Continuing with the theme of mistakes stepparents make, here is more helpful stepparenting advice from those who have been there before:
Stepparenting advice: Don’t try to buy your stepkids’ love
“I tried to be the good mother, but whatever I did for her, she would destroy. I got her a checking account. What does she do? She bounces one check after another. I gave her free rein with my car, and she wrecked it within one month. The presents I bought for her – she conveniently lost them. The cookies I made for her – she wouldn’t eat them. I mean the kid lived on sugar and she wouldn’t eat cookies? So I’m thinking – well, I better give up this tactic. Obviously anything I do for her is not going to be accepted. And then I finally start feeling:
‘What’s the use? What is the use?'”
– A frustrated stepparent (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 101)
Never use money as a power play or try to bribe stepchildren with material rewards. This is something many stepparents are inclined to do at first, especially if things start to go wrong. They think to themselves, “I really want her to like me. Maybe if I get her that game she’s been wanting, it will create some goodwill that we can build on.”
It is true that doing nice things for others is a key part of any healthy relationship. If I’m nothing but a pain in the ass to you and never provide you with anything you might desire, your impression of me is going to be negative. Why would it be anything else? I’m not offering anything you can take from this relationship. But material favors need to be given under the right conditions, and will never help build a relationship on their own. Kids will resent you for thinking they can be bought. It’s also a surefire way to lock yourself into a nice little extortion racket.
Best advice for stepparents:
- Rewards should be given in a positive emotional climate. NEVER do something nice in response to a blowup, other than an apology.
- Rewards should be consistent. Keep a steady pace of privileges or fun things you do together. Lavish children consistently in good times or bad. When you fluctuate based on what’s happening at the time, it sends the message that love is for sale.
- Material support is meaningless unless it comes with emotional support. Spoiling your stepkids won’t buy you an ounce of genuine favor if the emotional rewards aren’t there. So concentrate your efforts on this.
- If you do want to splurge on the stepkids, focus more on fun experiences that you can share together as opposed to spending on things.
Stepparenting advice: Trying too hard can backfire
Sometimes in their zeal to “prove” that they’re a good addition to the family, stepparents try too hard. Normally, trying hard is a good thing. We certainly want you to work hard at a relationship with your stepkids. But there are a couple of things wrong with going overboard. First of all, you’re not going to be able to keep up this pace. If you bend over backwards and go 110% in the very beginning, you’re setting yourself and everyone else up for a letdown later. Try to set a comfortable pace that is compatible with the lifestyle you want to be living 5 years from now.
Secondly, just as is the case in the dating world, trying too hard makes you come off as desperate. This will have two effects:
- Your desperation to get the kids to love you makes the proposition seem all the more undesirable. In the same way that a high pressure sales pitch can diminish the product in question (if it really is so great and wonderful, why do you have to work so hard to convince me I should want it?), going out of your way to try and get kids to like you can actually diminish your appeal.
- Children are going to see an opening to exploit and will use this to manipulate you.
Best advice for stepparents:
- Kids can see through masks, so just be yourself and don’t try to be something you’re not.
Stepparenting advice: Find ways to side with your stepchild
Look for ways to advocate on behalf of your stepchild. Stepchildren often form the impression that you’re out to get them. Show the kids that this isn’t the case by taking their side whenever possible. This does not mean usurping the other parent’s authority or going against their discipline efforts, which would be counterproductive. You don’t want to create a situation where there’s divided authority in the house. But there are many ways to side with a stepchild without undermining the parent’s authority:
- If a child gives an idea or suggestion or expresses an opinion, try to be the first to support it. Even if you know ahead of time that it wouldn’t work or aren’t sure it’s such a good idea, you can still support the child by acknowledging their input and expressing interest in their view:
- Tell me more about what you’re thinking…
- That’s an interesting thought.
- I can certainly see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure that’s workable. What else might we try?
- In cases where a parent is on the fence about something, consider lobbying on the child’s behalf. The best time for siding with a stepchild is before an official decision has been made.
- In cases where you do disagree with the other parent or would be inclined to be more accommodating of the child’s desires than they are being, there are ways to show support for your stepchild without undermining the other parent’s authority:
Talking to the other parent when the child is around…
- Encourage or broker a compromise
- Ask: “Are you sure about this? I might consider a slightly different approach.”
- Say: “Can we talk about this for a minute in private?” and then lobby for your stepkids without them around. If you come back with a different decision, they’ll know what happened.
In talking to the child separately…
- It’s your Dad’s decision, but I’ll talk it over with him and see if I can get him to budge or work out a compromise.
- Maybe I can help him see things from your point of view, but I’m not going to go against your father’s wishes if he’s still against it.
- Your mother’s holding firm on this right now, but maybe I can loosen her up a little bit for the next time this issue comes up.
You should get with your partner ahead of time and let them know that you’re going to be looking for ways to side with the kids or agree with them whenever you can, and that they shouldn’t take this personally or interpret it as you trying to be argumentative or undermine their authority. The biological parent should also remember that parental authority is not built around stubbornness. It does not mean you never change your mind, and it certainly doesn’t mean you block out opposing viewpoints. In fact, the ability to listen to reason will cause children to have more respect for you, not less. Especially if you get in a good mixture of compromising where appropriate and holding your ground in other situations, there is absolutely nothing about letting a stepparent change your mind that will undermine your authority as a parent.
Some couples may even get together and agree to play a little good cop, bad cop in the house, with the stepparent playing the role of good cop for his or her stepkids. Have the biological parent agree to act a little more hesitant than they normally would be when it comes to the child’s requests, allowing the stepparent the opportunity to come to the rescue and side with the child. Don’t go overboard with it, or you risk a situation where the kids team up against the biological parent or develop unrealistic expectations that their stepparent will always be an ally. But a little bit of this in the very beginning can be just what is needed to get the stepparent-stepchild relationship started off on the right track. Finding ways to side with your stepchild establishes yourself as a potential ally rather than enemy, and it can go a long way towards aiding your future discipline efforts and getting them to respect you whenever you are forced to put your foot down.
- You can also take their side when it comes to the other biological parent, your partner’s ex. Just make sure you do this tactfully and with respect:
- I can certainly see why you might consider that unfair, but let me take a guess at what your mom might be thinking…
- I think you’re very responsible for your age, but parents worry, and she’s probably just worried that…
Follow the same pattern of showing empathy towards the child’s feelings without undermining the other parent or making them out to be the bad guy, and you may gain ground with both of them.
More stepparenting advice
- Try not to be anxious. If things don’t go how you want them to initially, most stepparents become frantic and want an immediate fix. Usually this attitude sets them back even further. Just focus on the fundamentals, and trust that if you continue doing what’s right, things will work out in the end.
- Remember that just because you don’t see success right away, that doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding. Kids are going to resist anything you want to try at first. They’ll bash your ideas as silly or dumb. But if your heart is in the right place and you truly believe something will bring you closer together, be persistent. The kids often come around in time.
- Don’t forget to maintain your own sanity throughout all this. Many new stepparents burn themselves out in the very beginning trying to please everyone. If this happens, you’ll lose your resolve and your attitude won’t be in the right place. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t forget to take some time for yourself once in a while.
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