When you fall in love with someone, if they have children you often don’t just fall in love with your potential partner you fall in love with their children as well. Sometimes families blend easily and sometimes they don’t. However, if you can be aware some of the factors that might impact the smoothness of the transition it can help you be more prepared and avoid some of the pitfalls.
If you have a troubled relationship with your children or you have never had children yourself, it can be tempting to hope that you will have a wonderful relationship with your partner’s children. The reason we feel this way is we seek to heal a place in our heart that has been broken through the grief of loss. We hope that we can heal that grief through the love of new children we can nurture in our lives. It is so important not to give into those feelings and rush things. It takes time to build a relationship with children, and they need the space to get to know you.
Understand who you are in their lives
A Step Parent Is Not A Parent
A step parent is not a parent; your role should be more like a trusted family friend or a mentor. It is important to have this conversation with your partner so he understands that unless it is an absolute life threatening emergency, you will not be disciplining the children (no matter how much you would like them to learn your way of doing things). This is so important to remember. As the children’s parent, it is his role to discipline the children, not yours. It is more helpful if you give advice, like a friend would, rather than telling the children what to do. If you are directive with the children like a parent you invite them to be able to rebel and tell you they don’t have to listen to you, you are not their mother/father.
Children need to heal
Children who have lost a parent because they have died or because their parents have divorced need time to grieve their loss. Divorce is very disempowering to children and if you add the introduction of a new step parent children feel compelled to ‘like’ it can make them feel very resentful. Children, (even adult children) can have an unconscious hope that one day their mum and dad may get back together again. Your presence seals the deal that this will never happen. So it is very important that you take your time getting to know them and that you allow them to take their time accepting you.
Factors that can affect the success of step parenting
The age of the children – younger children find it easier to accept a new step parent than older children. We know that if a step-parent enters a child’s life at about the age 13 (onset of puberty), the child can be very resentful and find it incredibly difficult to accept the new parent.
How long you have been in the children’s lives – Take your time – the longer you have been in the children’s lives, the easier it will be for them to accept a gradual transition where you are present more and have more say in day to day life. If you rush into being in their Dad’s life super quickly you won’t have developed a trust relationship with them, and that will be reluctant to accept you.
How much time the children spend with you – Although you may miss the children and want to spend every moment of access visits with them they need to have time with their father. If they perceive you as taking up all the time with him, this can cause them to feel resentful of you. Plan some time together and time apart during the access visit.
How well your partner gets along with his ex – The more conflict, there is present around the children, especially if their birth mother is negative towards you, can cause the transition into step parenting to be very difficult. This is especially so if their mother feels insecure that you will somehow steal the children away from her, or that they will love you more. This can set up animosity and a sense of competition which is not helpful if the children are caught in the middle.
Be respectful – No matter how much the children’s birth mother frustrates you never ever speak badly of her towards the children or where the children might overhear you. Even if you know, the children’s birth mother is badmouthing you. Children are not silly, they spend time with you and will make up their own mind. Remember the children’s loyalty is to their birth parent first, and it may make them resent you if they think you don’t like their mother.
Be consistent – Try to keep the rules of the house as consistent as you can (this is a good rule to have even if you aren’t a step parent) with as little change to what they have already been used to before you arrived as possible. When children perceive that little in their lives has changed since you came along, it makes it easier for them to feel secure and accept you.
Create something special – Talk to the children about what they would like to do and create something special that you do together. It might be as simple as cooking or painting together or going to a favourite park. This can be your special outing or activity and will help you to bond with the children.
Don’t buy love – Sometimes we can feel so desperate to connect with our step children we can find ourselves giving them gifts in an effort to buy their love. Children need consistency and reliability and unconditional love from you before possessions. Gifts will not buy a relationship with them, and children are very quick to see through this ploy and exploit it.
Don’t use children as messengers – Create a communication book to let the birth parent know if there are any special things you need them to know about the children. Keep any entries in the book as brief as possible and never write about anything personal that the children might see.
Keep the lines of communication open, this is vitally important when you are making parenting decisions together, and present a united front with the children. Even if you don’t agree with something, wait until later to discuss it with your partner. If you are new to parenting, take some time to talk to your partner about the details of the children’s routines, do some homework about the ages of the children and the stages they might be up to and what they are interested in. Most importantly try to have a conversation with the children about what they want. Family meetings are an excellent way to empower children to feel as though they have a say in what happens in their lives, and to bond and make decisions together as a family.
Sometimes step-parents develop relationships with the step children that can be even closer than the relationships that they have with their own parents. The experience of having a step child come to you with a secret or for advice rather than their birth parent is the most wonderful experience you can have.
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