Becoming a parent 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 parent — aside from the day-to-day responsibilities that come with it — also may lead to confusion or even conflict between you and your partner, your partner's ex-wife or 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. The initial role of a step-parent is that of another caring grown-up in a youngster's life, similar to a loving family member or mentor. You may desire a closer bond right away, and might wonder what you're doing wrong if your new stepson/daughter 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 grown-ups are being fake or insincere. Over time, you can develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your stepson/daughter, which doesn't necessarily have to resemble the one they share with their birth moms and dads.
Kids who are mourning the loss of a deceased parent or the separation or divorce of their birth moms and dads may need time to heal before they can fully accept you as a new parent. For those whose birth moms and dads are still alive, remarriage may mean the end of hope that their moms and dads 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 well the parent you marry gets along with the ex-spouse. This is a critical factor. Minimal conflict and open communication between ex-partners can make a big difference regarding how easily children accept you as their step-parent. It's much easier for children to transition to new living arrangements when grown-ups keep negative comments out of earshot.
• 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 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 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 moms and dads 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 long you dated the parent before marriage. Again, there are exceptions but typically if you don't rush into the relationship with the grown-up, children have a good sense that you are in this for the long haul.
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.
All moms and dads face difficulties now and then. But when you're a step-parent, 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 partner's ex, or even your partner.
When times get tough, however, putting children' needs first can help you make good decisions. Here's how:
1. 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.
2. 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 the other parent 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.
3. House rules matter. Keep your house rules as consistent as possible for all children, whether they're your children from a previous relationship, your partner'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 grown-ups-only family meeting — otherwise children can learn to "work the system" for short-term gain but long-term problems.
4. 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 step kids, don't buy gifts to make up for it. Do you best to figure out how to treat them more equally.
5. Respect all moms and dads. When a partner's ex is deceased, it's important to be sensitive to and honor that person. If you and your partner 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.
6. Talk to your partner or spouse. Communication between you and your partner 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 step-parent, ask your partner 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 (and probably will) improve as you and your new family members get to know each other better.
Help for Parents and Step-Parents Who Are At Their Wits-end