Blended families account for a growing number of families and a lot of therapeutic work is being dedicated to addressing the unique challenges they face. Having taught classes for hundreds of divorced parents I have see certain issues arise consistently. I think that most step-parents have good intentions but many are unprepared for the stress and conflict that can arise when they begin dating or marry someone with children. Below, is a list I have compiled of five mistakes commonly made by step-parents (and biological parents for the matter).
Hopefully, awareness will help you be able to take measures to avoid or minimize making these mistakes. Making these changes in how you interact with your step-child(ren) can provide significant improvement in the relationships within the new blended family and increased self-esteem (and improved behavior) in the child(ren).
1. Badmouthing The Other Parent – This is very common and can be extremely detrimental to a child’s self-esteem and your relationship with your step-children.
No matter how difficult a situation may be you must not forget that your stepchild is 50% their mother and 50% their father, so to insult the other parent is to insult a part of them. Even if the child has negative feelings about the other parent (which they should be allowed to feel and express), you should not join in the conversation.
Parents have told me they make comments about the other parent when they believe the child cannot hear them. In reality, the child may be in the car or the house and overhear you. In some cases, comments about the other parent are made in front of the child. This is something that should be avoided at all costs. Do not allow your friends or family, or the biological parent, to make negative comments about the other parent in front of the child. This is a form of parental alienation co-parenting professionals call tribal warfare. It is hurtful to the child and can be very confusing as well. If you must discuss/complain about the other parent do it when the child is not home or with you.
2. Pretending The Other Parent Doesn’t Exist – This can be a more subtle form of parental alienation but can be just as hurtful as negative comments/words. Pretending the other parent does not exist sends both overt and covert messages to the child(ren) that they are not allowed to talk about the other parent or the time they spend with other parent.
I understand that there may be a lot of conflict or negative feelings about the other parent but this is when you as an adult need to suck it up and must do what’s best for the child(ren). This is your responsibility as an adult and parent. I don’t think most people do this intentionally. In fact, they might not even be aware of how/what they are doing.
I suggest you take time to reflect and honestly assess your actions and/or words. Do you (as parents) allow pictures of the other parent in the house or the child’s room? While you may not want pictures of the other parent on the mantle, is the child allowed the have pictures up in their room or are there pictures in a photo album? A child’s room should be a safe place for them to have pictures of those they love. Do you get angry or make disparaging comments when the child brings up memories or time spent with the other parent? Awareness is key to making changes in behavior so please take time to understand what messages you are sending.
3. Participating In Discipline But Not Praise And Support – I’ve seen many a step-parent willing to take part in discipline or providing negative feedback but miss or ignore the chance to provide positive feedback, love and support. Acknowledging when a child does something good is just as important, possibly even more important than disciplining bad behavior. How do you feel about a boss who only criticizes you and never provides positive feedback? Would you respect that person and what they have to say? Would you want to continue to work there?
4. Not Acknowledging The Impact Of Marriage And New Children – No matter what the situation with the biological parents, when a parent begins to date and especially when they remarry is often a difficult time for the children. Many children still hold onto the fantasy that their parents will somehow reconcile and get back together. This is seen even in families where there was domestic violence. Just be aware that this may be a difficult transition for the children and expect that there may be some acting out, withdrawal or regressive behaviors.
Depending on the age of the child and the situation you may see many different behaviors; from bed wetting, baby talk, clingy behavior, visitation refusal, to aggression, getting in trouble at home and/or school. You can still show compassion and understanding while maintaining rules/structure. Talking to children about their feelings and having extra patience during this time is of paramount importance.
This is especially true when a new baby enters the equation. A new sibling can bring up these issues in an intact family but are amplified in blended families as they may feel replaced or on the outside of the “new” family.
5. Not Allowing Bonding Time With Biological Parent And Children – This is a suggestion that I give to all parents but one that is especially important in blended families.
Allowing children individual time with their biological parent is important for parent and child. It’s important that each child has time where they don’t feel they have to compete with the step-parent or other children for time/love/attention of their biological parent. Even though time may be scarce, each parent should spend quality time with their child(ren), including step-parent/step-children. It could be anything from a breakfast out together to a day of activity. Even if it’s only every other month, having scheduled time together gives children something to look forward to. If a child who only has every other weekend with a parent then this time becomes even more important.