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The Challenges of Step-Parenting

Aside from juggling households and visitation, the one thing that seems to cause a stepson or stepdaughter the most difficulty is the stepparent’s attempts to “act as” a biological parent. However, since step relationships (especially new ones) are usually complicated and fraught with conflict, it can be almost impossible for a stepparent to refrain from disciplining the stepson or stepdaughter.

After all, most stepkids test the stepparent’s limits to the max, trying to see how far they can push until the stepparent breaks. The question is how to deal with it?

Here are some crucial tips for stepparents:

1. Your stepkids are dealing with their own feelings of loss, anger, confusion, and resentment about the divorce or remarriage. It may be easy to see their misbehavior as a direct attack on you, but remember that they need space and time to process the changes that have happened in their life. Even biological kids are known to lash out at their moms and dads with an "I hate you!" every now and then.

2. At first, the direct assigning of limits and consequences should probably be left up to the biological mother or father. So, avoid taking a direct role. Experts say it takes at least 2 years for children to begin to accept discipline from a stepparent. Two years is also about the time it takes to grow a strong, trusting  relationship.

3. Biological moms and dads must explain to their kids that the stepparent can also “remind” them of rules, whether or not he or she “enforces” the rules.

4. Bite your tongue. At times, this is going to be very difficult. Keep biting. Drag your spouse into the bedroom to whisper disciplinary suggestions—that's o.k. You have the right to voice your opinions, but let your spouse be the final decision-maker and the enforcer.

5. Remember that discipline is the entire process of raising a youngster. You can - and should - model good behavior, treat the stepchildren with respect, and encourage and reward them for things they are doing well. Leave the biological mother or father in charge of dealing with any major problems until you've gained their trust. Then you'll be able to assert yourself in a way they won't resent.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

6. Stepparents should focus on encouraging desired behaviors, attitudes, and interactions rather than focusing on bad ones. Biological moms and dads generally have had all that time from infancy through the present to generate attachment and all those positive, loving feelings between themselves and their youngster. Stepparents are usually getting involved once the youngster is old enough to misbehave, but in most cases missed the opportunity to fall in love with the child.

7. Find time to spend one-to-one time with your stepson or stepdaughter to do shoulder-to-shoulder, low-key activities (e.g., a run around the lake, shooting hoops, watching a favorite show, shopping, etc.). Most stepchildren (especially teens), don’t want to be forced into a sit-down, face-to-face, "let's talk" conversation. Instead, you want to build the relationship through shared experiences that will naturally give you opportunities to learn about each other. Try to choose an activity that neither biological parent does with the youngster to limit any sense of competition. For example, if the stepson loves football, but his biological father likes basketball, and his mother isn't interested in sports at all – then this could be a great way for a new stepparent to connect with the child.

8. You are a legitimate participant in the family process. Although it may be best for you to play a backseat role in regard to discipline, this doesn't mean that you have to be a non-participant. The biological mother or father has the final say, but the stepparent still can have input. If your spouse is not supportive of your needs or is practicing permissive parenting, you can still decide what you will and won't do. When the stepchildren are being disrespectful to you, it's okay to let them know that you're happy to take them for driving practice, make them a tasty dessert, or make their favorite meal for dinner WHEN they can treat you respectfully. Being a stepparent does not mean being a doormat.

9. Take the time to talk with your partner about what's working and what's not. You and your partner are from two different family cultures, and you have very different positions in your family. Your job is not to agree with each other right away. It is to stay caring and open to each other despite your differences. Staying connected takes a lot of time and talking. Check in often, and comfort each other when things are difficult.

10. Expect your stepchildren to “act out.” They will test the waters and push the boundaries when there is someone new in the family. Kids are feeling their way through how much control they have, and they will try to play the mom and dad off each other. Don't take this as a sign that your stepkids will hate you forever or that you'll never be happy together as a family. Instead, keep having honest communication with your partner about parenting issues, and continue to find ways to have positive interactions with your stepkids to build a bond.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

11. Once you've lived together for quite a while and are comfortable, then you can begin to make independent decisions about discipline without deferring to your spouse. It's appropriate to make spontaneous disciplinary choices when the biological parent is not available, or when there are no established consequences for the misbehavior; however, any decisions you make should be based on family values, rules, and limits.

12. Don't come into the stepfamily with a list of ways to "fix" things. If you do, your stepchildren may see you as trying to erase all evidence of their life before you entered it. Instead, give your partner and stepchildren time to settle in and get used to the new living arrangement. Then try to tackle one change at a time while remembering that all members will need to compromise. Research shows that it can take four to seven years for a stepfamily to function like a “normal” family, so give everyone time to adjust.

13. Never argue with your partner about the youngster’s behavior in front of him or her.  Always discuss it behind closed doors. 

14. You can't force your stepkids to like or love you, but you can require a standard level of respect. The biological mother or father should convey to the kids that “when you disrespect my spouse, you disrespect me.” The biological mother or father should clearly explain the difference between love and respect, and the expectation for how the youngster needs to treat the new stepparent (e.g., “You don't have to love your stepfather, but you need to be decent to him”).

15. As time goes by, and you begin to move into more of an authority role, you can begin to issue consequences when your stepchild violates established rules and regulations. You can also make use of reminders (e.g., "In this house, we all clean up on Saturdays," or "Michael, you know your mom insists you eat some vegetables before you eat dessert").


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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