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Key do's and don'ts for step parents
Yours, mine and ours
Everything you know about parenting changes when you become a step-parent. It can be one of the most frustrating and challenging years of your life, or the most rewarding depending on how you approach your new role.
As a father of 6 daughters and a step-father of 2 sons, I have learned a lot from both the biological side of this and the step-parent side. There have been many years doing it wrong, trying to do it different with the next oldest only finding that isn't working either.
The first thing you have to understand is that each child, like every adult is different, the way they perceive their new environment is totally unique to each child. Some children see the step-parent as that evil entity that can never love them like their estranged biological parent. There are the children who have mixed emotions and depending on the first few months can sway strongly one way or another. Then there are the ones that jump in feet first welcoming this new parent as their new best friend, with these children you must tread the lightest, one small disappointment and he or she becomes the biggest wedge in your marriage.
Over the last 11 years that I have been a step-parent, I have learned some definite Do's and Don'ts, I will start with the Don'ts because they have cost me the most literal blood, sweat and tears.
Now this first don't should be a given, but I will mention it anyhow, never under any circumstance raise your hand or otherwise physically discipline your step-child. Your significant other and their ex are the biological parents of this child, and if there is to be any butt spanking it should only be done by them. (I do not personally condone physical punishment because there is a fine line between discipline and abuse and an adult who is angered may not be able to discern the difference) Your significant other will not like hearing that you hit "their" child and this can cause issues between the two of you, they will also go out of their way to coddle this child and make things between you and that child even more difficult. Children are smarter than we think, they see everything, and they will use this situation to play the two of you against each other.
That leads me into the second don't. Don't overly compensate for punishment dealt by the step-parent when he or she is not around. (I know this is a hard one, you want to reassure you child that you are there for them). The issue here is again the child will play off this, and purposely upset the step-parent so that they will get the additional attention from their biological parent. In a child's early years they run to their mother or father and tell the tale of the evil step-parent then they ask for some small item like a toy at the store or an ice cream from the freezer. Preteens play this up even more by arguing with the stepparent after hearing their mother or father say I will talk with them later, you see the child assumes that their parent is on their side and this gives them the ammunition to defy the step-parents rules. Now teenagers really know how to use this, they will watch the step-parent walk out of the room, and they will go in and whisper to their parent and ask for something that they know the step-parent has already said no to. They do this to annoy the step-parent and plead with their mother or father to bend the rules because it's unfair.
One of the most important Don'ts when it comes to step-parenting is Don't force the child to like you. Never ask them to call you mom or dad, allow them to call you by your first name. You may be their mother or father figure, but you are not their biological parent, so don't try to be. Be yourself, if you enjoy sports then invite your step-children to join you while watching a game or attending one, if they want to they will join you. Over time just including them or inviting them to do things with you (regardless of how many times they have refused) will work to your benefit. You can not get angry or shun them if they say no thanks once or every time you ask them to do something with you, be the adult understand that this is a difficult situation for them and give them time to come around. (Understand though, they may never come around). Trying to be their best friend and keeping their secrets from your spouse will come back and haunt you in many ways. You will lose the trust of your spouse if the child tells them that you knew all along about something. Keeping a child's secret especially a teenagers can be used against you when they want something that you said no to, you get a line something like this; "I will tell you know I painted that sign if I can't go" and then the blackmailing begins.
Another large don't is do not waiver on the rules for your step-child because you want to get them to like you better. This causes issues with your biological children, they see it as unfair and though you may gain the approval of the step-child your losing ground with your own children. Resentment between the children begins to build causing higher tensions in the house and issues between the kids. Make sure that you do not have one set of rules for your children and another for your step-children. In other words, if you make your stepchild buy their own car and pay for their own insurance, then when your biological child reaches that age, you have to do the same. If you change the rules no matter how many years down the road, both your spouse and your step children will resent you for it and resentment in any relationship can be deadly.
Now this don't is by far the most difficult to follow, but is also the most important. Don't under any circumstance have any type of conflict in front of your children and step children with your spouses ex. Regardless of how much this person bates you, do not stoop to that level. Do not talk poorly in front of the children about the ex, no child wants to hear you call their parent a loser, even if they are. A child especially a preteen or a teenager will always side with their biological parent when two adults are yelling and screaming at each other. If this yelling and screaming match ends in your favor the child when with their biological parent in order to try to get them to feel better, will tell every little dirty secret they know about you or they will fabricate stories, which we know doesn't make the parent feel better, it adds fuel to the fire and this can rage out of control. Both the biological and the step parent regardless of which one fits you, need to be civil to each other, especially in front of the children. You plan on being married to your spouse for ever, which means this other person will always be a part of your life, whether you like it or not.
I am going to call this the last don't for now, though I know there are many other don'ts that I could share, if you want any advise about this subject, contact me, I will gladly share my experiences with you. Now the last don't - Don't bite your tongue with your spouse if you feel they are treating your child their step child unfairly. You will regret not speaking up for your child and regardless the outcome at least you spoke your mind. Do not argue or disagree with each other in front of the children, you do not want them to hear you discuss your disagreement or your views, they will learn to use them against you both. Do not ever tell your child regardless of how mature you think they are that the other parent is wrong, but your not arguing with them about it any more so "sorry I tried". That will tell your child that you gave up on them and let the other parent win, you never want your child to think you gave up on them. This final don't brings us to the first Do.
