Enjoying A Great Relationship With Your Step-Children
Over five years into being a step-mother of two, I look back and regret very little.
I was the type who grew up saying 'I will NEVER marry a man who has children from a previous marriage.' Boy did my heart change. I remember the first time I met my husbands children.
My husband and I met at church in 2006. He walked his little ones up to me (at that time 4 and 6),
and though Hunter was a spunky outgoing kid who was eager to joke with me, Alexis was a bashful, shy one who hid behind her daddy's leg. They were precious children - no doubt - but at that time I had no idea I would one day become a part of their lives forever.
Having a good relationship with step-children is often awkward, frustrating, and taxing. You are not sure how you should approach things, it's frustrating to only have a certain say into their lives, and it's emotionally taxing to help raise a child that is not your own.
I did not have these issues quite as bad as some. It was never awkward for me with the children. From the very beginning, with Alexis being so shy, I was very cautious at my approach to her, but after a short time she warmed up. With Hunter, we went full force into a relationship from the get-go. Oftentimes I would read bedtime stories to Hunter and then He would cuddle up to me and we would fall asleep in his tiny little twin bed. With Alexis, once our relationship started soaring, we did girlie things all the time. We did our hair, make-up, nails - the whole bit, and she loved it. I had a very different relationship with each of them and to this day I still do.
I don't feel being a step-parent is quite as difficult as imagined. Maybe I just got the sweetest kids in the world, but for me, they have not been what has challenged me being a step-parent. They welcomed me into their lives with loving arms and haven't change their hearts since. To this day, I would say my relationship with my step-children is very close and I know they would say the same.
Let me get into a few things I would say to encourage anyone who is considering being a step-parent in the near future, or anyone who already is, and would like some advice on how to grow that relationship. Mind you, I am not experienced at mending at any teenage age of step-children. My step-children are now 11 and 9 and are still very submissive and loving children. I do not have to deal with the age of teenage rebellion, piercings, troublesome friends, and music that promotes ungodly things - yet. My time will come and when it's past, I will write about my experience. For now I speak to those with younger children.
Love Them Like They Are Yours
If there is one BIG suggestion I can give any step-parent, it's to love your step-kids like they are yours. The main thing a child wants is love and acceptance. When their world is so drastically changed by separation or divorce of their parents, and then someone new comes into their life, they feel very insecure, unstable and confused. When you reach out to them, they feel the warmth of acceptance and security. I would not encourage this late into knowing them, however, I would encourage this from the beginning as long as they are open to it. It is important that you hug them often. This re-assures them of your love. Spend time playing with them and their toys. Do things with them that they want to do. This assures them that you are not just there to be with their parent, you are there to love and spend time with them too. Interact with them verbally (I'll get more into this later). Ask them questions about their day at school. Interact with them about things they like to eat and get it for them. Include them in small decision making. If you have the option of a family day out, consider one of their choices.
Attend their school activities, sports games, and other events they are apart of. The more support they have, the better they do. When they see you are there, they see you are focused on them for them. Ultimately, interact with them as you would your own child.
Treat Them As Equals
Numerous occasions I have seen the evil of parents or family members playing favorites. I have read articles on the horrifying effects through adulthood of a child who was or was not favored. It is nothing to play with.
Since My husband and I had our twins, we have done what we could to ensure that everyone treats our children equally. Unless it's for good grades, a birthday invite, or a birthday them self, if one of our children gets a treat, they ALL get treats. If one of our children have the option to go somewhere fun with family, they either all go, or none of them go. Obviously if your older children have the option of going on a late night summer walk, younger children may already be asleep. There will be certain situations you will have to use your discretion to decide what is fair, but for the most part that should be easy. If you want to do something special just for your own children, wait until your step-children are at their other parents house. Make the most of your opportunities with you and your children when the step-children are not around. When they are, make sure they do not feel as though it's not their home. I have always told my step-children they have two homes. Just because they may live at one more than another now, does not mean this is still not their home. No child likes to feel like a visitor. If you want to gain respect and acceptance yourself from your step-children, treat them as you would one of your own. You have taken the responsibility to care for them as if they were. Favoring a child can cause irreversible damage between siblings and their own self-esteem. It is critical you be as fair as possible in any and every situation.
