With 50% of first marriages and 67% of second marriages ending in divorce, more and more families are becoming blended. However, despite the commonality of the situation, it’s not always easy for new step-parents to win over their spouse’s children.
Even the term “step-parent,” has negative connotation, reminding us of Cinderella’s evil step-mother. Personally, I think we could improve on the phrase. I mean what is a “step” child anyway? A person who is one place removed from being a “real” child? How about we call them Chosen Children instead? After all, by choosing their parent to be our partner, we are choosing a life with them as well.
In my work with couples, I have found that relationships have a greater chance of failing if parents are not able to build healthy relationships with their spouse’s kids. So, in the interest of keeping relationships afloat, here are some tips to help new parents connect with their Chosen Children.
Don’t Try To Replace Their Biological Parent
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see new parents making. You are not, and never will be, a replacement for your children’s biological parent. Nor, should you have to be! Make it clear to your Chosen Children that you are not trying to replace their parent, and that you respect the relationship that they have with him or her. Then, depending on the age of the children, explain that you will, however, be doing some parent-like things, like enforcing curfew, requiring chores, etc.
Hopefully, this goes without saying but, definitely, no matter what, DO NOT bad-mouth the biological parent. Even if the children are saying how annoying she is, DO NOT participate. It’s okay to listen to your children’s grievances and validate their FEELINGS, but don’t chime in and agree that their parent really is an awful person. If they are upset and saying negative things about the other parent, you can be support but remain neutral by saying things like “I’m so sorry you are feeling this way. I know it’s awful to get in a fight with a loved one.” Remember, children’s feelings change often and they act and speak impulsively. When the fight is over and they are feeling better about their mom or dad, they will remember the negative things that you said and possibly hold them against you.
Give Them Space To Grieve
This is relevant whether their parent is still alive or not. If he/she is still alive, the relationship that the children had with him/her has majorly changed. Sue Patton Thoele, author of “The Courage To Be A Stepmom,” states that children grieve the possibility that their parents may get back together when one parent remarries. She also reminds us that part of this grieving process may look like the child is trying to break-up the new relationship. Thoele asks parents to give this process time, noting that losing the idea of their original parent’s successful marriage is huge for kids.
Thoele also suggests that, if the biological parent has died, the new parent should make an effort to help the children keep her memory alive. This can be done by placing photos of the deceased parent in the children’s rooms, talking about positive memories, or even holding memorial rituals on important days, like birthdays. The idea is to let the children know that it is okay, and even positive, to keep a strong sense of connection with the parent that has passed.
Make An Effort To Know Them…And I Mean Really Know Them
Show genuine interest in what interests them. Ask them about their friends, school-life, and after-school interests. Try to plan events for just you and them, without your partner, centering around the things that they love. Take them to a Katy Perry concert or to see a butterfly migration if that’s what they’re into. Your efforts don’t have to be expensive, they just need to be real.
Don’t try to be someone that you are not. Let your new children learn about the real you. If you love painting or underwater basket-weaving, share your interests with them and give them opportunities to participate in what you love. Finding common ground, (besides loving their parent), will help build a bond to last through generations. Being authentic with them also let’s them know it’s ok for them to be authentic with you.
If you would like to learn more about connecting with your spouse’s children, contact me. I am here to help!