the time. It hasn’t been all roses and sunshine, and having an ex husband who remains controlling and bitter, possibly envious of my new life has made it even more difficult. My boys like my boyfriend, but I’m not sure there is ‘love’ and there may never be. He cares for my boys, and makes efforts I believe they’re failing to see. My boyfriend has no kids of his own and has never been married. This is all new to him, and I appreciate the struggle it must be to step in from the outside. He allows me to parent my children, but he helps ensure they are safe and taken care of. The odd time something has happened that one of the boys hasn’t been completely fond of, they’ve gone running back to their dad with likely embellished stories and I’ve had to endure lectures and accusations about my boyfriend not respecting my children or keeping their safety in mind. I’ve been accused of putting my boyfriend ahead of my children. Where is that line, and can I get rid of it? The one that divides us and them, me supposedly taking my boyfriend’s side and having to defend us against my ex. It seems like if something happens, it’s not necessarily the action that becomes the issue, it’s that my boyfriend was involved. Let’s jump all over him because he’s the outsider. And when I defend him (because I genuinely feel something has been blown entirely out of proportion) then I look like I’m standing against my kids. It seems like a no win! I originally landed on your site for an article about anxiety, this causes me the greatest anxiety almost on a daily basis. It’s a walking on eggshells sort of life when you’re constantly worried about ‘what gets back to dad’. I will be doing more reading on your site, these articles are wonderful, thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Julie I’m so pleased these articles are helpful for you. As a stepmother myself, I can so relate to what you are describing. There are so many dynamics at play. It’s very normal for children to push against a step-parent in this way. It’s a way for them to show their love and loyalty to their biological parent. They’re not trying to be ‘naughty’, or to cause trouble – it’s just a way they can work through some of the confusing issues that come up with stepfamilies, not the least of which is making sure the other biological parent (in your case their father) knows that they still love him. For your ex, it’s an opportunity for him to show the children that he is still there for them 100%. All he has to go by is what the children say. For you, it can be so confusing and painful – I completely understand! Try not to take it personally, although I know that’s easier said than done.

Even in families where the biological parents are still together, it’s not unusual for children to play them off against each other sometimes – not deliberately, but when they feel misunderstood or poorly treat by one parent. It’s harder in stepfamilies because there is often a feeling that you need to explain yourself, or as though you’re doing the wrong thing when you keep a united front with your partner, (their stepfather). If you were biological parents, nobody would think twice about you defending him. In fact, it would be expected. In a stepfamily though, it’s not that easy. Stand with what you believe. As with a family where the biological parents are together, there will be decisions that the children that the children are unhappy with, and which require you to keep a united front with your partner.

It can sometimes be helpful to acknowledge the children’s concerns ‘I can see that you are angry about this. I understand that.’ This can help them to feel heard, even if you don’t agree.

Stay strong and know that as they get older, it will get easier. The bumps are normal, and it sounds as though with you, your boys are in loving and wonderful hands.

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Julie

Thanks Karen, it’s clear you completely understand! On Thursday evening something happened that upset my youngest. The ENTIRE day Friday I stressed about it wondering how it was being spun to ‘dad’. When it happened, I asked my partner to go talk to my son, perhaps to apologize for what had happened even though it wasn’t totally intentional. He went in and spoke with my son, explained that he didn’t mean to scare him and that he was sorry. After stressing about it on Friday, I went to pick up the boys and had my rebuttals all ready. Nothing was mentioned! Which proves the point that because we spoke to my son, understood he was upset and my partner apologized, it carried less stress and helped mend whatever may have been strained. Now if I could only learn my own lesson about ruminating! Thanks again Karen!

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Louise

Hello,
I loved reading your article.

I am 1 and a 1/2 years into a relationship with my partner who has a 2 year old son. I am 23 years old and have found adjusting to the expectations and reality of the relationships very difficult. I didn’t expect to be a ‘step mam’ and I am struggling a lot with stress and self worth (due to work and finances). I find myself struggling to be patient, with my step-son, partner and his ex. This may be partly due to him now staying with us 50% of the time. We are struggling to set boundaries and rules in our house as his mother is very lenient, ‘its easier to give him chocolate if he isn’t eating his tea, as it means he’s at least eating something’. Its very difficult trying to find my place and where I fit in to all this.

BUT I would not change any of it, I love my partner and we regularly talk about our future (marriage/ children), I also care very much about my step-son, I care for him as much as I am able to. I just feel like I am struggling too much with my own mind at the moment to be able to be a strong figure in the relationship.

