All families have issues. Stepfamilies, however, while sharing the average issues with fully biological families, have a set of issues particular to their circumstances and configuration. Here are a few of the major, common issues stepparents face, and some suggestions for getting through them. You'll see that there are special sections for stepfathers and stepmothers, too; that's because, while most of the issues are the same, there are some issues particular to stepparents of each gender.
Who Are You, Anyway, Bub?
You live with this child, share her life, and suddenly, “You're not my parent, you can't tell me anything!” Ouch. That hurts (and believe me, your stepchild knows it). What can you do? Presuming you haven't moved through Jamie K. Keshet's stages too fast (see above), you can try the following approach. It will soon defuse the situation:
- Remain utterly calm, and look as detached as you can possibly be.
- Acknowledge the truth by saying, “You're right, I'm not your parent.”
- Follow it up with, “But I am an adult living in this house, and I'm in charge. These are the rules.” Or, “I live here, and this is my house, so yes, I do have some input.” You can even assert, “I'm your stepparent, and you're wrong, you do need to listen to me.”
The secret here is the calm manner. Dig down deep, and get serene.
When Two Sets of Family Rules Collide
Different households have different approaches to life. When there's more than one family involved in a child's upbringing, life can get very complicated. Shared custody or frequent visitation are usual in most divorces, so, as a stepparent, you'll likely deal with the issue of different disciplinary approaches in each household. Here are some things to keep in mind:
When your stepchild pits you against his bioparent—“But at my dad's house we”—you might want to reply sarcastically, “Do I look like your dad?” Refrain. Sarcasm might feel good to you at the time, but kids don't understand this kind of humor, and it only confuses or hurts them. Carefully explain (again!) that different households have different ways of doing things.
- Kids are smart. They can handle different sets of rules and limits, provided those rules and limits are explicit.
- You and your partner have little control over the rules and customs at the ex's house. All you can do is stress your own values, and trust that your behavior modeling will rub off on your stepchild.
- When it comes to your partner's ex, don't butt in. Their relationship (including their own possibly unhealthy dynamic) is none of your business!
- The only time you and your partner should interfere with life at the ex's house is if you suspect or know that there is abuse—mental, emotional, sexual, or physical—going on. As your stepchild's ally, you do have a responsibility to do something.
Discipline as a Stepdad
Stepdads have their own set of issues, and though many areas of stepparenting are easier for stepfathers than stepmothers, discipline is an area of particular concern. Discipline is a no-win situation for many stepdads. As a stepdad, here are some things to keep in mind before your start taking a disciplinary role with your stepchild:
- Many stepfathers jeopardize their relationship with their stepchild by stepping in as a disciplinarian. Laying down the law, being harsh, raising your voice, demanding action, or applying punishment will get you nowhere.
- You're not the child's dad, and the more you try to be, the less you'll be accepted. Before you can effectively teach a child discipline, you have to gain her trust and respect.
- It's often made worse because many biomothers expect their new partner to take on this job. (Other moms may resent your taking over their parenting roles.)
- Little kids are pretty easy to stepfather. They're very likely to accept all aspects of your parenting, even discipline. It's the preteens and teenagers who are more problematic—they'll be very resistant to your authority. Focus on being reasonable, gentle, and strong.
- Move slowly into your role as an authority. You have time. Start as a buddy, a mentor, an uncle, or a confidant. Rely on your partner for the authority aspects for quite a while.