Parenting in its entirety is one giant challenge after another, but the challenges multiply by 10 when it comes to step parenting. Being a step parent is so difficult for so many reasons; you are basically responsible for taking someone else’s child and making them your own while expecting your partner to do the same for your child.
Because step children do not come with user manuals or a checklist of instructions, it’s important that you educate yourself as much as possible so that you can be prepared for what lies ahead. Every family and every child is completely different so there is really no way to completely prepare for every challenge that may arise. However, the do’s and don’ts of being a step parent apply to pretty much every situation, and we’ve outlined some of the most important ones.
Honest Communication and Understanding
If you don’t allow your children to communicate how they are feeling, they bottle their feelings up inside and express them in not-so-pleasant ways such as violence or by distancing themselves. Talk to your children frequently, and be sure to give them some one on one time so that they can freely express themselves without fear of judgment from others.
Allow your children to talk without interruption, and then let them know that they have been heard. Don’t instantly get defensive or start telling them why they are wrong; they are expressing feelings and feelings are never wrong, just stemmed from misunderstanding. When you talk to your children, use “I” statements rather than starting every sentence with “you…”. This helps children to feel like they are part of a conversation instead of under attack.
While you may not be able to stand the sight of your child’s other parent, the truth remains that they are their parent and you will have to have some sort of relationship with them. Not only must you keep your own feelings aside, you must encourage your children and step children to have loving relationships with all of their parents. The encouragement doesn’t stop there; you are now responsible for your own children as well as someone else’s and they all deserve your encouragement.
Encourage them to do things together, to try new things. If the children are having a hard time getting along, encourage them by bringing up things that you know they have in common. Also encourage your children to get to know their new step parent. Maybe arrange an outing with just them so that they can really get to know him or her in a fun, stress-free setting.
Care for Your Marriage
The entire reason you decided to take on the challenge of being a step parent was because you fell in love with someone enough to do so. While making sure that the kids feel heard and understood, you have to remember to do the same for your marriage. Your new family is all based on this new union, so it makes sense that it must be nurtured.
Take some time each week for just the two of you. Make sure that you talk about your day, discuss your concerns, and (most importantly), laugh together! The children will see the relationship that the two of you have and it will greatly affect how they act. Remember that children are excellent at sensing emotions and they feed off of them; if you and your partner are always stressed and on edge, they will be too.
In short, kids are important; but so are mommy and daddy!
Underestimate the Challenge
While you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with thoughts of everything that could possibly go wrong as a step parent, you also don’t want to brush it off as something you can handle with ease. Being a step parent is incredibly difficult and will take more patience and understanding than you ever thought you had. Telling yourself it’s, “no big deal,” or that things will, “work themselves out,” is only going to leave you feeling frustrated and defeated.
Take the Weight of the World on Your Shoulders
While being a step parent is difficult, you don’t need to make it even more so by trying to do absolutely everything. Yes, you have to put your new step children first, but how can you help them if you are so exhausted you can’t function? Take care of yourself, and don’t be afraid to delegate or ask for help. Trying to be the “perfect step parent,” (which, by the way, does not exist), by attempting to take on more than you can handle is not going to do you or anyone else any good.
You, your partner, and your exes should have set arrangements of who is responsible for what. Your new family consists of everyone involved, not just you. And remember that it is totally acceptable (and recommended) to ask for help whenever you need it. The happier you are, the happier the children will be.
Criticize or Make Assumptions
Marriage, separation, parenting, and step parenting all require you to be a mature adult. Sometimes even the most mature adults forget that maturity when it comes to a divorce. Part of parenting and step parenting means getting along with the child’s other parent; even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Never criticize the child’s other parent in front of them, and never let your child know of any arguments that have take place either with the non-custodial parent or the step parent.
Also avoid assuming that your ex partner is criticizing you; this will lead you to interrogate your child every time they come home from a visit, and that is just as bad. Let your child know that you will always be their parents and you will always love them, you just can’t live all together anymore. As your child gets older he will have more and more questions, and you will have to swallow your pride and make sure they know that the other parent loves them just as much as you do, all the while encouraging them to keep a strong relationship with them.
Put the Child in an Unfair Situation
The worst thing that separated parents can do is force the child to choose between them in any way. Children are already emotional little creatures trying to figure out how this big world works, so forcing them to choose between the two people they love and trust most in this world can be truly damaging. Though it may seem to you like offering them options or giving them some independence to make their own decisions, to them they are being forced to choose whether they love mommy or daddy more. The arrangements with the kids are up to you and your separated partner; you have to sit down and decide how a schedule will work, and let your child know.
This cannot be stressed enough; never, ever make your child choose between you and your ex partner, no matter how small the decision may be. While they are young, that is one choice that you must always make for them.