The first do comes from the final don't and that is, Do show a united front with your spouse when explaining to your child that they can not do something, whether you agree or not, once the discussion with your spouse is done, and a decision has been made, the only thing that child (regardless of age) needs to see and hear is that the two of you have discussed it and agree on the decision. Having your discussions behind closed doors and away from the children and then returning in agreement with each other will remove the ability of both biological and step-children to play you against each other. NOTE: There has to be a lot of give and take during these discussions, if one parent always gets their way, there is a communication issue between the adults, fix this, it's not healthy for a relationship if one person always gets their way.
Communication brings me to the next do, do discuss with your spouse your feelings on the "big things" like when can a teenage girl date, are we buying their first car, how are you going to handle finding out one of your children smoke or are experimenting with drugs, do you believe in spanking, does your spouse, when can a teenage boy date, who gives who the sex talk....and all the other "big things" in a child's life and yours. If the two of you wait until one of those situations arise, you will find more often than not, you have different views on how to handle these situations. Being proactive in these situations rather than reactive will always benefit everyone involved.
Now back to the ex, yes there is a definite do when it comes to them. First, if the ex is at all civil, make sure you let them know when you have grounded or punished the child and why, this way the child can not fabricate stories and hopefully the ex will continue with the punishment during their visitation time, showing the child that all of the adults in their lives are working together. Do include the biological parent in the child's milestones. If the ex is in a relationship, you probably don't have to invite them to birthday parties and other functions in your home, they probably already have plans to celebrate the occasion with their side of the family. If they are still single, and not a complete jerk, invite them and the child's other grand parents, it's the right thing to do, plus you were part of their family once. Your spouse should understand and if they don't, have a heart to heart with them. Let the biological parent know if the child is involved in any sports or extra curricular activities, they may want to attend, and they should be there to support their child. Now, my ex and my spouse are civil with each other, but it is very apparent at least to me, that they are definitely not fond of each other, on the other hand my spouses ex and I get along great, we shoot hoops together, have worked together and even helped get the other one a job where we work. Regardless of how civil you are to the ex, there will be times where you feel you are a much better parent than they ever could have been, and when your step child puts that ex up on a pedestal, it hurts your feelings. You find yourself wanting to tell that child all the facts about their parent so that they can see them for who they really are. My suggestion for handling those situations is, suck it up you big baby, continue to bite your tongue and let the child learn for themselves who that other parent truly is. They will respect you for it as they get older and you will find your relationship with your adult step child to be just as rewarding as you expected it would be when they were younger.
Respect is the basis of the next do. Do treat your step child respect, especially if they are between the age of 12 and 18. Respect is a two way street, just as that child has to earn your respect, you have to earn theirs. Just because you are an adult does not mean that a child has to respect you. If you only yell and scream at that child and jump up and down and stomp your feet constantly saying "because I said so", "because I'm the parent and your the child", "while living in my house you will follow my rules" or " I said no!!!! end of discussion" without listening to their reasoning, how are you ever going to learn how the child perceives things? If you listen, you may find that you change your mind and can learn to trust your step child's decision making skills, you are shaping and teaching this child to be an independent adult and a functioning member of society aren't you? I think there are enough people in this world who live within their own little box not seeing anything or anyone around them, they are rude, inconsiderate and think the world revolves around them. Do not raise your step child to be one of these people, let them express themselves when they are young, teach them respect by showing them respect.
Wow almost went off on a tantrum there, decided to write that down for the topic of another Hub. Well let me step down of that soap box and compose myself for the next do.
Okay back to the subject at hand the next do. Do always participate in your children's and step children's lives equally. Go to every football game, band concert, ballet recital, baseball or softball game, choir concert etc.... You have to do your best to attend all functions, do not use the excuse that you had to work when your son or daughter had a concert so you aren't going to your step child's function, go to it and just make sure you do what you have to to make it up to your biological child by NOT working during their next function. Know your children step, biological, adopted or otherwise, be involved, make a Facebook page, get on Twitter, find out who your children are talking to, who their friends are, what they really do when they are not at home, you are supposed to protect your children and you can not do that if you do not know who they are. Getting involved does not mean stalking, enjoy time with them, be the house that all the neighborhood kids come to, you will find that you are more relaxed when you trust and know your children.
I am going to give you just one more do as a step parent, as with the don'ts there are many other do's I have found to work over the years so if you would like this old man's advice on being a step parent, just contact me, I am happy to share my experiences. Now a great do to end on. Do with all of your being, with all that you can and with all your heart love that child. Even when they tell you "your not my parent I don't have to listen to you" or the dreaded "I hate you". The only real duty you have as a step parent is the same one you have as a parent and that is to love and protect your child, educate and shape them to be a respectful contributor to society. Love comes in many forms and has many definitions, but not when it comes to a parents love for their child, the way you feel for your biological child has to be the way you feel for your step child and you need to let them know you love them. They honestly don't know you do if you don't tell them, they know you love their mother or father because you expressed it by marrying them, but what tells them you love them too, nothing tells them but you, so get off your butt and quit reading hubs, find your step child and simply say "you know I love you right" then go back to whatever you were doing. Regardless of your relationship with that child and regardless of their age, that simple statement will get them thinking and whether you realized it or not, it brought a smile to your face.
Let me leave you with this, No matter where your from or who you are, no matter what you do or where you've been, we all share this space with each other, we all have goals and inspirations and we all want the best for ourselves and our children, please take this with you when you have an opportunity to do something nice for someone you don't know, it can make a world of difference.