When my husband, Tom and I first married, we were really conscientious of reinforcing with them that I was not replacing their mother. Having had parents that divorced, and having a stepmother in my life, I understood what they were feeling. I wanted to be like the really cool aunt – shop, have fun, plan birthday parties and fix their favorite foods for dinner. However, over time, I started noticing that in my efforts to NOT be their mom, I was having a lot of problems!
They didn’t fully consider me as a parental figure in their life, just dad’s new wife. I felt kind of like a really big sister! There was what I would call a twisted up form of sibling rivalry. They would say things like “Well DAD said…!”, which was another way of saying ”You’re not my mother!”. I was at a loss because I thought what we were doing would be best, and through all my research, most “experts” said I didn’t really have any authority or rights over them anyway.
My relationship with the girls was still very difficult, my husband and I argued regularly about them, most of which was about parenting. I felt powerless, so I thought I would try to parent through him. He would resist because he was worn out from being the only disciplinarian and the one to deal with his ex when issues came up. I felt like I was “tattling” on the kids all the time… you see what I mean? Big Sister Syndrome!
Something unexpected started occurring too.
Many times when I was out with the girls, people would make a reference to “my kids” and I, or the girls, seemed to always be explaining that we weren’t biologically related. Sometimes, the girls would ask questions or make references to what it would have been like if they were mine. What I realized was that while they didn’t want me to replace their mother, they did want to feel like they were special to me. I could tell they had confusion going on inside of their little minds.
Remember being in school, and wanting to be your teacher’s favorite student? Deep down, once kids realize that you’re not going anywhere, there is a part of them that would like to be considered special in your eyes, but this creates inner confusion because then they would be “betraying “ their bio parent….or so they think. Also, you may have been building up some resentment towards your steps, causing you to disconnect emotionally.
When blending families, things get so messy and convoluted in part, because we focus most of our efforts on clearly defining who the parents are and aren’t. The reality is that your relationship with your stepchild(ren) is unique in and of itself.
I decided I was going to do something different. I began acting “AS IF” they were my children. This changed everything! I started parenting them – which good parenting means partnering with your spouse, becoming equals in decision-making so neither one is the main disciplinarian.
Below is a list of 5 things you can implement to change their attitude about who you are to them.
- Decide on any “house rules” together first, then share with your kids – together. In those family discussions, make sure the kids get a clear message that the decision is coming from both of you and that you are in agreement. This includes implementing these 5 guidelines. Have a discussion with your spouse about these and come to a joint agreement that incorporates both of your desires as parents.
- Make sure you have time with them individually as fun time – not just when “daddy” or “mommy” is around. This will allow you time to nurture your individual relationship with each child and build future, special memories.
- Ask yourself “If they were mine, what would I want for them?” This is probably one of the most important practices. It will remind you to re-connect with them and remember that they are just kids trying to figure things out.
- Stopped referencing them as “step” and just called them “my kids”. I always use “my girls” since I have so many . This subtle word choice will reinforce that everyone is part of one family and that they are special. In fact, depending on the age of the kids, I suggest you come up with a nickname that they can call you rather than by your first name. This will help to identify you as a different type of relationship in their life – much like calling a grandmother Nana.
- Develop a working relationship with your spouse’s ex. We began calling Tom’s ex-wife, our “wife-in-law” (title courtesy of a good friend of oursJ) which reminded us that we do share parenting with two other people who love them just as much and have their best interests at heart too. Even though our kids are grown, she and I still refer to each other as wives-in-law!
No child really likes to be told what to do, but over time, mine started showing me as much respect as they did their bio parents and they began to understand that they are special to me and I wasn’t going anywhere.
So the next time your stepchild rebels and says things like “I’m not your daughter!” Your response can be “I understand. I like to think of you as my daughter that I share with other parents.”
Remember that they are confused and have lots of emotions and confusion going on that they don’t understand. Your job is to continue to reinforce that your relationship with them is unique, and you are committed to nurturing it.
As always, if you find this assignment challenging, please give me a call. I’m here to help!