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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim addresses the challenges of being a stepfather and how to manage the complex role.
I am a stepfather and I can relate with a lot of things in your article for stepmothers, but I wish you had addressed the challenges for both partners. I am finding being a stepfather very complicated. What advice do you have for stepfathers?
You are correct. The role of stepfather is just as complex that of stepmother. Jeannette Lofas, a stepparenting expert and author, says stepfathers face the following challenges:
- You may get frustrated because single mothers often struggle with discipline, and this can leave kids ruling the house
- If you discipline her kids, she can get angry and defensive. Yet, if you don’t discipline, the kids walk all over her and you.
- Your wife jumping to the kids’ defense and taking their side over yours.
- Giving your time and money to her kids, yet getting no appreciation for it.
- Feeling helpless watching the kids walk all over your wife while feeling like you’re not allowed to say anything to stop it.
- Feeling like a third wheel or an outsider in your own home.
- If you come on too hard too soon, the kids will rebel and resent you — which could take years to repair.
- Supporting two households financially, and the stress that brings.
- Fighting guilt that you spend more time with your wife’s children than you do your own.
- Her kids not liking your kids, which brings conflict and pain every time your kids visit you.
These are just a few of the common complaints and challenges. But with some education, time and patience, you can create healthy relationships with everyone in your blended family.
Here are some tips and ideas to make your role as stepfather easier:
- Remember you will never be the head of the household in the way you may have been in your biological family. You will be part of the team that heads the household, and you must make decisions about rules, consequences and discipline together. Discuss parenting styles in private and present a respectful, united front to the children.
- Don’t disagree with the biological parent in front of the kids. If she tells the kids no, back her up. If you disagree with her parenting style, be very careful to approach her kindly and with lots of validation about what she does well. Criticism around her parenting can poison the relationship fast if it’s done without validation or with ego.
- Remember that your wife may feel guilty that she loves you and sometimes chooses you over her kids. She also might feel guilty when she chooses the kids over you. She is in a position where she almost can’t win because she can’t please you all. Be sensitive to this and, as often as possible, don’t make her choose. Always stay mindful of this internal struggle she faces.
- If the kids are open to it, take time to do things with them individually. But don’t push this on them if they aren’t ready or willing. Show you are interested in whatever they like to do. Take the role of an uncle who cares and wants to be a resource in their life, without pushing and by letting them get comfortable with you over time.
- Spend time strengthening your relationship with your spouse. For you to have a united front to the children, you must have a strong and healthy relationship. I highly recommend making reading relationship and parenting books together and getting professional help a regular part of your life together.
- Understand that her kids are processing grief around the loss of their birth family. They are angry, frustrated, scared and hurt. Most of their unruly, disrespectful or inappropriate behavior is coming from this pain. It is not about you. Don’t let them walk on you, but understand and have compassion for the confusing emotions they are processing.
- Biological mothers often have guilt about the divorce and fear disciplining the kids will make them like their father more than her. If she is too lenient and this frustrates you, discuss these issues in private with compassion for the complexities of her situation.
- Allow the biological mother to do some things with her children without you. Take this time to enjoy some of your own hobbies.
- Watch your tendency to over discipline her kids and under discipline your own. Watch for coming on too strong too soon.
- Expect, at times, to feel rejected and unwanted by her children. Your best response to rejection is to completely ignore it. Maintain a happy positive demeanor toward them. Do not pull back and act mad or hurt, or withdraw from the family. This behavior will only make the situation worse.
- When the stepchildren need help with something, be quick to volunteer. These opportunities help them get to know you and appreciate the role you play in their lives.
- Remember it may take years (and even decades with older kids) for them to fully accept you as their family. This realistic expectation will help you to not be frustrated when things move slowly.
You will have to be a patient, understanding, mature adult who understands the complex feelings a child of divorce has to process. If you have trouble with being triggered and angry, frustrated, or passive-aggressive, it is your responsibility to get some professional help and work on these triggers. Do this at the first sign of trouble or frustration.
Many stepfathers let the resentment build for years before seeking help or advice, and often the damage is too deep by then. Remember, it's a sign of strength to admit you need help, not a sign of weakness. Strong men can admit they need some outside help and some new skills and tools.
You can do this.
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