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Supporting Step Parents: Step 1: Understanding

To put it simply, there is a lot of research out there that illustrates the growing number of blended families.

A Pew Research study shows that, out of just over 2600 families interviewed, 42% have a step-relative. More importantly, in my mind, is that 7 out of 10 report that they are satisfied with their blended family life. This certainly over simplifies it but I share that statistic to remind everyone that:

the label “step-parent” does not have to stay weighted by the cloak of evil that has been portrayed in fairy tales and Disney stories.

Why it Matters to Me

Well, I am a stepparent.  7 years ago I came into the lives of my kids, who were one and a half and 4 at the time.  I have sought to define my role, to find a place to fit in with our “papa-centric” kids and am reminded constantly about how hard and how rewarding it is to parent.


Living in Hawaii, we call everyone who is an older woman than us an “Auntie”, and the men are “Uncles”.  So, to this day my kids call me Auntie and this is something with which I have grappled over the years. On one hand, I didn’t like the “stepmom” label and, on the other hand, I wanted people around us to know that I was more than just “Auntie;” I wanted to have a more defined position in our system.

In this unexpected identity crisis, I was almost brought to tears while reading the book Moloka’i, when I came across the word, “makuahine”. It is a word that brings the two roles together, mother and aunt, and during the height of the leper colony on Kaulapaua, with so many families torn apart, many women mothered many children in the role of “Auntie.”

When I am coaching my kids’ soccer teams and their friends ask them if I am their mom, they will answer, “no, she’s my stepmom”, while we offer each other a quick wink and a smile, finding ourselves in a familiar scene.

On a trip to visit my birth mother (a story for another time) we went through a few security lines and through customs and at each threshold the TSA agents offered something along the lines of, “stay close to your mom.” At one point my younger son looked up and said, “everyone keeps calling you mom.”  I responded, “Yeah, but we know who mom is, right?” Both boys looked up at me, I think they were 8 and 5 at the time, and said, “I don’t mind that they call you that.” Still melts my heart.

Depending on the age of the kids in your life, it can be good to have a conversation about what they want to call you, in the home and out of the home, and what “labels” fit or don’t for the situation. Involving them in it can build a bridge, though you don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill or take things too personally as you search for a label.

And, as always, most important is how you manage your emotions about it all… if, for example, there is a tenuous relationship between you as the “stepmom” and their mom, don’t burden the kids with it through negative personal attacks on the mom.

The Basics

Through my own experiences, through working with many split families over the past 15 years and through ongoing education, there is much I have learned that I find important to share. The rest of this article touches on the top tips that families have expressed are useful to them.

Don’t Go in Blind

Prior to and throughout the process of becoming a more permanent fixture in a blended family, the adult couple needs to communicate about general expectations of each other, concerns and ideas about their roles with children, and desires for the short and long term.  There are many determining factors involved that can impact the transition, such as:

  • of course, the age of the children
  • the maturity, openness and communication skills illustrated by the adults in the household
  • the number of previous relationships that the parents have been in since the children have been in the picture
  • cooperation between co-parents and “ex’s”
  • financial stability
  • support from the extended family and friend network

The following are questions and topics that every co-parenting team can benefit from exploring, though parents and new partners in a blended situation can really reap great rewards from so doing:

  • How have the children reacted up to this point with the new relationship?
  • Describe the strengths and the struggles that the children illustrate
  • Describe your strengths and struggles as a person and as a parent
  • In what ways can the “new” adult connect and build relationship with the children?
  • What role does the biological or primary parent want the new partner to play when there is conflict or discipline that is required and is this something to which the new partner can agree?
  • Describe your philosophies on and approaches to discipline and values important to you that get held up in the family system.
  • Based on the children’s ages, what do you see as appropriate approaches to:
    • Technology
    • Healthy diet (or unhealthy stuff like sugar, soda, caffeine, fast food)
    • Helping around the house
    • Sleep routine
    • Exercise
    • Extracurricular activities and family time together
  • What are you most worried about and most excited about changing in your life as we blend our families?

If you want to go the extra mile, check out this Family of Origin quiz and go through the answers with your spouse:

It can be helpful for each person to write or think about these topics on their own and to then schedule time together without distraction to share responses. There are many more guiding questions that can help families prepare for this transition and it can also be helpful to review these topic with a safe third party involved (this is my shameless plug for Solutions Transitional Support services! )

Connection is a MUST

Whether you are joining a family with younger or older children, it is essential that the “stepparent” aim first and foremost to build relationship and connect with the children.  It is recommended that the new adult to the family not take on the role of a primary parent or disciplinarian until the tenuousness of the transition is long gone.

Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in No Drama Discipline offer many concrete approaches for connecting, along with great explanations of what is happening in the brains of our kids.  With older kids, age 13-18+, (and sometimes as young as 11 or 12) connection needs to happen in 30 second passing moments, rather than waiting for big family trips.

You cannot wait to get the child in 1-1 undisturbed time to make this happen because those experiences are hard to come by at times.

Here are some “drive by” approaches:
  • Clip out out/print a comic strip you see that is similar to the child’s humor and leave it on their pillow or hand it to them with a simple, “thought you’d like this”.  You don’t need to wait for a reaction, don’t need to have a 10 minute interaction about it and why it made you think of them…just offer the drive by and engage more when invited by the child
  • Engage in something your child is doing that stretches you outside of your comfort zone.  Whether it is a video game, robot building or basketball game on TV, ask a question and spend a few minutes watching in silence.  This also gives your child a chance to giggle at your “ignorance” about something and, if you can let that roll of your back with confidence and smile, you have just role modelled great strength
  • Offer to help them with their chores
  • Listen, listen, listen, with genuine interest in better understanding his or her opinion and WITHOUT needing to share any of your own.  Listen with the intent to understand, rather than to respond. You do not need to solve things but you can say, “hey, if you want my opinion or ideas on how to get through this, let me know.”  Invite them to invite you into the process, rather than diving into a lecture or teaching moment.
  • If they have been disciplined by the primary parent, don’t double up to make sure they heard the message.  Come in later as someone who can comfort and listen.  This does not mean to disagree with the decision or approach of the primary parent or undermine things, but you can listen without needing to get the child to see it differently.
  • Offer random rewards when they are generally interacting in healthy ways. “Here is a $15 gift card to itunes…you’ve been really _____ (helpful, kind, patient, hardworking) this week and I wanted to say thanks/that I am proud of you.”
  • Keep sarcasm toward the child out of the relationship, unless it is shared and about something else.
  • If age appropriate, look for upcoming concerts or events the child might be interested in and, if their behavior is generally healthy and responsible, spontaneously offer to take her and a friend to the event.
  • Even though you are not the primary parent, have boundaries.  Remember, your job is still to act like the adult you hope he or she becomes when they are older.  If he or she is mean, buy yourself time and do not react right away.  When you do readdress, do your best to have a calm demeanor, validate the child’s emotions and then let them know that they need to keep working to find a different way to treat people when they are feeling that way.
  • Role model with apologies, awareness and confidence when you do something or say something about which you are not proud.

Good luck, be gentle with yourself and with each other and keep your eyes peeled for more concrete tips in Part 2: Awareness and Skill Building.

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