Let Them Talk To You About The Other Parent
Regardless of the relationship or lack of relationship you or your spouse have with the other parent of your step-children, that is still their parent. Coming from a broken home myself, I have now had one step-father, and three step-mothers. Each situation was very different as each relationship was very different. The one common denominator was 'How did they act or speak of my mother'.
I will be honest, one of my former step-mothers spoke very ill of my mother. Regardless of the truth behind her words or not, I resented her, I was angry with her, and I didn't speak to her for about 6 or 7 months. Your children's parent may be your arch enemy, or in some cases - such as with my aunt and her ex-husband - very good friends. All your step-children want to see is everyone getting along. They do not want to hear what you think about their parent. When communicating certain situations to your children, be very careful of your wording. Though at the moment of a 'jocular comment' toward their other parent, they may laugh, but it hurts their respect for you just a little. There are always going to be mistakes such as times you and the other parent just got into a fight and you verbalize your frustration. If your step-children heard what you said, it is very important to apologize to them for what you said in front of them. You do not have to apologize for how you feel - you may have that right - but at least for voicing it in front of them.
I would challenge you to do what you can to balance out the positive and negative of the other parent. For example; If the other parent is lying to the children about your spouse paying child support, it may be necessary to prove that your spouse is, to protect their relationship with their children. You would never want your step-children to believe lies about your spouse. Show them proof of a blatant lie. You don't even have to say anything when you do. The proof alone will show the children enough that the other parent is lying, and though it will hurt their relationship with the other parent, they will see your honesty and respect that. Make sure you are not just always pointing out the negative of the other parent. Be sure to find positive elements you can see in them. You may have to search deep and hard to find that, but I'm sure there is at least one positive element there. Find it and magnify it to your step-children. They will see you being neutral rather than opposing to their other parent which will also birth respect.
Your House Or The Other Parents
As children get older, it is very important to allow them to start making decisions pertaining to where they want to spend their time. It is not about control, it is about their lives. The more you control who they spend time with, the more they will pull away from you as they get older. Children generally somewhat resent the parent who took them away from the other parent.
As I grew up knowing my mother initially pulled me away from my father, I felt upset at her for it. I suffered greatly from not having my father in my life. As I got older, my mother gave me more leeway to decide whom I wanted to spend my time with. When I was 12, she actually came up to me and volunteered that I was able to choose who I wanted to live with, and allowed me to decide without her personal opinions. She laid out the facts, then gave me the choice with no repercussions to suffer for it by her. Always support those decisions your step-child makes pertaining to their parents. In the end, it's the supportive - not controlling - set of parents the child will choose to be with.
Being A Friend Vs. Being A Parent
You have a great position. You can be a parental figure AND a friend to your step-child. Because you are not the biological parent, your step-child may come to you in the future with questions or need advice because they don't want to talk to a 'parent'. So take advantage of that. There is a fine line with being your child's friend - whether step-child or biological child - and their disciplinarian. As a step-parent, there are going to be times you will have to be the disciplinarian. In those times, keep in mind that how you handle your step-children will affect them more than their actual parents would. It will be much easier for them to forgive a parent for screaming and yelling at them than it will be to forgive you. It's not because your not their parent, it's because your not blood. People tend to overlook the offences of their blood quicker than they would anyone else. Try not to feel offended by that. It is nothing personal, and if you think back there may be times you've felt that way toward someone as well. When the opportunity arises to be a friend or guide, do it with all of your heart. When time comes for action, act, but do it with love.
