Every person has his or her own idea of what it means to parent. As long as both parents are pretty much on the same page, parenting your children can be a somewhat painless undertaking.
But in a new marriage that includes stepchildren, the partners may not always be on the same page. And that could mean trouble given that the challenges in a stepfamily are endless.
Here are some ways to make sure you and your new partner can parent together as a new stepcouple to keep your relationship united:
Define the role you expect your partner to take. It’s important to talk with the person you’re marrying about each other’s expectations when it comes to parenting your children. You may want your new partner to just act as your child’s friend, or you may want to have her help you discipline the kids. On the other hand, your partner may envision taking over as disciplinarian or may not want any parental role at all. But you won’t know any of this until you discuss it, and if you don’t know, you will set yourself up for many arguments.
People may think defining the roles in a stepfamily is like defining the roles in a nuclear family, so they get caught up in the mother/father roles as they envision them from the way they were raised. But, often, those rules don’t apply to stepfamilies. Rarely does a stepparent become a mother or father figure to a child, particularly if the child’s biological parent is involved in his life.
Try to remember that you are in a different family system and that different rules and expectations apply. By realizing that most stepfamilies go through these confusions of roles and expectations, you can talk constructively and collaborate on a solution rather than fight about them.
Know your parenting style. It is important to know the parenting style of both you and your partner. Ideally, these would be defined early in the relationship to determine if your styles are compatible. There are three main parenting styles, and many parents use a combination of the three.
Permissive parenting provides few, if any, rules or boundaries, so the parent yells and screams when she decides she is mad about something, but is otherwise very loving. This style can often be confusing for the children.
Authoritarian parenting is a very rigid parenting style. The household is run only by rules and the child’s feelings are rarely, if ever, considered. With this style, children struggle to feel truly loved and cared for.
Authoritative parenting uses love and caring to establish boundaries, rules, and consequences while considering the child’s feelings. With this style, the children know they are loved and they understand the rules and the enforcement of the consequences (even when they don’t like them!).
It is a good idea to talk with your partner about how you were each raised, what your experience was being raised that way, and what you are trying to correct in your own parenting. That way you can identify spots where each of you agree and disagree. If you are very far apart on your parenting styles (i.e., you are permissive and your partner is authoritarian), a willingness to be flexible will help the marriage considerably. Remember, openness, flexibility, and a willingness to change are important ingredients in a successful marriage.
Consider the developmental and emotional age of the child. If your partner has never raised children, he or she needs to understand what is normal developmentally for your child’s age. Your partner may not realize that your 6-year-old cannot follow complex rules, or that even if she’s the oldest kid in the family, she’s still only 8. This may result in arguments between the stepcouple instead of effective parenting.
It’s important for both you and your partner to have realistic expectations for any child at each stage of development. The best way to make sure your partner understands where your child may be developmentally is to get information and parenting tips through Internet articles, books, magazines, and local parenting classes.
Keep in mind that all kids are different and that, when a separation and divorce happens in a child’s life, he very often has an emotional “arrest,” meaning the child may act emotionally younger than his chronological age. By understanding more about each child’s developmental and emotional ages, both partners can have more realistic expectations of the child. Doing so will result in more constructive parenting and less arguing, which ultimately benefits not only the child, but your marital happiness.
Establish house rules. This is one area where everyone can feel successful because it gives the stepparent a place, the parent a structure and, importantly, provides a structure for the children. House rules help a household run more smoothly. Ideally, you and your partner will talk about and negotiate the house rules so that you both agree on what the rules should be.
The rules should be adapted to the age of the children, as different ages present different challenges and a need for different rules. For example, younger children may have rules about what time they have to be in bed, cleaning up their toys, and brushing their teeth. House rules should be based on the age of the child, and should be fluid as the child grows up. As kids get older, it may be a good idea to have family meetings to discuss the house rules with the kids so that they feel some ownership in them and a part of this newly forming family.
Also consider if you want to integrate your house rules with the rules at their other parent’s house to maintain a consistent sense of structure for the children. While it is, of course, not always possible to do this, it is better for the kids if there is more continuity between households. If this is not possible, children can adapt to different rules in different households — it may just take a longer period of adjustment.
Try to remember that this is a hard and confusing time for children. Adults often expect that if they are “nice” the kids will not have a hard time. It is quite an adjustment for children of any age to deal with new people in their lives, new rules, and two households. Your understanding as the adults and the establishment of house rules will go a long way in helping the children acclimate over time.
Tread lightly as a stepparent when it comes to discipline. When you are a stepparent, acting as a disciplinarian to your stepchildren is rarely successful. In fact, most experts say that a stepparent can never discipline a stepchild. The only time it can work is when the children are very little because they can more easily adapt to the stepparent as a parental figure.
Most stepparents want some type of parental role, but because this is a stepfamily and not a nuclear family, the definition of a parental role is different. A stepparent can be a “friend/parent” to a stepchild, as well as a caring adult figure in the household. A caring adult wants to keep the children safe and wants the children to follow the rules of the parent.
As a stepparent, you can help your spouse enforce the rules but your spouse must be the one doing the disciplining, particularly the older the kids are. Kids may accept discipline from you as a stepparent if you say things like, “You know what your dad said – if you don’t do your homework you can’t go out with your friends, so I can’t let you go out with your friends.” What they won’t accept is you yelling at them or making your own rules.
Teens will most often reject any parenting attempts by a stepparent. Teens are at the developmental stage when they are rejecting their own parents, and they usually don’t want another adult telling them what to do!
If you are being dismissed or rejected, consider how you are presenting yourself to your stepchildren. If they think they are always making you mad or upset, they will more likely reject any attempts at discipline by you. But if they feel that you like them and that you care, they may be more accepting. Tread lightly and do not expect this to go the way it would have if this were a nuclear family, because it won’t!
Learning to parent together in a stepfamily prevents children from splitting you apart and forms a healthy model of a working family for the children, with the couple as the heads of the house and the children in the roles of being the children. The parental figures united together provide a solid structure for children to grow up.
The above tips are some of the ways you and your partner can develop a strong family system in your home, which will strengthen your marriage. Remember that a strong, stable stepfamily helps children of divorce internalize the lessons that a family can be successful and can work.