Stepparents are often caught between their spouse and the kids. But it is possible to navigate the challenges.
“You’re not my dad!”
“You’re not my mom!”
“You’re not their parent—I am!”
If you’re a stepparent, you’re either cringing or nodding in agreement. You’ve heard these phrases before, and nobody seems to notice your double bind. You care about the kids, and you want to help your partner. But when things get dicey, someone whips out a dreaded, “You’re not … ,” leaving you to make sense of the rules in a family where patterns and relationships are set long before you show up.
So how do you make things work more smoothly? Here are a few tips:First, take a few deep breaths. (You’re going to do that a lot.) A double bind—basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t—leads to a buildup of frustration and anger, and you won’t help anybody by losing your temper. Expect stepchildren to reject you occasionally. You might feel singled out, and sometimes you are, but kids also reject their biological parents. It’s even part of the developmental process for teenagers. Support your partner, especially in front of the children. There’s no “unless,” “but” or “what if” allowed here. The only thing you’ll accomplish by second-guessing your spouse is to make him or her upset about being undermined. (The kids might get mad at you, too.) What about advocating for the kids’ point of view? Again, not in front of them. They’ll just learn to draw you into their disputes, which means more arguing between you and your partner. “But nobody’s perfect,” I hear you saying. (I know you can’t help it.) “Sometimes even my partner, glorious and loving as he is, can be wrong.” If you really need to say something, discuss it in private and in a respectful way. Don’t lead with, “Well, you screwed that up.” Try something like, “I’ll always support you with the kids, but I noticed something that I’d like to share.” Your spouse is more likely to hear what you say if they don’t feel defensive from the start. It’s frustrating when you’re not connecting with your stepchildren. The key is to just be there, be patient and be a witness to what they’re going through, good and bad. Connection is a cure for most things with kids, and they’ll work their way to you if you give them a chance. Don’t say negative things about your partner’s ex. No exceptions. The children already feel torn between their parents; you’re not going to connect with them while they’re defending their other parent. Kids also know deep down that they’re a product of both parents; when you insult the ex, you insult them. Never ask your partner to pick between you and the kids. It’s not fair to make someone choose between people that they love, and you’re not going to like who they pick. Instead, ask if there’s any way that you can help. Being supportive beats being confrontational every time.
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.