One of the controversial issues with step-children is how to discipline them. I would leave this entirely up to each individual household. You need to do what suits your parenting style, not what the other parent wants you to do. If the other parent uses spanking, and you use grounding, if it works for you and your spouse, do it. The best solution in any case is when the birth parents both agree on how things are to be handled with their children. But in a case where there is difference of opinion, you and your spouse should be in agreeing with how things are handled.
With my husband and I, If my husband is available at the time one of my step-children or children disobey, I like to allow him to handle the discipline. When he is unavailable, I have to carry that responsibility. It's not always fun, and it's not always going to be pretty, but it's necessary to keep us from raising a world of hellions.
Different Sets Of Rules
I could never understand why my husbands ex and her boyfriend made my step-children make their beds right before bed. To me it was a very silly rule to have. "You have to make your bed before you mess it up?' I would ask. To be honest, when they first told me this, I wasn't sure what they meant because it was one of the most absurd things I had heard. Nevertheless, regardless of the rules they have over at the other parents house, I have always tried to encourage my step-children to be obedient to their mother and her boyfriend's rules (unless it went against the Bible, which thankfully has never happened). For all parents involved in a child's life, to encourage the obedience toward the other parent brings somewhat unity to a situation that has so much disunity in other areas. It gives more stability to the children that the parents ask them to respect the other parent regardless of their personal feelings toward that parent.
As a child who jumped from 3 different households, rules changing in each one got confusing at times. I remember my mother telling me, 'I'm going to work. If you decide to leave the house please leave a note on the table for me letting me know where you went.' One year I went out to my dad's house to visit. I was friends with my former step-brother and he had invited me to come hang out at his shop where he painted cars. My dad was at work, so I wrote a note, left it on the table and suffered his verbal wrath for it. "You ASK me if you can go somewhere. You don't TELL me.' was pretty much his stern statement. I remember being very upset about that situation. To have rules changed on me all the time got particularly frustrating, but what was I to do but respect them all? Unfortunately, many reasons people separate is due to difference of lifestyle. Different lifestyles create different convictions, rules and beliefs. For your step-child, try to have mercy on them when they do something the way their other parent has them do things and not your way. It will happen especially if your step-children go back and forth as much as mine do.
Don't Stifle Their Ability To Speak Of The Other Parent
This applies to the parent allowing the child to openly express feelings or stories about the step-parent and the step-parent allowing the child to express openly about the other parent.
In our situation, my husbands ex has actually verbally chastised the children for getting confused and calling their mother by my name. She will not even let them mention my name at her house.
That doesn't just speak volumes to us, but to my step-children too. It shows how bitter and resentful - possibly even jealous - she is of me. It saddens me that she feels this way because it stifles the children's ability to share exciting stories to her about things we do as a family here. Children love sharing their experiences with those they love.
Though I went through a time where I felt resentment and bitterness toward their mother several years back, I tried to be very careful about how I responded to them speaking about her whether negatively or positively. We always encourage them to talk to us about the places they go, the adventures they have or just about anything when it comes to times they are with their mother and her boyfriend. We don't want them coming to us wanting to share something exciting but feeling like they will get into trouble or disappoint us by doing so. It's important to listen to your step-children when sharing stories about their parents.
Be very understanding of the stressful lifestyle your step-child has to lead. Going between houses, different rules, several guardians, alternating time with other siblings and whatever parental disputes are between the parents can make for a very anxiety filled child. In many cases you and your spouse may consider counseling for your step-child as we did with one of mine. Children need to know that you are not oblivious to their situation, nor are you cold to it. They need any and all support they can get even if it's just a passing smile. If your child sees one parent more than the other and struggles with that as mine do also, just assure them when the situation arises, that both parents love them and this is what is best for now. Explain to them the positives of the arrangement. You shedding a positive light encourages them to see it also. When they see that things are not as bad as they feel they are, security rises within them and life becomes more enjoyable.
