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A Very Brief Guide for Step-Parents

A Very Brief Guide for Step-Parents

Some practical wisdom I’ve been forced to learn.


There are six weeks to go before the big day and I’m standing in a men’s clothing store with my husband-to-be and his three children. We’re purchasing suits for the two boys to wear to the wedding. While my fiancé brings the pants to the tailor next door, I stand by the checkout with the kids, waiting to finish up and head on to the next errand on the agenda.

Alex, the eight-year-old, is playing with the little business card holder on the checkout desk. I watch as he pockets one card, then another, then a third.

“Alex, that’s enough,” I say, almost instinctively.

Immediately, I’m challenged by Jason, who’s 13. “You’re not his mother. You can’t tell him what to do!”

“You’re not his mother. You can’t tell him what to do!”

Whoa. What am I supposed to say to that one? “That’s true,” I say, as evenly as I can, and pray for hubby-to-be to come back quickly and rescue me.

No, I’m not his mother. I’ve got the dubious distinction of being stepmother-to-be. But even when I attain the status of stepmother, I still have no permission to offer directives, direction, or criticism. After all, rule #1 of step-parenting is let the biological parent handle the discipline. And rule #2 is that if he doesn’t, you still have to keep your mouth shut (though you can certainly discuss it privately with him afterwards).

We’ve come a long way since that scene in the clothing store, but most of the time it seems like we just take one step forward and two steps backward. Granted, not every situation is as challenging as mine, and children’s ages, life circumstances, and a host of other factors all impact the step-parent/step-child dynamic. Still, here’s some wisdom I’ve gleaned in the process of trying to smooth out this complicated relationship:

1. No expectations. Your step-kids may not say please or thank you in your home. They may not appreciate all the efforts you put in to make them feel comfortable. Preparing their meals and doing their laundry may feel like endless drudgery in a way that taking care of your own children’s doesn’t. Don’t expect it to be any different, at least not at first.

2. Lower your standards. Even if you have kids of your own, more kids in a home inevitably means more mess, more noise, and more fighting. You may have to lower housekeeping standards and increase your stress tolerance while your stepchildren are around. When you really need some quiet, simply close the door to your room, put in some earplugs, and curl up with a book or magazine.

3. Look for ways to build the bond. Unlike your own children, with whom you have – hopefully – a built-in connection, your stepchildren may view you through a haze of suspicion, distrust, and plain ol’ antagonism. Try to reach out to them in little ways – buying birthday gifts, baking their favorite treats when they come over, offering to play a game or some other one-on-one time.

4. State your needs. As the kids get used to being in your home, you can speak up for yourself, letting them know which behaviors you would appreciate and which are simply unacceptable. “Before you leave, please put all your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor of your room” is a perfectly reasonable request. If it doesn’t go over well, have your spouse reinforce it.

5. Look for the positive. It may take a while, but over time you’ll see gradual cracks in the armor. Treasure those small moments of family togetherness, increased affection, and lowered defenses. Hone in on them, and they’ll build up steadily.

6. Go for family counseling. Before you attempt to build a blended family, meet with a therapist who has experience in dealing with stepfamilies. Things that are no big deal in an intact family unit become very big deals in a blended family, as two different families, each with their own family cultures, try to turn into one household. An expert’s perspective in this area is invaluable in untangling the knots and keeping your goals in perspective.

7. Look for other successfully blended families. Other families that have succeeded at this challenging task can give you the insider’s view of how they’ve done it – and the will to keep going. At the very least, you’ll get some empathy in a situation that most members of intact family units can hardly begin to fathom.

8. Don’t give up. This may be the toughest challenge you’ve ever undertaken, but don’t throw in the towel too soon. If both spouses want to make it work, eventually you’ll achieve success!

April 29, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 8

(7) Bunny L. Shuch, June 7, 2017 7:44 AM

It's OK to plant the seeds for respectful behavior

I beiieve that when the stepchild says "You're not my mother, so you don't have the right to tell me what to do" a possible response might be, in a calm, low-key voice: "No, I'm not your mother, but I am the adult in charge of you right now." I think that while showing an interest in the stepchildren, responding in a way that encourages self-correction and doing kindnesses for them are important, it's also important to let them know in a pleasant way that you expect to be treated with respect as an adult who is a part of the household and their father's wife.

(6) Diane, May 5, 2017 8:34 PM

it never ends

I have known my step daughter since she was 8 and her father and I didn't marry until she was 14. She is now 56 and she still gets hostile to me every couple years. So if you are a step mother don't relax thinking that you have finally won a good relationship because as soon as they feel they don't have total access and control of their father they can turn on you over a small riff. Divorced father's carry guilt that manifests in spoiling their only daughter, we never had our own children, probably would have given new set of problems. Heed to #1advice and don't become over invested as you are only fooling yourself.

(5) Anonymous, May 4, 2017 3:13 PM

Children first.

Or.... realize that second marriages are not good for the kids and wait till they grow up. The chances of second marriages falling apart are too high to risk another broken home for kids.

(4) Rob, May 4, 2017 2:35 PM

Discipline, danger, and derech Peretz

Sometimes situations require immediate correction, such as young child running into a parking lot. Some situations require correction that can be deferred until discussion with the natural parent. Punishment should always be discussed, regardless of who is the authority.

Before I was a step parent, I got some opportunity to get to know the kids first in a formal way, then a less formal way. This allowed establishment of mutual levels of trust and respect. Very soon after, I could just look at one of my (now) step-kids without changing facial expression and they would know that I disapproved of a particular behavior, causing them to self-correct.

Sometimes strong parental authority should be wielded by step-parents, but it is useless without the respect and love from the child. That respect and love has to be earned, not assumed.

(3) Yaakov, May 4, 2017 2:01 PM

Assistance form the Ten Commandments

Although I rarely post a comment on AISH, I felt compelled to offer some assistance to the Step- Mother to be, from the Torah. Specifically, from the Ten Commandments. The 5th Commandment, the one that deals with honoring your Father and Mother, states: Kabed ess Avicha v' ess Imecha. In English this is usually translated: Honor your Father and your Mother. The Talmud, in the Gemara in Tractate Kesubos on Page 103A, it point out that if the real meaning of this commandment was to Honor one's Father and Mother, the Torah would have stated Kabed Avicha Imecha. (This literally means Honor Father and Mother.) However the Talmud points out that the Torah adds the word ' ess' two times. The 'ess' as extra and is not needed to convey the commandment to Honor one's Father and Mother. The Gemara explains that the extra word 'ess' implies someone in addition. Specifically the Gemara explains that when the Torah says "ess Avicha', this is a reference to your Father's wife, even if she is not your mother, but your Step-Mother. When the Torah says 'ess Imecha' it is a reference to your Mother's husband, even if he is not your Father, but your Step- Father. In the discussion in the Gemara all the Sages agree that this requirement to honor one's Step- Mother or Step-Father is a Biblical commandment, that applies during the lifetime of one's parent.your case, during the lifetime of your future husband his children are required to honor and respect you, as his step- mother. This is an entitlement given by the Torah, and your Husband's children therefore are obligated to show you proper respect.

As I understand that the above may not resonate fully with the step-children, but it should give you a Torah foundation upon which you can build a relationship of respect from them, because respecting you in NOT some man made rule, but a Torah given right.

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