With divorce becoming more common, so are blended families. To the outsider, these “his,” “hers,” and “ours” families conjure up pictures of “The Brady Bunch,” all lined up on the staircase, smiling happily. In reality, however, things don't always go that smoothly. Stepparents face a variety of situations that could hinder them from creating a new happy family. Here are some tips that might help you avoid these problems.
A major issue is discipline. Let the biological parent enforce the rules. The kids won't see you as an authority figure and any attempts at discipline at this point could make it harder to establish a positive relationship. When they break the rules, point it out to them, then, hard as it may be, bite your tongue or even leave the room. Tell the biological parent later and let him or her take care of it.
However, that doesn't mean they should be allowed to take advantage of you. The biological parent should make it clear from the beginning that they are to treat you with respect. They may be blaming you for the divorce. They may not even like you at this point. But it should be made clear that they will treat you with respect and courtesy at all times.
This leads to boundaries. It's important that all boundaries are made clear from the start. Be as specific as possible. This is when they learn not to use the stepparent's work computer or wear muddy soccer shoes into the livingroom or not put their clothes into the hamper in the bathroom at the end of the day. They will push back, but they'll know from the beginning what is expected of them.
During this transition period, it's important to stay neutral. The biological parents alone determine how their children will be parented. If you have any comments, tell your new spouse and let him or her handle them. Stay out of any arguments between your new spouse and his or her ex. This goes for the children as well. One of your new stepchildren may come to you angry with his or her biological parent, yelling or crying. However, think back to when you were a child. Your brother or sister could pick on you, but no one else could. Although you want to comfort the child, anything you say, no matter how well meaning, could be construed as badmouthing the biological parent. Listen to him or her sympathetically, but say nothing.
If the two families must spend time together, there have to be some common standard rules that everyone must obey to avoid problems. For example, you can't allow one child to stay up as late as he or she wants while enforcing an eight o'clock bedtime on another or allow one child to have only one sweet treat per day while another is allowed as many treats as he or she wants. This will eventually lead to resentment among the children, which could create resentment between the adults. In these cases, you can't be overly critical of each other's parenting styles. When things like this arise, talk to each other and look for a middle group.
During these early stages, keep your expectations low. Don't expect to take the biological parent's place. Try to get them to see you more as someone friendly who is always there for them, to help them, but don't rush it. Be ready for the “you aren't my mom/dad!” phase. Don't take it personally. Try spending time with them, but not the “sit down, let's talk” type. If a stepchild likes to read, take him or her to the library or bookstore. If you have an athlete, go to a ballgame or even play some one-on-one basketball. There's always shopping for clothes with the fashionista. However, it's important to remember that, while some kids will come around with time, some won't. Some kids will just never accept a stepparent and should be allowed to spend more time with their biological parent.
When one of the kids is a teen, things can be especially difficult. There are times when they have trouble understanding themselves, much less an outsider. Expressing their thoughts and emotions seems impossible. If things get too intense, encourage them to write their feelings down in a journal you won't read, or a letter to you if that's the only way they can get their thoughts out. Just let them know you see and hear them. If things get too bad, maybe it would be a good idea to get in touch with a counselor or support group.
Most stepparents realize there is no real “Brady Bunch.” It takes hard work and lots of time on everyone's part to create a new family. In the end, however, those differences and imperfections will make your blended family richer and more rewarding than a family portrait on a staircase.