Lavish Them With Love, Not Things
I find it increasingly difficult being the spouse of the husband in the mixed home than the boyfriend of the mother, due to the fact that while we struggle to make ends meat for our twins, we still have to pay out child support to their mother for both of their children, we pay all of the insurance, and we still have to pay everything for my step-children when they are with us, which again, is 50% of the summer, 40% of the school year. So basically my husbands ex lives scot-free, only paying her car insurance, car payments, and phones. Nothing compared to the cost of living, renting or owning your own place, health insurance, food, electricity, and every other bill included. (In addition in our last custody battle his ex requested the judge to make my husband also pay child support for her other child with her boyfriend she lives with but he didn't fall for it - I'm dead serious). So when your at the raw end of the situation such as ours, it's easy for the party receiving all the monies to take the children here or there. This can be very disheartening to the child-support paying parent who works diligently to support a family in today's economy. Oftentimes, it may be the case you hear the children bragging unknowingly about all the places the other parent takes them. Don't let this discourage you. The reason I say this is, when I look back on all the things my mother and I did when I was little, it's not going to Worlds of Fun, or exciting places I remember. It's TGIF night where we cuddled on the couch and drank hot cocoa. It's the times she would come home and go 'I have a sprize for youuuuu', when it was just a lip gloss. It's the small things she offered of herself to show me how much she thought of and loved me. My memories are very few when it came to the large amounts of money she spent at that time. What your step-children will love the most and remember the fondest is the times you got on the floor to play with them, the games you played as a family, the cuddles on the couch watching a movie, the walks you took, the love you lavished on those children every opportunity you had. That's what's most important. So if you ever encounter a situation where your step-children are going on and on about somewhere the other parent took them, and you and your spouse don't have the money to take them anywhere at that time....lavish them with love. It will more than make up for it.
Never Verbalize Comparisons
Each child develops at their own individual pace. Just because one child excels at a subject that another child struggles at does not mean the one excelling is smarter. They will always have different strengths. Evaluate their different strengths and attempt to do activities with each one accordingly. Never say 'Your sister was great at that', to a child to is unable to accomplish the same goal or task. This will create insecurity and inferiority in the child's heart. They may eventually stop trying anything. Nobody wants to live in another's shadow. Rather, when faced with a struggle to do something their sibling has conquered, avert their attention from comparing themselves to the other and help them focus on the trial at hand. By taking time to observe your step-childrens's learning abilities - what works and what doesn't - you can aid them in accomplishing goals according to how they can and not how someone else has.
Respecting Your Step-Childrens Belongings
Siblings or not, what children have, they generally value. When you allow your other children to play with, mess up, and destroy your step-children's things, resentment builds in their hearts toward their siblings. It is important to allow your step-children to set boundaries on what is allowed to be played with when they are gone and what is not, and then for you to enforce and respect those feelings. While this is not a 'major' part of keeping a good relationship with your step-children, it is one I have found relevant since our twin girls came into the picture. This is not necessarily exclusive to step-children alone. Any parent can avoid the unnecessary fighting and heartbreak a child feels when something of theirs is broken by another by considering this simple step.
Give Them their Own Space
As long as it is within your ability, give your step-children as much space as you can. Possibly give them their own room once they are older (it's not necessary when they are little). Even though we have my step-children 10% less of the time in the school year only and still share 50/50 in the summer, I have always tried to make sure my step-children had their own room at our place. I never wanted them to come over having to sleep on the couch or floor as if they were just a guest. Plainly, there will be times or circumstances in which this is not possible. Do not feel bad if it is out of your hands. Do what you can and the children will understand. For my step-children, as of right now it is not possible. The funny thing about them is they were rarely in their rooms when they had their own with us prior to our current living situation. They spent majority of their time with us wherever we were. They continue that up til now. We have always been close knit, so living in a home where there is less individual space for us has not presented to be much of an issue. We like close quarters, but for those of you who don't, eventually you'll get where you want to be, so just make the best of where you are now. Going for walks outside or letting of-aged children go the park alone tend to help this cramped situation and relieve tension. Again, point out the positives of everything. Your children will begin thinking that way too.