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Madyson

I like this article a lot, but my situation is definitely different. When my husband and I got together, my stepson was all but abandoned by his mother and she was pregnant with their second child (they were never married and broke up a week before she found out she was expecting) after my step daughter was born she still had nothing to do with my stepson, so I was pretty much the only mother he had. Well after a few bumps in the road and a year long break to figure some things out we all the sudden got served with papers and she waltzed into my stepsons life. The good thing was we finally got visitation with our daughter and she didn’t get full custody of our son, but ever since the whole dynamic of our family has slowly changed. I went from being the only mom to the step-mom, and even though because I’m a teacher I am the one spending most of my time with him, there is now no respect for me from my husband or my stepson. My stepson and I fight constantly and if I don’t give him exactly what he wants he will do everything in his power to start a fight with my husband and I. Like telling my husband I pushed him while I was in a different room. We used to have this wonderful relationship and while I have never said anything negative about his mother (I even made the rule that he can’t call me mom if he doesn’t call her mom when he was three, because he called her by her first name) he treats me completely different and it only gets worse with time. I’m at a loss of what to do, I’ve assured him since I came into his life at 3 that I would never try to take his moms place and everything.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s difficult to say what might be going on for your son, but there could be a few different things. I imagine it’s so confusing for him having his mum come into his life now. He may be in a loyalty bind. This is really common in blended families and it’s where the child feels the need to push against the step-parent to prove love and loyalty to the biological parent. If he is approaching adolescence, it may also be that this is a normal part of his development. One of the most important goals of adolescence is to establish independence from parents. For parents, this can feel like a massive push away from the kids, and sometimes the closer the relationship, the bigger the push. It may also be that your son is confused about where he stands and how secure he is. He may also be starting to think about his relationship with his mother and having feelings bubble to the surface about being abandoned by her. If this is the case, he may be acting out those feelings towards you, particularly if it’s difficult for him to do this with his mother. If you are worried, it might be worth speaking with a therapist or counsellor to see if you can get more clarity about what is happening for your son, and whether it is just a normal part of his development as a teen, or whether there is something more going on for him that he needs support to deal with.

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Gypsy

Great article. I never post comments but am internally prompted to ask your opinion on what is acceptable teenage behavior.

My daughter’s father is about to marry and his fiance feels that my 14 yr old daughter (The Teen) is disrespectful and creates too much tension in the home so the fiance is suggesting that The Teen no longer be allowed in the father’s and soon to be her home until The Teen’s behavior improves.

Per the father speaking on behalf of himself and the fiance states that The Teens:

• IS NOT sassy or short with the fiance
• DOES NOT yell or say bad things
• IS NOT mean to the fiance
• DOES answers questions when asked
• Does what the fiance asks
• DOES NOT speak poorly about the fiance

The reasons for the suggest removal from home and explanation of the disrespect and causes for tension are:

• The Teen doesn’t always say hello or good-bye to the fiance
• The Teen doesn’t speak to the fiance unless prompted and prefers not to speak to her
• The Teen sometimes rolls her eyes
• The teen prefers to sit on the couch in the same room or her room and read than participate in the finace and father’s activities.

It would be great to hear an opinion on this. Is The teen’s behavior cause for removal from the home? Is she truly being disrespectful (to the point of removal) or just a normal teen.

I have spoken with the teen about improving the hellos/goodbyes and thank yous. But to me, her preference to not speak or interact should be respected. And I feel that if she chooses to read a book in the same room as them then in her own way she is interacting. Am I right in this?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

What you have described sounds like very normal teen behaviour to me. One of the important developmental goals of adolescence is for the teen to start separating from the family and establishing their own independence. It’s normal, healthy behaviour. Her father’s fiance also needs to recognise that she is the outsider who has come into the teen’s family, and it will take time for the family to adjust to this. The teen is entitled to have a relationship with her father independently of her father’s fiance, provided of course she is being respectful to the fiance, which is sounds as though she is. She is also entitled to do her own thing, even if she is in the same room as them. That separation between parent and child is all an important part of adolescence. Here are a couple of articles that can help to put her very normal behaviour in context.

>> They’ll do What? The What and the Why of the Changes that Come With Adolescence: http://www.heysigmund.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-adolescent-brai/
>> What Your Teens Need You to Know: http://www.heysigmund.com/what-your-teens-need-you-to-know/
>> The Adolescent Brain – What All Teens Need to Know http://www.heysigmund.com/the-adolescent-brain-what-they-need-to-know/

Hope this helps.

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Xavier

Great Article. Was of immense help to me. I am in my second marriage. I remarried after many years of being a divorcee. In my second marraige I inherited an adult step-daughter. For many years she lived with her relatives and my wife and I lived overseas. Only a year ago, she moved in with us and I suddenly discovered that I enjoy being a father. But I’m not sure whether she was ready for me to play this role. I have never wanted to take the place of her biological father, who by the way has little or no contact with her. Her bond is with her maternal relatives with whom she stayed for over 20 years. She has a strong bond with them and they could be considered her biological family.

I was feeling very confused as to what my role should be in my step-daughter’s life. At times I may have gone too far in showing care and affection. I feel a strong bond with her even though I have known her for a short time. We seem to get along very well, but I have to be measured in the way I connect with her because of her age. I am a very emotional person. I also like to show affection through touch and hugs. How to do this while respecting boundaries and not making her feel uncomfortable. Slowly, some feelings of jealousy towards her existing relationships. I felt very bad about myself. How could I even think I could compete within a short time with 20 year relationships she has developed.

You article has been a godsend. It corrects me but also gives me hope that I can develop something brand new and unique with my step-daughter over time. I should not hold back on my affection and caring, but not have the expectation that I will get something in return in the form of loyalty or respect. I particularly appreciated your advice on enjoying the small things. Those special moments and memories we are making together.

I lost custody of my sons from my first marriage when they were 5 and 7. I never got to be a father (all my fault). Now that I have a second chance, I don’t want to blow it. There is a lot of pent up paternal love inside of me wanting to come out, but I want it to be released slowly, in the right proportions and in a healthy, wholesome way that respects boundaries.

Many of things you have written, fortunately I am already doing. That tells me I have good instincts, but some areas I really needed the correction which I plan to apply.

Thank you so much for the article.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m pleased the article was helpful. It sounds as though you are a solid and loving presence in your stepdaughter’s life. Let her take the lead, and know that it’s completely normal and okay if the connection takes time. It will be worth the wait.

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