Smart Stepparenting

By Ron Deal
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Many people assume that stepparenting is the sole responsibility of the stepparent. On the contrary, it is a two-person task.

Parenting in stepfamilies is a two, three, or four-person (sometimes more!) dance. Parent-stepparent harmony is the crux of successful parenting within your home. The two most critical relationships in any stepfamily home are the marriage and the stepparent-stepchildren relationships.

The marriage must be strong to endure the many pressures that stepfamily couples face and provide the backbone to stepfamily stability. Almost as important is the stepparent-stepchildren relationship. The stepparent’s role in the family is critical because it dramatically affects the level of stress in children. Less stress in children equals more harmony with stepparents; that in turn leads to more harmony in the marriage.

Many people assume incorrectly that stepparenting is the sole responsibility of the stepparent. This assumption pits husband and wife against one another when the stepparent flounders or upsets the children. On the contrary, stepparenting is a two-person task.

Biological parents and stepparents must work out roles that complement one another and play to each other’s strengths. Just as in two-biological parent homes, parents and stepparents must be unified in goals and work together as a team. Stepparents who are struggling need biological parents who will step up to the plate.

Stepparents and biological parents do not function in a vacuum, isolated from one another. In fact, what is needed most is a working alliance between the parent and stepparent that helps to clarify the stepparent’s role. Smart stepparenting means planning and parenting together.

Rewards & Challenges

No one ever dreams of growing up and becoming a stepparent. It’s just not part of our “and they lived happily ever after” fantasy. Nor does society teach us an effective stepparent role. We make it up as we go.

“I feel more like a maid than a mother.”

But not all children feel negatively toward stepparents.

When I was four years old my father died, and two years later my mother met my stepdad. There were six of us kids to raise, plus he had three from his previous marriage. When they got married he helped her raise us and treated us like his very own kids. I never knew my father; Ted is the only real father I ever knew. Though we have had our ups and downs I would never trade him for any other father in the world. Stepdaughter

Please remember when the “going gets tough” that all the hard work and discomfort of stepparenting can pay off. It probably won’t live up to the fantasy you have created, but it can be pretty good. Remember, there are both rewards and challenges; only determination will bring rewards.

Be Patient!

General stepfamily integration and bonding with a stepchild hardly ever happens as quickly as adults want it to. It just doesn’t happen on their timetable. Stepfamily researcher James Bray discovered that stepfamilies don’t begin to think or act like a family until the end of the second or third year. (Source: James Bray, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade (New York: Broadway Books, 1998.) Furthermore, Patricia Papernow, author of the book Becoming a Stepfamily, discovered that it takes the average stepfamily seven years to integrate sufficiently to experience intimacy and authenticity in step relationships. (Source: Patricia Papernow, Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families (New York: Gardner Press, 1993)

Fast families can accomplish this in four years, if the children are young and the adults are intentional about bringing their family together. However, slow families, according to Papernow, can take nine or more years. In my experience, very few adults come into their stepfamily believing it will take this long. They want a quick, painless blending process. In fact, if they had known the journey would take so long, they might not have signed on in the first place.

So why does it take so long to combine a stepfamily and bond with a stepchild? Here are a few reasons:

  • The stepfamily is filled with complex dynamics that take most adults by surprise.
  • Family therapists have long recognized that divorce doesn’t really end family life; it just reorganizes it. In effect, it spreads your family out over multiple households. Emotional and relational dynamics that preceded the divorce continue even though the family living arrangements have been restructured.
  • Stepfamilies need to realize that all the people sharing a home with your children and stepchildren are part of your “expanded” family. Start counting, and the total number of people can be exasperating! Indeed, stepfamilies don’t have a family tree, they have a family forest! This complex forest simply takes time to integrate.
  • A seminar participant once asked me what he could have done differently to build a relationship with his stepdaughter. He described how he took his new 12-year-old stepdaughter out shopping and to get ice cream whenever possible. He asked her what activities she liked doing and then made sure they did them together. In his words, “I tried and tried, but she never warmed up to me, so I gave up.”

Bewildered by the scenario, I asked for more information. He had become this girl’s second stepfather after her mother divorced a second husband. The girl’s biological father was uninvolved in her life, leaving a deep wound in her heart. Her first stepfather was aloof, distant and critical.

I suggested to the gentleman that, because of them, he had two strikes against him when he remarried her mother. But the real clincher came when I asked how long he had attempted to win his stepdaughter’s heart. Three months. You see, he simply didn’t take into consideration all that this girl had been through and how long it takes for step relationships to develop. His intentions were good. His actions were on target. He just wasn’t patient enough.

Qualities of Effective Stepparents

The attitudes and expectations you carry either make bonding with a stepchild easier or more difficult. In addition, there are many factors that, in truth, have very little to do with you, and everything to do with the child and his or her other relationships and past.

Finding a map for your stepfamily journey means understanding the factors that make or break your place in the home. Keep reading to continue pulling the pieces together.

Enjoy the Relationship You Have Now

The cardinal rule for stepparent bonding is to let the children set the pace for their relationship with you.

  • If they welcome or seek affection, then go for it.
  • If they remain distant and cordial, honor that as well.
  • If they follow your rules and respect your decisions, continue to assert your given authority.
  • If they challenge your authority, find ways to live on borrowed power from the biological parent.

Effective stepparents know that building a connection with stepchildren takes time, yet they don’t emphasize “deepening the bond” to the point that they miss the relationship they currently have. Learn to find the nuggets of good in the relationship you have now. Be patient and keep seeking to grow with your stepchildren, but don’t add too much pressure.

Have Realistic Expectations

Parents and stepparents tend to assume that children want a close, warm relationship with the stepparent. Biological parents want their children to be happy with their choice of mate, and stepparents assume they need to be someone special to the children. Kids say otherwise.

When asked how the stepparent role should be performed, parents and stepparents generally envision the role in similar ways. In one study, close to half of them said the ideal stepparent role should be one of “parent” as opposed to “stepparent” or “friend.” In contrast, 40 percent of stepchildren identified “friend” as the ideal role. Far fewer children thought a “parent” role was ideal. (Source: Fine, M. (1997, Fall). The Role of the Stepparent: How Similar are the Views of Stepparents, Parents, and Stepchildren? Stepfamilies Quarterly [online]. Available: “Parents” give hugs and expect obedience to their rules; “friends” offer support and encourage positive values in a child’s life.

Stepparents need to learn to relax into their role and not expect too much of themselves. To expect too much is to set themselves up for disappointment and frustration. Biological parents also need to relax and let stepparents and stepchildren carve out their relationship.

James Bray discovered that most stepchildren in the early years of stepfamily life view the stepparent like a coach or camp counselor. (Source: James Bray, (1998). Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade (New York: Broadway Books).)Such people have limited authority with children and provide instruction, but they are not “parents.” However, just because your stepchildren don’t give you unsolicited hugs does not mean you don’t have a decent relationship. Having stepchildren who talk to you only when they want something is not an indication that you are a poor stepparent. It represents where you are today. Relax and trust that the relationship will grow over time.

Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal, Bethany House Publishers, 2002. Used with permission.*

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About the Author

ron deal president of smart stepfamilies
Ron Deal

Ron L. Deal is the president of Smart Stepfamilies and director of FamilyLife Blended, a division of FamilyLife, and is one of the most widely read authors on blended families in the country. He is a family therapist and conference speaker specializing in marriage and stepfamily enrichment.

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