Being a Stepfather: How to Make it Work

This article will show men how to be good stepfathers...

Becoming a stepfather by blending families or marrying someone with children can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. If you've never had children, you'll get the opportunity to share your life with a child and help to shape his/her character. If you have children, you'll offer them more opportunities to build relationships and establish a special bond that only siblings can have.

In some cases, your new family members may get along without a hitch, but other times you can expect difficulties along the way. Figuring out your role as a stepfather — aside from the day-to-day responsibilities that come with it — also may lead to confusion or even conflict between you and your spouse, your spouse's ex-husband, and their children.

While there is no foolproof formula for creating the "perfect" family, it's important to approach this new situation with patience and understanding for the feelings of those involved.

Here's how to make things easier as you adapt to your new role:

Start Slow—

The initial role of a stepfather is that of another caring adult in a youngster's life, similar to a loving mentor. You may desire a closer bond right away, and might wonder what you're doing wrong if your new stepchild doesn't warm up to you or your children as quickly as you'd like — but relationships need time to grow.

Start out slow and try not to rush into things. Let things develop naturally — children can tell when grow-ups are being fake or insincere. Over time, you can develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your stepchildren, which doesn't necessarily have to resemble the one they share with their birth parents.

Stepfamily Stages—

1. Fantasy Stage-- Family members are on their best behavior. This is the "Brady Bunch" period. Everyone imagines they will love one another. Everyone envisions one big happy family living happily ever after.

2. Confusion Stage-- Tension grows. Happiness begins to slip away. Differences begin to emerge. The romance seems to disappear.

3. Conflict Stage-- Anger starts to erupt. Family members realize their needs are not being met. Arguments begin. Feelings start to come out. Hopefully, negotiations and honest communication also can begin.

4. Comfort Stage-- Family members start to relax. Members begin to feel hope for their future together. Communication is deeper and bonds solidify.

Factors That Affect Your Relationship—

Kids who are mourning the loss of a deceased parent or the separation or divorce of their birth parents may need time to heal before they can fully accept you as a new parent.

For those whose birth parents are still alive, remarriage may mean the end of hope that their parents will reunite. Even if it has been several years since the separation, children often hang onto that hope for a long time. From the children' perspective this reality can make them feel angry, hurt, and confused.

Other factors that may affect the transition into step-parenting:

• How long you dated your partner before marriage. Again, there are exceptions but typically if you don't rush into the relationship with your partner, children have a good sense that you are in this for the long haul.

• How long you've known them. Usually, the longer you know the children, the better the relationship. There are exceptions (e.g., if you were friends with the parents before they separated and are blamed for the break-up), but in most cases having a history together makes the transition a little smoother.

• How much time the children spend with you. Trying to bond with children every other weekend — when they want quality time with a birth parent they don't see as often as they'd like — can be a difficult way to make friends with your new stepchildren. Remember to put their needs first. If children want time with their birth parent, they should get it. So sometimes making yourself scarce can help smooth the path to a better relationship in the long run.

• How old the children are. When it comes to adjusting and forming new relationships, younger children generally have an easier time than older children.

• How well the person you marry gets along with her ex-spouse. This is a critical factor. Minimal conflict and open communication between ex-spouses can make a big difference regarding how easily children accept you as their stepfather. It's much easier for children to transition to new living arrangements when adults keep negative comments out of earshot.

Knowing ahead of time what situations may become problematic as you bring new family members together can help you prepare so that, if complications arise, you can handle them with an extra dose of patience and grace.

Emotions Commonly Experienced by Stepchildren—

• Jealousy— It is very hard for kids to share a parent with a newcomer. It is hard to share their space, their house, and their possessions. The remarried parent is often distracted and energized by a new spouse. The child may not generate this sort of energy and knows it.

• Guilt— Many kids of all ages blame themselves for their parents' divorce. They do not have an adult perspective. They have to try to understand the cause of a divorce with very limited insight and information. So they turn to what they do know - that their parents used to argue, often about parenting the kids. Saddled with this knowledge, kids feel guilty and responsible. Also, if a child likes a new stepmother or stepfather, the child may experience guilt at feeling "disloyal" to an absent biological mother or father.

• Grief— Remarriage only happens after a loss. The kids have lost one of the parents in their household through divorce or death. It is natural for them to be grieving. Their grief may not look like the grief of an adult. It may look more like irritating or distracted behavior.

