WE ARE A STEPFAMILY
Life with a new spouse and stepchildren can be full of unexpected challenges. SASHA GONZALES asks the experts for tips on the secrets to making it work.
Facing the challenges of life with a new spouse and stepchildren.
When you marry someone who already has kids, it can be daunting trying to adjust to your new family. Just ask audit manager Melinda*, 37, who became an instant mum to 10-yearold Benjamin* and eight-year-old Sophia* when she married their father Peter* last September.
Peter had been divorced for three years, and Melinda was worried that she would not be able to match up to his former wife. “I was afraid that my stepchildren would think I was inferior to their mother. I wanted them to respect me, especially when they visited their dad and me on weekends and had to follow our rules at home.”
Benjamin and Sophia were initially defiant, ignoring Melinda when she asked them to make their beds and set the table, and throwing tantrums when she scolded them for misbehaving.
“Peter kept telling me to give them time,” Melinda shares. “He tried to intervene a few times but they were defiant towards him as well. When Benjamin told me he didn’t have to listen to me because I wasn’t his real mother, I got really upset. Peter told him off for being rude and now I feel that Benjamin resents me. I don’t know how to talk to him about it and Peter told me to just leave him be.”
Adjusting Takes Time
Heike Berens, a relationship coach from Heike Berens Relationship Coaching in Australia, says that no matter the age of the children, and whether you or your spouse are widowed or divorced, it’s important to proceed gently.
“It takes time to create a successful stepfamily,” Heike explains. “The kids may be at different stages of grief for their previous family. If their parents are divorced, they might be hoping that their parents will reunite, or they might still be mourning the death of one of their parents. When the new stepfamily forms they may have trouble coming to terms with it, even though you and your new spouse are excited about your future together and just want to move forward.”
Heike suggests putting yourself in the children’s shoes to get a better idea of what they may be feeling. “Understanding where they’re coming from fosters compassion and that makes it easier to find a solution together,” she points out.
Patience, communication and empathy are key to dealing with the challenges. Experts offer advice on some of the main issues you’ll face – as a biological parent or a stepparent – in a stepfamily:
When It’s Your Kids
CHILDREN’S JEALOUSY Your little ones are not happy because they feel they have to compete for your time and attention now that you have a new spouse. Solution: After Marie’s* husband passed away from cancer, the 42-year-old teacher remained single for five years before remarrying in 2011. She says that her sons, aged nine and 11, hated their new stepdad from the start. “The older one, Keith*, acted up in school to get my attention,” Marie shares. “To make things worse, my husband Marcus* didn’t really attempt to change my sons’ minds about him. He would say, ‘If they don’t want to get to know me, what can I do?’”
When Keith’s grades began to suffer, Marie sought family counselling. The therapist suggested that Marcus and Marie spend time with the boys, separately and together as a family unit. Marcus was also asked to try to be more understanding towards his stepsons.
“It took a couple of months for thing to improve,” says Marie. “Now, my boys are more accepting of Marcus and they get along better. Marcus and I are also able to spend time together as a couple without my sons trying to make me feel bad about it.”
When It’s His Kids
FILLING SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES You’re the “inferior” stepparent the kids didn’t grow up with. How do you stop comparing yourself to their mum and feel more secure in your role? Solution: Stop looking at it as a competition because you will lose. “A stepparent is an additional parent or adult who can help care for the kids,” says Lisa Doodson, programme director for psychology at Regent’s University London and a specialist in stepfamily relationships.
“He or she can also be someone the kids turn to when they need a listening ear. What you can be is a fantastic role model for your stepchildren. So, rather than focus on what you’re not, focus on all your great qualities – this will really improve your sense of self-worth.” BUILDING A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP You get along well with your stepchildren, but you want to feel more connected to them. Solution: Brenda Hooper, a certified family mediator and stepfamily coach from Step By Step Mediation Services in Vancouver, says you shouldn’t force it because if the kids aren’t ready, they’ll pull away.
But there are strategies you can use. Take an active interest in the kids’ lives by asking questions about their hobbies and dislikes, says Brenda. Attend their school and sports events. Later, give them positive feedback on how they performed, but don’t give suggestions unless they ask for them. You can also create new family rituals, such as Friday movie nights or Sunday breakfasts – consistency is essential to helping kids feel secure in relationships. Finally, involve the children in household chores.
You’re not sure how far you can go when it comes to keeping your stepchildren in line. And what do you do when they complain to their mum or dad that you were mean to them? Also, if your spouse is the stepparent and you don’t agree with certain rules of his, should you allow him to discipline your children? Solution: If you’re not the biological parent, then early on in your marriage, it’s best to take the lead from your spouse when imposing discipline. “Trying to instil discipline when there is a very weak relationship and low levels of trust and respect is a recipe for failure,” says Lisa. “But once you’ve had time to build a relationship with your stepchildren, it’s important that you feel you can be involved in disciplining them.”
If you have house rules, don’t be afraid to enforce them. It’s important to be consistent with all the children and on all occasions.
To find common ground with your spouse, Heike suggests discussing values, parenting styles and expectations together.
Introducing new half-siblings
You’ve just had a child of your own with your spouse. Your children or stepchildren feel jealous that attention is focused on the new baby. How do you reassure them? Solution: “Include the children in the care of the baby and involve them in decisions. The arrival of a new baby can actually increase the family’s integration,” says Lisa.
After the birth of her daughter Lily, Jennifer Lim taught her nineyear-old stepson Alex how to feed the baby and change her diaper, and made sure he joined their playtime whenever he visited.
“Alex’s dad and I were determined to make him feel more included,” the 41-year-old stay-at-home mum shares. “Before Lily was born, we sat him down and explained that some changes were about to take place but they didn’t mean we’d love him any less. We explained that he would be getting a baby sister and that his role was to love and protect her always. Lily is now three and she adores her big brother. It’s great to see that Alex has adjusted so well.”