The day after the wedding of Jenny’s father and myself, I overheard her playmate ask, “Is she a wicked stepmother?”
It then occurred to me that I may struggle in my new role – not only with being a stepparent, but also with Step Parenting Myths. I was afraid that I’d earn a place alongside that mean woman in the fairy tale.
That was many years ago, and since then I have gained new perspective into a phenomena which is slowly becoming the norm in our society: the step family. In honor of National Stepparent Day (Sept 16), here are three myths about step parenting.
Step Parenting Myth: Time With the Other Parent is a Vacation
Following on the heels of summer comes a lot of transitions and coordination of children moving back and forth between households. Even the word “visitation” or “vacation” is misleading. It denotes a lack of permanence and therefore becomes synonymous with a trip to Grandma’s. Kids can begin to expect to be entertained, nurtured, fed, doted over, and given presents.
And often this is exactly what happens. In an attempt to compensate for lost time and love, parents typically work very hard to make their child’s visit perfect.
If the child isn’t happy, then parents may feel they’ve failed. By the time children and parents get reacquainted, reattached, settle into a routine and become comfortable, the visit is over and away the children go.
Step Parenting Myth: A New Family Makes It All Better
Step families are typically encumbered by turmoil, adjustment, loss, anger, and complexity. 60% of second marriages fail, and if there are step-children involved, that stat goes up to 70% (source).
The effects of divorce on children lasts a long time. After a loss there is usually a grieving period of several years. Children will be moody until they’re done sorting out and accepting all the changes.
Many parents believe that when they remarry and create a new family that this compensates for the loss. However, children are rarely flexible or tolerant enough to handle the transition into a blended family without emotional turmoil. Parents should help children talk about their feelings, acknowledging that adjustments are difficult for everyone. Step families are unique; they need special attention and an excess of patience.
When children are whiny, pouty, angry, withdrawn, or rebellious, they are usually punished. What they are often asking for is reassurance from their natural parent. This behavior is the pleading question, “Do you love me? Do you love me more than my step-siblings? Is this family going to break up too? Will things ever stop changing?”
This is an excellent opportunity to spend focused time with your child. Give eye contact, reassurance, serious, playful, or loving attention, whichever is appropriate. Communicate about feelings, but don’t be angry or critical, just be a good listener.
How your child responds to discipline will depend primarily on how much love and acceptance they feel. It is more important to tell kids what they’re good at, than to criticize. Children need to know their strengths, to feel that they have some power and control, otherwise they feel helpless and inadequate. Parents are experts at making kids feel powerless. Stop and ask yourself whether your reactions are in the best interest of the child or whether you are choosing to meet your own needs.
Step Parenting Myth: You Must Act Like the Other Parent(s)
A few weeks after I bought my stepdaughter Jenny a new pair of jeans she traded them for a worn out pair. My instant response was to say, “You get those jeans back, now!” I struggled with this awhile before accepting that Jenny much preferred the other jeans and would therefore wear them more often – she felt good about her choice. So the trade struck. But I sure felt a strong need to take control and discount Jenny’s ability to make decisions. Criticism with a shaming tone can damage self esteem.
Recently I asked Jenny if she had any advice for stepparents. She says, “a stepparent should first become a friend to their stepchild, show interest in the child’s life, his friends, school, thoughts and feelings. Help the child feel good about themselves, try not to criticize or discipline too much in the beginning. Show a lot of love and caring.
Being a friend is more important than being a third parent. As with a friend, once you trust and respect them you are much more likely to listen to what they tell you to do without resentment.”
I asked Jenny whether she ever felt confused about having two mothers and she said, “No, because I have one mother and one momfriend.” I couldn’t help but give her a big hug. I guess I’m not a wicked stepmother after all.