• Fear— Kids have already suffered a major loss - the loss of a parent, of family stability - over which they've had no control. They may fear losing another parent. They may fear they will not fit into this new family.

Steps to Great Step-parenting—

All moms and dads face difficulties now and then. But when you're a stepfather, those obstacles are compounded by the fact that you are not the birth parent — this can open up power struggles within the family, whether it's from the children, your spouse's ex, or even your spouse.

When times get tough, however, putting children' needs first can help you make good decisions. Here's how:

• Be solid. Stepkids can be real arrow-throwers. They look for a chink in the armor of the new stepparent's integrity. Keep yours intact, and little by little, they'll most likely come to respect you. Being on good behavior doesn't mean you can't have fun or joke around, but paying attention to your actions can help you avoid getting improperly tagged by your young critics.

• Create new family traditions. Find special activities to do with your stepchildren, but be sure to get their feedback. Some new family traditions could include board game nights, bike riding together, cooking, doing crafts, or even playing quick word games in the car. The key is to have fun together, not to try to win their love — children are smart and will quickly figure out if you're trying to force a relationship.

• Don't try to be bio-dad. One huge complaint by stepkids is ambiguity about the status of a stepparent. Trying to get them to call you "dad" right off the bat is in bad form. Instead, try actually treating them normally for a while, like anyone else you might happen to share a roof with, and see how things develop.

• Don't use children as messengers or go-betweens. Try not to question children about what's happening in the other household — they'll resent it when they feel that they're being asked to "spy" on another parent. Wherever possible, communicate directly with your spouse about relevant matters, such as scheduling, visitation, health issues, or school problems. Online custody calendars make this process a little easier because moms and dads can note visitation days and share this information with each other via the Internet.

• Give it time. As people live together, they learn to relate. It's not that you should be distant, but take the progress in increments. Give the children breathing room; they do a lot of their adaptation by "figuring things out" which they can't do with a stepdad "in their business." Let them alone for their own bedroom-introspection time (even if it coincides with meals), and wait for them to adjust themselves to new realities.

• House rules matter. Keep your house rules as consistent as possible for all children, whether they're your children from a previous relationship, your spouse's children from a previous relationship, or new kids you have had together. Kids and adolescents will have different rules, but they should be consistently applied at all times. This helps children adjust to transitions, like moving to a new house or welcoming a new baby, and helps them feel that all children in your home are treated equally. If children are dealing with two very different sets of rules in each home, it may be time for an adults-only family meeting — otherwise children can learn to "work the system" for short-term gain but long-term problems.

• Love their mom. Maybe the overall measurement used by stepkids is your care and support for their previously single mother. She took care of them all by herself, and showing respect for that goes a long way. Being good to mom can mean the difference between a sound family structure and an all-out war at home.

• Make compromises. A good part of stepparent/stepchild relations is obviously territorial. Any attempt to "come into" the house and enforce ultimatums will probably be met with absolute scorn by anyone between the ages of 13 to 21. Even if you do pay the bills, it was their roof first. Be sensitive in your dealing; suggest and encourage rather than drawing lines in the sand.

• Put needs, not wants, first. Children need love, affection, and consistent rules above all else. Giving them toys or treats, especially if they're not earned with good grades or behavior, can lead to a situation where you feel like you're trading gifts for love. Similarly, if you feel guilty for treating your biological children differently from your stepchildren, don't buy gifts to make up for it. Do you best to figure out how to treat them more equally.

• Respect all parents. When a spouse's ex is deceased, it's important to be sensitive to and honor that person. If you and your spouse share custody with the birth parent, try to be courteous and compassionate in your interactions with each other. Never say negative things about the birth parent in front of the children. Doing so often backfires and children get angry with the parent making the remarks. No youngster likes to hear their moms and dads criticized, even if he or she is complaining about them to you.

• Talk to your spouse. Communication between you and your spouse is important so that you can make parenting decisions together. This is especially crucial if you each have different notions on parenting and discipline. If you're new to parenting as a stepfather, ask your spouse what would be the best way to get to know the children. Use resources to find out what children of different ages are interested in — and don't forget to ask them.

No matter what the circumstances of your new family, chances are there'll be some bumps along the way. But don't give up trying to make things work — even if things started off a little rocky, they still can improve as you and your new family members get to know each other better.

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