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Step-Parent Wisdom

I am glad my step-dad never tried to be a father to me, so we didn’t have to get into any power struggles. He became an adult friend and mentor. He was generous with his time. He listened a lot, and gave love freely,” shares Dave from the group. In this group, divorced or separating parents learn communication and parenting strategies. 

They also work out parenting agreements about how they will jointly parent their children even though they no longer live together. Many times, there are step-parents involved. To help remind my group members to remain non-judgmental, I often share that “kids don’t come with parenting manuals.” If that axiom holds true, in most cases then, it is certainly true that “kids don’t come with step-parenting manuals” either. Step-parenting can be a lonely road. The step-parents in our separation/divorce group are quick to support each other.

The collective wisdom from the experience of generous step-parents and adult step-children in this group are as follows:

Understand your step-child may be grieving about the divorce of the biological parents or your remarriage. The child may target the step-parent with that grief. Grief takes many forms and can have many repetitive cycles. Laurie shares, “I have a step-mom whose presence in my life has been an immeasurable blessing. We went through many painful times, especially when I was little, and she was often an unfair scapegoat and dumping ground for my disappointments, but we got through it!”

As a couple, decide who disciplines the kids. Most teenagers will only respond to discipline by the biological parent, whereas younger children may be receptive to the discipline of the step-parent. Be cautious about speaking for the other parent. “Let the biological parent be the rule enforcer,” suggests Monica. Step-parents may find that life flows more smoothly when the biological parent is the disciplinarian because that parent has known the child longer, and has the reference point of how the previous household used to discipline the kids when needed.

Love your step-child. Time is how a child measures love.

Be as generous as you can with your time and energy:

  • Listen a lot. Then listen some more.

  • Cook family meals together.

  • Learn about their interests, but not in an effort to win them over. Kids will read fake or forced interest as manipulation. Learn about their interests because you genuinely care about the kids and their interests.

  • Be generous, not petty. “I wish I had been less selfish when my step-daughter was young. I wish I had given to her more freely. At the end of the day, regardless of what the divorce decree says, who really cares if we were the ones buying the shoes or school clothes,” says Ann.

Sandee may have summarized it best: “The reality is, you love your spouse by loving their children. They don’t have to do anything to earn that love. It just is. Isn’t that the bedrock of all parenting anyway? Unconditional love!”

Take care of your own needs. You cannot give what you don’t have. Taking time for yourself to recharge your batteries in healthy, nurturing ways is critical to giving all you can to your new blended family. Just as parents of young children must guard against burnout, step-parents must do the same. Raul says that he sometimes runs errands by himself and listens to inspiring music in order to recharge his battery. He comes back home with a better attitude, ready to listen to his step-children. “I also try to maintain my friendships by playing softball or watching a sports game with friends.” 

“My wife and I are careful to make time for each other. We have date nights or even date lunches. We meet during the day for our lunch hour away from our jobs and evening homework chores to talk as adults,” says Joe.

Blending a family takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Many experts believe it takes approximately five years to blend a step-family. David L. Brasher, BCSW and family therapist says, “If you decide to be a step-parent, be sure to attend to the needs of your own children also.” Above all, be patient with yourself, your spouse, and all the children.

Laura Lyles Reagan, MS, is a freelance writer and sociologist who facilitates co-parenting education groups. She can be reached for coaching through her website, heart2heartparents.com.

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