5 Tips to Avoid Stepparent Stereotypes

The word “evil” seems to be the adjective that most frequently precedes the word stepparent. Fairytales, with the enhanced visual appeal provided by Disney movies, have perpetuated that stereotype with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel among the fictional children with infamously cruel stepmothers. When I married Steve, my kids played on the theme of mean stepparents, giving him the nickname Evil.

They felt free to do this because Steve is the opposite of the evil, fictional stepparent. His love for me and for our children (his step-children) is complete and unconditional. I could say I feel lucky, but it wasn’t just luck; it was a careful, deliberate choice of a man of character and integrity to join our family. I absolutely would not have married someone unless I was sure that he had the ability to embrace the role of a parent and to fulfill the job with joy and love. As a mother, my decision on a partner wasn’t just about me — I was also choosing a parent for my daughters.

If you are marrying a person with children, make sure you understand that it is a package deal, and don’t depend on luck. For the marriage to succeed and for the children to thrive, the stepparent must be committed to building a family, not just a marriage. I’m not a child-development expert, but I do claim a degree of expertise based on a successful experience as part of a blended family. These are the tips that I think helped us succeed:

1. Date long enough to establish security and predictability for your children.

They need to know they can trust that the new parent is reliable and is going to be there for the long term. Steve and I dated for over four years. The girls’ response to Steve’s proposal to me showed that four years might have been a bit too long.  When Steve discussed his upcoming proposal to me with the girls, they said, “It’s about time, what took so long?”

2. The biological parent needs to be the disciplinarian.

Especially in the case of older kids, the stepparent should take a back seat in the discipline arena. Unless there was a situation that was dangerous or extreme, my husband left the discipline to me and supported my already established rules and structure. My girls were 11 and 12 when Steve and I married, and the continuity was important to counterbalance the necessary changes our marriage brought.

3. The stepparent and child need to find an interest or hobby that they can share.

My macho, athletic husband took art classes with the youngest daughter and it not only developed a closer relationship for them, he discovered a hidden talent.

4. Support their relationship with their other parents.

Understand that they need to have a relationship with both their biological parents. It’s not a competition between dads or moms; children need to feel free to love every parent involved. Steve always supported the girls’ involvement with their father, speaking positively about him and listening with interest about their time spent with him.

5. Be patient and realistic with your expectations.

There is no timeline for the adjustment. It may take longer for you and your stepchild to bond than you anticipated, but be patient and understand that they may have been betrayed or hurt in the past and need time to trust you. I hate the saying “kids are resilient” because it diminishes the pain children may feel. Depending on the their past circumstances, it may take considerable time to let you into their lives. During our dating stage, one of our daughters expressed resentment that Steve was around too much. We had to respect that change was hard for her, back off a bit and give her time to adjust to sharing her mom. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before she asked Steve to spend more time with the family.

Every family, blended or not, faces individual challenges and struggles. The blended family may face some additional complexities, but they can be overcome with time, patience and understanding. At times, the professional expertise of a counselor may help. In our situation, my husband took a proactive stance and met with a child-development specialist prior to our marriage to obtain tips for a smoother transition to stepparenting.

At our wedding, he said vows not only to me but to my daughters, who served as our bridesmaids. That was 16 years ago and although the girls are now adults, every year we have what we have termed a “familyversary,” also known as the day we formally welcomed Steve into our family. Love and family are not determined by shared genetics but by commitment and love.

Categories: Parenting, Single Stepping