Becoming a stepparent by blending families or marrying someone with kids can be rewarding and fulfilling. If you've never had kids, you'll get the chance to share your life with a younger person and help to shape his or her character. If you have kids, they can build relationships and establish a special bond that only siblings can have.
Research tells us that, for many children, becoming a stepfamily is harder and takes more time, than divorce. Stepfamilies are generally easier for children eight and under, and for boys. They are harder for girls, and especially hard for young teen girls.
Stepfamilies are common in the U.S. According to a 2011 Pew survey, more than four in ten American adults have at least one step relative in their family. But experts say we don't talk enough about how challenging it is to become a blended family.
Both the biological parent and the stepparent should begin with an open and candid discussion about the fears and expectations regarding the relationship with the children. Each should know what the other expects concerning the stepparent's involvement in guiding, supervising, and disciplining the children.
Once you understand what each other's expectations are, you have a place to start shaping what the stepparent role will be.
Every situation is different, but in most situations, disciplining your nonbiological children is fraught with danger since it's likely to create resentment on the part of your spouse. If both parents are not on the same page, trouble can ensue and often the children will capitalize on this even as they do with two biological parents, pitting one against the other to get their way. Both parents must have continual conversations about how their shared parenting is working.
So, who makes the rules? Who enforces the rules? And who is really in charge? Psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed. D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't, states, "an authoritarian kind of firm but loving parenting is almost always beneficial in a stepparent and child relationship." The mind-set of the stepparent should be "connection before correction," Dr. Papernow suggests.
Here are some strategies to help both biological parent and stepparent navigate the new relationships.
DON'T start with too many changes. Divorce, remarriage, new sibling, new house, and now, new rules? Be sensitive that the child is already going through lots of changes, and don't come into the stepfamily with your list of ways to "fix" things.
DO set up a base level of respect. You can't force children to like or love a stepparent, but you can require a standard level of respect. Experts say the biological parent should convey to the children that when you disrespect my spouse, you disrespect me.
DON'T be the disciplinarian. The experts all agree that the stepparent should not function as the chief disciplinarian. You can remind the kids of the rules and report misbehavior to the biological parent, but not administer the consequences.
DON'T be a pushover. Being a stepparent does not mean being a doormat. The goal for stepparents is authoritative parenting that is loving and kind while still making developmentally appropriate demands for maturity and setting realistic requests of kids.
DO get to know your stepchild. Many stepchildren, especially if they're teenagers, do not want to be forced into a sit-down, face-to-face, "let's get to know each other" conversation. Instead, you want to build the relationship through shared experiences that will naturally give you opportunities to learn about each other.
Above all, be patient. Blending families successfully is an ongoing process that requires work and diligence. It is an investment in creating lasting harmony in your new family.