Give Them A Loving Title
A bad habit for step-parents, I believe, is introducing their step-children as that, or as their spouses child. I remember being introduced by my step-mother to other people as her step-daughter, and how it made me feel just a little less important than my brothers. Once in a while she would introduce me as her daughter and It felt good to know she saw me as that. It was hard enough to only see my dad once a year and yet my brothers got to live with him full time. All I wanted was to be apart of that family too and being referred to as 'step-child' did not reassure me of that by any means. Your children are your children. By marriage, they may not be blood, but they are just as important. It may even be advisable to sit down and talk with them once they are old enough to understand about their personal preference on this. If they don't mind the title 'step-child', so be it. Just be sensitive and act in regard to their feelings first.
There will be times your step-child confides in you. You will have to have the discretion to weed out what is necessary address with another person involved or to your spouse. My husband and I choose to share everything especially when it comes to our children. We made a mistake in the beginning of our marriage by confronting everything negative the children were telling us about my husbands ex. We realized it made them very hesitant to share things with us, so we decided to be more cautious and only confront issues we felt were causing harm to the needs of the children. Since then, the children have grown even more open to us and share what feels like everything with us. So while we carry around much knowledge, I am also building trust in my relationship with my step-children that will continue to make them feel comfortable confiding in me and growing a closer relationship. Obviously if you are made aware of any type of physical or sexual abuse at the other parents house you are required by law to report it immediately to legal authorities. Withholding that type of information for any reason could cause you to lose your children or put you behind bars.
Remember Children Are Mocking Birds
Children are sponges. They do and will repeat anything and everything they hear, so be very mindful of what you speak in their hearing presence. In addition, be aware that little ears are often eavesdropping. It is a natural game children often play. It goes in one ear and out the mouth and sometimes to the one person you were speaking about.
Don't Try To Replace Their Parent
Understand that you will never replace the biological parent of a child. You can, however, be as good as them or a better one. Do what you do because you love and support your step-child. I know a few people who have had a much closer bond growing up and as adults to a step-parent than they ever did with their biological one.
On the flip side, don't try to gain their love and affection to 'replace' their biological parent. Let them be the ones to praise you for your efforts. The more you compare yourself to their other parent, the more they will see through your facade and you could possibly permanently damage a future relationship with them.
Don't Underestimate Their Intelligence
Your step-children are more observant and intelligent than they may appear at times. Though they don't understand everything, there is little you can genuinely 'hide' from them. Eventually they will find out that you smoke, as my little brother did with my mother and my step-children did with their mother and her boyfriend. The more you are aware that they know, the more you can heighten how discrete you are about what you do and say. I have seen so many parents think their children are oblivious while they were soaking up much more than they needed to know. The difference between us and them is they don't necessarily verbalize their knowledge. They will hold it in until the time is right to say it. Then boy will you be shocked!
Be Careful Of What You Believe
Depending on the age and maturity of your step-children, they all have the opportunity to play one parent against another. At times this is intentional, at times it is unknowingly. Double check your findings. Children have a tendency to exaggerate their stories especially when it affected them emotionally at the time. All they primarily remember is how it made them feel and their story may not have even been the true interaction between parties. When your dealing with parent-pleasing step-children such as mine, you will notice they tell a parent what they think that parent wants to hear rather than the truth. Though this is not always done with ill-intent, it surely can be, so keep a close eye out. Compare findings with the other parent if you have that type of relationship. Or share it with your spouse if you feel it necessary to do so and they can confront the other parent if they choose to do so.
And finally...remember your role.
It does not matter what anyone says. Once you vowed to marry your spouse, you made a verbal agreement that you would care for their children in the best way you could as well. Some couples even give vows to the children which I think is beautiful (wish I would have thought about it when our children were in our wedding). Just because you are a step-parent does not mean you have no voice or no place. Your a vital part of a child's life who will grow up looking up to you and loving you as they would their own parent. Feel blessed for the gift you have in your life. Take your role seriously. And again - treat your step-children as you would your own. They will love you forever for it.