Around four million men in the United States are living in relationships where the children aren’t their biological offspring, according to the last Men’s Fertility report. Of those the majority — 59.9 percent — are identified as a stepdad to one or more children in the household. The blended family is growing dynamic and one that presents its own set of challenges and rewards.
“While conventional families resemble a cake with its orderly layers and icing on top, a step-family is often more like an Eton Mess cake,” insists stepdad Neil Reilly. “It’s often all over the place and you never get the same one twice.”
Step parenting is tricky territory to navigate. Simply knowing that you’re going into a very different family set-up, with a whole new set of existing rules (or possibly no rules at all) and traditions means it pays to tread carefully.
“I married into a family of two, and then had another two children. And then divorced and then remarried, with a family of two children,” explains Dirk Flower, psychologist, teacher, adolescent therapist, and family mediator. “I’ve become a step-father twice with very different experiences both times. Obviously, each family is unique, but in my experience there are common themes that occur in blended families that it helps to be prepared for.”
Stepping up to become a stepfather can also be a life-defining experience as you grow and nurture your blended family, build new relationships, and master new parenting skills. But what advice is important to keep in mind? This advice from parenting experts and stepfathers who’ve been there is worth keeping top of mind.
Don’t: Rush In
“Common errors new stepfathers make include rushing into issues like a bull in a China shop, or else avoiding issues completely for fear of being too imposing,” says David Spellman, systemic and family psychotherapist. It’s a tough balance to strike. A solution, according to Flower, is to bide one’s time. “Allow the original parent to be the parent,” he says. “Until you’ve established a really good relationship with the children — and your new partner — stay out of the parenting world. See your role initially as being supportive of the mother and to provide extra resources as and when required.”
Do: See Yourself as a Step-Dad
“Visualize how you would want to relate to your stepchildren, and how you see yourself forming a new blended family,” suggests Rachel Andrew, family mediator, and psychologist. “Too often step-parents are so wrapped up in the new relationship with their partner that it’s only later — as they can come to feel like they’re thrust into a situation with that involves children — that they realize they haven’t talked about how they’re going to come together as a family and how the role of step-dad will work.”
Do: Expect Fireworks
By the nature of separation and divorce you may find yourself going into a relationship with a new family still hurting from what’s gone on before, explains Andrew. “The children in that family may still be coming to terms with their parents’ separation and trying to make sense of what’s going on,” she notes. “Often the new step parent will bear the brunt of their anger, confusion, and feelings of fear and worry.”
Don’t: Talk Bad About Their Dad
It’s crucial, per Spellman, to avoid disrespecting the biological father when you’re around the children. “No matter what your personal view of the children’s biological father is,” he says, “discuss that away from the children.” If you feel the need to vent — and you likely will — use your own support networks to talk about the frustrations you may have with his behavior towards you, your new partner, or the children.
Do: Trust the Process
“If you become aware of issues regarding the biological father’s parenting — if he was neglectful or abusive in some way — you may have to trust that the children will come to a point where they will see all of that,” says Andrew. They will get it and see him for what he is. You don’t need to be the person to point it out. “But,” he adds, “you do need to be there in the background still giving support, and giving them what they need.”
Don’t: Expect a Quick Fix
A relationship takes time to form; you can’t force one with your step-children. Allowing that time to take place is a difficult but important step. “Discover your step child’s likes and dislikes to start building a bond with them,” says Spellman. “Take time to listen to them — properly — and keep listening. Tune in to them, spend time just being together, but don’t force it. Understand that there isn’t a quick-fix manual, it can take time and not always a certain outcome.”
Do: Observe Boundaries
“A good step-dad will observe boundaries,” says Neil Reilly. “He’ll know when to step in to support and comfort your children and when to take a step back and let the biological father in. You need to be prepared to do both.” Create your own relationship, he adds, without trying to be a ‘substitute’. “My stepson will give me a hug but wouldn’t do that in front of his father as he wouldn’t want to upset him. Respect those relationships and build your own.”
Don’t: Be a Draconian Dad
“Disciplining children is a common cause of conflict between a stepfather and the mother,” says Andrew. It’s often because our thoughts around disciplining children come from our own upbringing. “Ensure boundaries in the relationships with the step children are clear,” suggests Spellman. “Communicate with the mother’s agreement and be prepared to negotiate in some areas; hard and fast rules can be barriers to a good relationship.”
Do: Pace Yourself
Step parenting, says Spellman, has much in common with any kind of parenting. “In fact, any kind of relationship; you can create opportunities for relationships but it takes two to tango.” He recommends parenting with PACE – Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy — a strategy developed by Dr Dan Hughes, a US clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect — is a great framework.
Don’t: Ditch Your Hobbies
Finding common ground with your stepchildren isn’t a one-way route. “They will know little about you just as you know little about them,” explains Andrew. “Don’t make any assumptions about whether they would or wouldn’t be interested in your hobbies and interests.” And definitely don’t put your passions or past-times on hold because you think your stepchildren will find them boring. “Go into the relationship thinking this is a real opportunity for you to share your hobbies and interest with them and if they want to be a part of that then to allow them to do that.”
Do: Avoid Competition
“Be aware that when you’re with your new partner’s children they could see you as competition for their mother’s attention,” says Flower. “Because you’re developing a relationship with their mother and the children already have a relationship with her there is potential for the children to get concerned because you’re taking up more of her time and attention.” Flower suggests you sacrifice some intimate time to begin with and give the children the space to talk to mom ahead of you. “Do this and their mother will be very appreciative, will feel supported and you’ll find you develop a deeper relationship than you would in competing with the children.”
Don’t: Leave it to the Kids to Sort it
“Bringing your children into a relationship where there are children already can present a host of challenges,” offers Flower. Often, he says, the oldest and the youngest of the children will adapt to the expanded family easier than integrating the ones in between. But the child who used to be the oldest will possibly feel resentment at being ‘downgraded’ and the ones who are similar ages can end up competing with each other. “When these situations occur, the natural parent should be the one that deals with their child to begin with.” The step dad should aim to comfort, reassure, and, over time, look to find a way of bringing them together though common interests.