You’re not naïve or stupid. You’ve been divorced. Your partner has been as well. You want this new marriage to work, but not everyone, i.e., the kids, shares that feeling. It’s natural. Such is the challenge of being a stepdad. You know the blending will take work, but it’s impossible to foresee the entire landscape. “This is filled with landmines,” says Dr. Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. You can’t avoid mistakes. Some decisions will stem from ego and are doomed to failure; with some actions, your motives are pure, but the result will be the same. It’s no less frustrating, but there are alternatives that lead to better outcomes. Here are seven common mistakes stepfathers make and how to avoid them.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Step-Parenting
The Mistake: Telling them “You should show your mom more respect.”
It makes sense to believe that you’re helping by having your partner’s back. Not even close. The kids will think, “Who is this guy?” Your spouse now has to worry about you and the children, forcing her to pick sides, a game with no winner. Per Dr. Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? There’s also an underlying critique of her parenting skills – it could be misconstrued as you saying You don’t know how to handle them – a sensitive topic, even if a person hasn’t gone through a divorce.
The Better Move: Say and do nothing. While the situation may seem chaotic, it’s nothing unusual for your partner. Later, ask, “Are you all right? Anything you need from me?” Empathy is rarely unappreciated, Hindy says. This is a chance for connection and understanding, since, keep in mind, you’re still taking baby steps with the merger.
The Mistake: Imposing limits that you perceive are needed
You may be correct that the biological father is too lenient, but you don’t have the standing to counteract that. You’re also not offering a possibility, merely the other disciplinary extreme. This puts you in a precarious situation and the competing messages will negate each other, says Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist in New York City.
The Better Move: Coordinate the message, with your partner always taking the lead. She’s already going back and forth with her ex. What she needs to hear is, “I’m with you in what you want to do.” If kids are new for you, say, “My instinct says this, but I don’t know what it’s like. You know your kids best.” Always assuming her benevolent intent is a solid mindset, she says.
The Mistake: Planning a family vacation too early
It’s not a bad goal for the future, but taking a trip is too much at the outset. Travel is stressful enough, but a trip exacerbates two things for children: their parents aren’t together, and, especially if everyone goes, how you parent differently. Inevitably your style will clash with one of your spouse’s kids, Hindy says.
The Better Move: At this point, the kids are worried about how their lives are going to change. It’s best then to how them however possible that there will be minimal disruption. In other words: Maintain their routines and keep to their schedules, lessons, games, friends, etc. And, ease up on everyone suddenly getting along. “Don’t try to play the architect,” Hindy says. “The kids will have to find their own relationships.”
The Mistake: Pointing out a kid’s mistake to your spouse
It could be that he didn’t do his homework or that she didn’t clean up the bathroom. You’re not reacting to a situation. It’s a reasonably delivered observation and it will only be heard like a judgment, because, per Bostic, “maternal instinct trumps everything.”
The Better Move: Turn your observation into a question. “How do you think the homework or bathroom cleaning is going?” This allows your partner to talk and allows you to offer, “Here’s what I’ve observed. What do you want to do? I’m here to enact your rules,” Bostic recommends.
The Mistake: Making them your favorite meal
Or planning a fun activity. This is an everyday version of the family vacation. While not bad in theory, most often your eagerness won’t be accepted. Kids of divorce harbor two thoughts: One is the hope that their parents will reunite; the other is that no matter how bad things were and how much they might like your ideas, accepting anything from you feels like a betrayal to their biological father, Dorfman says.
The Better Move: Be a detective and learn what the kids like to do, then ask if they’d like to do it, Bostic says. The answer will probably be, “No”. Don’t take it personally. You are being rejected, but it’s more symbolic. Keep making offers, let them know they’re important, and you’re available when they’re ready. They need to see that you’re not looking to take over or take anyone away, namely their parent. There’s no substitute but time. “They’re devising their own definition for a relationship with you,” Dorfman says.
The Mistake: Commenting on the ex’s social life
You innocuously say, “She’s funny,” in the name of keeping the peace and enlarging the village. But just as you never badmouth the biological father in front of the kids, complimenting his dates is equally self-destructive. “Why don’t you just put the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger?” Bostic says. Your partner – his ex – still has an emotional relationship with him and this will set her off.
The Better Move: Keep any observation factual and boring, along the lines of, “I noticed she likes to play tennis … Doesn’t she work in marketing?” Yes, that factual and boring. It’s not admiring, and most of all, it doesn’t hold any trace of a comparison with your spouse, he says.
The Mistake: Cheering loudly at your stepchildren’s games
Supporting your stepchildren is good, but a game, or concert or play, is where you and their biological father will be together. It’s easy for it to become a competition, which you’ll lose every time, Bostic says. If you cheer and he’s not, or not doing it with the same volume, the child will think you’re showing him up. The dad could feel the same, which just creates tension and takes focus away from the kid’s moment.
The Better Move: Like with most things, accept your perpetual third-wheel status and adjust. Talk with your spouse about the seating arrangements, and try to be next to another parent or child. Make small talk with the ex about how good his car is looking. He might not appreciate it, but you’re offering nothing but positivity. And then follow the biological parents’ lead. When they stand to cheer, you stand, always after them and never with more enthusiasm. “You’re the beta guy, not the alpha guy,” Bostic says.