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SALT LAKE CITY — I had the honor of being the emcee for the Smart Stepfamily Conference two weeks ago in Lehi. Throughout the conference I kept thinking: There are some things that every single parent who is even thinking of dating and getting married again should know — things they could learn now that would save them pain, stress and turmoil later.
This article is for you dating, single parents.
Having said that, I highly recommend that this article not be the only resource you go to when thinking about a second marriage. The family dynamics in a blended family are very complex with land mines popping up daily, and knowing how to handle these up front can help you have a successful second marriage.
Here are my "must-know tips" for single parents in a relationship:
1) A stepfamily does not work like a biological family
Just because you were successful in your biological family does not mean you have the skills to blend two households. The dynamics in a stepfamily are much more complex, with a lot of fear and emotion involved. If you go into it unprepared, the challenges might be too much for you. You will absolutely need to get help, counseling or coaching, seminars, and books on blending families if you want to be successful. Getting help decreases the likelihood of divorce more than anything else you could do.
2) You must work on you first
It is going to take a lot of maturity, emotional intelligence and patience to build a relationship with each member of the new family. So, if you have wounds from previous relationships, childhood issues, or fear triggers, you need to work on them before you bring kids into the mix. The kids will inevitably push your buttons. If you behave immaturely when this happens, they will lose respect for you and the whole thing will get much harder. Making sure you are in control of your reactions is your No. 1 job in this new relationship.
3) Parenting problems come after marriage
Even if your partner’s kids like you right now while you are dating, they will have issues with you and/or not like you (at times) once you are married. I promise this will happen. If you are prepared for it, you won’t overreact or get offended and can just ride it out. Caring relationships will develop, but much slower than you think they should. So, it is going to take patience.
4) Fear often breeds bad behavior
Everyone behaves badly in fear of the unknown, and there is no bigger unknown for a child than changing up a person’s home and family. Their very foundation is shaken when the family changes. You must go into this situation carefully, always honoring how distressing the changes may be in the child’s life.
5) Ask your child how or she feels
Talk to children constantly and ask how they feel about each step of the relationship as it develops. They can’t control whether you move forward, marry someone or not, but they should be heard, validated and honored for their feelings about it. They need to know they are important too.
6) Be OK with being left out
Children need activities and time alone with their biological parent — without you. You will need to be OK with being left out on occasion because honoring the child’s needs is the most important thing when first blending. They are scared to death of losing their other parent (they already lost one in the divorce, who no longer lives with them). Make sure they are getting lots of attention from their parent to quiet this fear of loss, and they will be more open and accepting of you.
7) Children won’t always appreciate your efforts
Your role as a stepparent will sometimes feel like that of a babysitter or a substitute teacher (and you know how well they are treated). You will sacrifice and do things for your partner’s children, and sometimes they won’t be grateful. As a matter of fact, they might resent you for it because you are doing what their natural parent is supposed to be doing, and that hurts. If you can stay peaceful, flexible and trusting through the bad days when they push you away, you will get closer and closer over time. Just don’t rush blending; it takes a long time to build these step relationships.
8) Stepfamilies are built on loss and pain
A stepfamily is built on the loss and pain each person has experienced before now. The loss and pain can keep family members in a fear of loss or failure state — where their worst behavior will show up. They need you to understand that any bad behavior is an expression of that pain. They need your compassion while you also enforce rules. If compassion isn’t a precursor to discipline, damage will be done that is hard to repair.
9) Never speak negatively about your ex
You must never speak a negative word about your ex or your partner's ex. You must understand that children are made of half you and half your ex. When you badmouth your ex, you are insulting that part of your child too. You must allow them the space to love their other parent or you will do irreparable damage to your kids and their self-esteem. Work on seeing everyone as having the same value and avoid gossip and negativity.
Ron Deal, a leading expert on stepfamilies, shares the following African proverb: “When two elephants fight, the grass pays for it.” The children are the grass. Great care must be taken to make the children feel safe and unconditionally loved by both parents.
10) Blending forces change in family roles
When two families blend, all the traditional family roles are thrown out of whack. There is a new birth order as new children are added and others displaced. There is a new adult taking the place of the parent (or the oldest child, who might have filled that space since the divorce). Pay attention to how the family dynamic is changing and where reassurance and patience might be needed as everyone adjusts.
11) The 'You’re not my parent' card will be played
When things get stressful and feelings of loss and fear are triggered, your stepchildren will pull the "You’re not my parent" card. Don’t even attempt to replace their parent. Take the role of a caring family friend. Let the child determine the pace of the relationship and follow their lead. If you refrain from pushing and let them come to you, bonding will happen.
I hope this article doesn’t discourage you because you can build a successful, happy stepfamily that works, if you understand the factors in play and are prepared for them. Here are some great books to consider if you are preparing for a blended family:
- "In Their Shoes" by Lauren Reitsema
- "Dating and the Single Parent" by Ron Deal
- "Building Love Together in Blended Families" by Gary Chapman and Ron Deal.
You can do this.
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