Getting started on the right track with your stepkids begins by avoiding some of the common stepparenting mistakes that derail many new stepparents before they’ve even had a chance to get started. Here is a bit of wisdom from others who have walked in the shoes you’re trying on, so that maybe you can avoid the same mistakes.
Stepparenting mistake #1: Assuming that the way things are now is a forecast of what’s to come
So you’ve been dating their mother for a year. The kids love you. They squeal with delight every time you come by and are always hanging off your arm. Surely, there will be nothing but smooth sailing from here on out, right?
Wrong. Things change once you actually move in and become an actual stepfamily and authority figure to your stepkids. How you get along now is no indication of how things will be in the future. Many stepparents and stepkids experience a romance period when everything is new and they’re caught up in the novelty of it all. But once the novelty wears off and real life sets in, issues can creep out of the woodwork. One of the most universal feelings expressed by stepfamilies experiencing problems goes something like this: “We got along fine when I was dating their father, I don’t know what happened.”
On a more positive note, the opposite is also true: Bad first experiences with the kids does not automatically spell doom and gloom for the future. In fact, getting a bitter taste of reality often helps couples approach the situation with more realistic expectations in mind.
So if things are rosy now, don’t assume that you’re in the clear and won’t face challenges going forward. Be prepared for the possibility that conflicts might flare up. And if things are crappy now, it doesn’t mean the situation is a lost cause. Keep working at it, keep trying, and things may work out in the end.
Stepparenting mistake #2: Having unrealistic expectations
You know what they say about the road to hell, don’t you? That it’s paved with good intentions? Well it’s equally lined with unrealistic expectations. Like a cliff diver who climbs up to the highest point possible before diving off, the grander your expectations are going into this arrangement, the more likely you are to experience a hard fall.
Many stepparents describe “giving a lot for little in return,” especially at first. Some of the common complaints are things like…
- The stepchildren don’t appreciate the efforts
- That they are rude or never say thank you
- The kids take, take, take, but never give anything in return
- Stepkids intentionally create drama in the family
- The stepkids “treat me like I’m their maid.”
But as Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman point out, “We must realize that we have choices. We do not have to feel overwhelmed and then feel ‘used’ when we’re not appreciated.” (1993, p. 163) Tempering your expectations somewhat can save a lot of heartache. In some instances, children may never come to love you or form a close relationship, and you may have to settle for just being liked.
If you go into the situation expecting nothing in return, then you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised. If you go into the situation expecting everything (or insisting upon instant gratification in return for your efforts) you’re going to be sorely disappointed, and this disappointment will only further the estrangement you feel with your stepkids. Remember: Parenting has always been a somewhat thankless job. This is even more true for stepparents, especially at first.
Stepparenting mistake #3: Demanding that a child love you right away
“I thought I’d be an ‘instant Mom.’ This was a very unrealistic expectation which led to problems. I shouldn’t have tried to replace their mother.”
– Crystal, 45, Idaho (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 29)
Around half of the stepparents surveyed in one study strongly expected “instant love” from their stepchildren. (ibid, p. 26) Yet stepparents who start out with this demand are flirting with disaster. They give their strongest outpouring of love and devotion, and then when a stepchild doesn’t love them right away, they begin to wonder what’s wrong with them or feel as though the situation is hopeless.
But as Elaine Shimberg points out, “You can’t rush love, especially with kids who have been hurt by their parents divorce or by the death of a parent.” (1999, p. 129) Not only does it take time to form loving bonds with stepchildren, but there are also loyalty issues involved in the beginning: A child may feel that allowing themselves to love you is somehow a betrayal of their natural parent.
“Give your new stepchildren permission not to love you,” advises Barry Frieman, Ed.D. “Don’t pressure the kids to love you. Don’t make them tell you they love you. Settle for being liked for the time being.” (2005, pp. 158-59) Sometimes it helps to tell kids this directly: “I don’t expect you to instantly love me, but I hope that’s something we can work towards, so that we can come to love each other in time.”
Stepparenting mistake #4: Expecting to love the stepkids right away or love them the same
On a similar note, it’s also a mistake to assume that you should instantly bond with stepchildren, and that there’s something wrong if you don’t. “Regardless of how much someone adores children and loves their parent, it’s difficult to love someone else’s children as much as you do your own,” writes Elaine Shimberg. “Those parents who have their own children may try to love their stepchildren just the same, but those who were candid with me during interviews admitted that it was a ‘different kind of love.'”
“In answer to my question, ‘What do you wish you knew before you became a stepparent?’ the overwhelming response was, ‘That it was okay not to love my stepchildren right away. I felt so guilty, thinking it was just something wrong with me.'” She notes that of the more than 100 interviews conducted for her book, not one immediately loved the stepkids simply because they loved their parent. (1999, p. 5) So if you’re not instantly smitten, you’re not alone. It certainly doesn’t make you a bad person.
As Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., writes, “While some stepparents expect to have loving feelings quickly and automatically toward their stepchildren, that’s unrealistic. Although there may occasionally be a honeymoon period between stepparents and stepchildren because they are exploring a new relationship, the shared history between parents and their biological children all but guarantees favoritism.” (Kutner, 1996, p. 157)
Stepparenting mistake #5: Making disparaging remarks about the “other” parent
One surefire way to turn the stepkids against you is to make disparaging remarks about your partner’s ex. So don’t do it. This also means no backhanded or sarcastic remarks, such as…
- Well, she must be doing pretty well if they can afford that!
- I don’t know how your mom runs things, but we believe in discipline around here!
- I don’t believe it, your child support check is here on time! Hell must have frozen over.
Regular griping about the other parent or any aspect of the stepfamily situation can absolutely destroy the relationship you have with your stepchildren. As Elaine Shimberg remarks, “Even if they know what you say is true, they’ll never forgive you for mentioning it. What’s worse, they’ll hold it against you.” (1999, p. 39) Many stepparents can’t figure out why their stepchild suddenly started giving them the cold shoulder a few days ago. Often it’s related to something you said about the old family that rubbed them the wrong way.
Keep in mind that kids have a knack for overhearing things you don’t want them to hear. You’ve probably seen movies where the parents are talking to each other about things they wouldn’t tell the kids directly, only to turn around and discover the kid has been listening all along. This is a common occurrence in real life, too. Kids have big ears, and they can maneuver all around the house in stealth mode. They also seem to have a sixth sense that draws them towards any conversation you don’t want them to hear. So this no badmouthing the ex rule means NO BADMOUTHING THE EX…EVER! There’s too much of a risk that your words will come back to haunt you, and one errant statement can set your relationship back months, if not years. It’s also not a good habit for your own mentality. We construct relationships in our mind, and walking around talking bad about someone reinforces our negative views of them, making them out to be far worse than they really are. This will get in the way of the productive co-parenting environment you want to create for everyone. So don’t do it.
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