I married for the first time at age 49. My 5 step kids were 15-24 when we married.
I was lucky when I was growing up. My mom was very loving and kind and everyone loved her. I was heartbroken when she died a week after our wedding because my stepchildren didn’t get to experience her love for them. After my mom died, I vowed to channel my mom’s love to my children. As a Relationship Coach, I used every tool I knew.
My kids had a complicated relationship with their parents. Their mom left the four older ones – ages 3 to 11 – with my husband and took her one-year-old daughter. Chuck was travelling a lot and needed help when he was away. His siblings and parents gave the children love and helped raise them.
9 years later, he married Stepmom #1. He thought his new wife would be a loving mother, but she didn’t want the kids around. She relegated them to one wing of the house and expected them to be quiet. And she didn’t want the college kids to come “home” to do laundry; it was her home, not theirs.
When the youngest was 13, she spent the summer with her dad and siblings and Stepmom #1. At the end of the summer, her mom said she didn’t want her back. Stepmom #1 didn’t want her living there either. So she went to live with her older sister who was recently married.
Here are some things I learned to NOT do from the mistakes their mom and first stepmom made that the kids told me about or I observed, and mistakes I made that pushed them away.
(By the way, in any moment, you are either pushing someone away or pulling to towards you and creating a closer relationship. There’s no neutral zone.)
1. Expect to replace their birth mom.
You are not a replacement of their mom unless they want that. Typically, if they have a relationship with their mother, they’ll probably call their mother “Mom” and they’ll call you by your name. In some cases, over time, they may call you “Mom” and refer to you as their mom when talking with friends and family. You are what I call a “Bonus Mom.” (I like that so much better than “stepmom.” I associate the word “stepmom” with Cinderella’s wicked stepmom!) No matter what they call you, love them.
2. Criticize their birth mom.
Sometimes it’s easy to criticize their mother when you don’t think she puts the children first. You might be angry with her for hurting the kids. Don’t criticize her. If they want to criticize her, that’s their choice. But don’t do it. It’s called gossip when you talk about someone and they’re not there and you are judging them in any way. You don’t know the full story and maybe your kids and your husband don’t know the full story either.
Have compassion for her. She has her reasons even if you don’t understand. Be on the side of the children. Tell them you love them and you’re there for them if their mom isn’t in a key parent roll.
3. Treat your stepchildren as an annoyance or interference in your marriage.
Show them you care about them.
My stepchildren were watching me to see if my kindness was fake or real. Because of their history with mom leaving and how they were ignored by Stepmom #1, I knew they were all hurt. I was hurting for them.
My youngest told me that when I was dating her dad and he was on the phone with me (we lived in different cities), and she was trying to get her dad to help her with something, he said he would help her when he got off the phone with me. I told him to take care of her first. She said that was the first time she felt like someone cared, and we hadn’t even met yet. I knew if I wanted this marriage to work, then I had to create a relationship with each of them separate from my relationship with Chuck.
By the way, some kids may never feel safe enough to let you into their heart. That’s okay. Your being there for them will hopefully help them to learn how to pick healthy friends and a partner they can trust in the future.
They may surprise you. 3 years after I got married, one of my sons called me to thank me for all the times I tried to support him and guide him. He said even when he didn’t follow my advice, he knew I cared about him and he learned a lot from me.
4. Let your husband step back and you take the lead in interacting with your kids. This is a big mistake.
You may get bonus points for caring, but you are subtly sabotaging their trust in your husband. His lack of involvement may say he doesn’t care now that you’re here. He might appreciate it if he’s been the solo parent but it’s not good for his relationship with the kids. And if something is not good for their relationship, then it’s not good for your relationship with your husband and with the kids.
5. Compete with your stepchildren for your husband’s attention.
When you marry your husband, you probably expect to be the center of his world. You need to support him to have a relationship with his children. He’s not all yours.
Tip #3 is to be sure that he creates his own relationship with the children. Don’t be jealous when he spends time with them. You want your stepchildren to be happy, healthy, mature adults, don’t you. Then they need healthy relationships with their parents. Dad needs to show up.
Don’t be resentful of time and effort it takes for him to continue to build a loving relationship with them.
Talk out with him how you’ll both support the children. And be sure to discuss how you both get what you to stay connected with each other.
6. Expect respect from them and obedience.
Going from friend to parent overnight is a big switch. Unless they want a mother (maybe true of younger kids especially if their mom isn’t in their life), give them space to get to know you and love you.
Listen to them. Ask what they want or how they feel. Just because you’re the female parent figure, doesn’t mean they fully trust you.
Work on establishing a friendship relationship before seeking to parent them and do that slowly.
Treat them with respect and loving kindness (even as you set boundaries), and most kids will let you in when you show them love and respect sooner or later. Everyone wants to be seen and heard, not ignored.
When it comes to chores, start with minor things. “Can you help me do dishes – I wash, you dry” so you are doing it together first before you ask them to do on their own. If you are doing it with love, they can enjoy – and even cherish – the time they spend with you when you do chores together.
7. Treat them the same.
I truly believe every person on the planet is unique. No one else has had your parents, your exact experiences, your talents, your needs and desires. We all want to be special. So do they. See them as talented and unique and love them each in their own way.
Make time to give each of the children a unique experience. Create a relationship with each of them that is tailored to what they are interested in. Find common ground with each of them. Spend time with just them.
Find out what they are interested in and find common ground with them. Do things with them or encourage them in what they want to do. Attend their events – sports, dance, art shows, plays, concerts.
If one is artistic, take them to the museum or buy them a drawing class online and encourage them. If they want to learn an instrument, support them in playing in the band. Then attend all the concerts when they perform. If they love to watch martial arts, sign them up for a Tae Kwon Do or other martial art class. Observe some classes and ask questions. Practice with them (if they can do it without hurting you).
Learn what each of them need individually to feel seen, heard, and love. Do you know about the Love Languages quiz? If you don’t, take the quiz 5 Love Language Quiz for couples and ask your husband to do it, too. Ask the kids to do it. Let them know we all have different ways we like for people to acknowledge us and show us love. There’s a quiz for teens and another version for younger children.
Talk with each one and have them read the explanation for their top one or two love languages. Plan a family meeting where everyone shares their top love languages and some of the ways family members could show them love exactly the way they want.
8. When they’re making choices that you don’t agree with, tell them you care about them, they’re wrong and what they should do.
Don’t do it (unless they truly are in danger).
Teens and young adults don’t have the knowledge we have about what could happen but even if we want to protect them, we can’t. Until they trust us in a parent or guide role, we need to respect them. Encourage their father to provide guidance.
Most of us made mistakes and learned from them. Teens want us to be encouraging, accepting, and loving and they want to be able to make their own choices. Hopefully you can ask them questions so they can work through their decision-making process.
My kids made many choices that I was sure wouldn’t work out (I was often right) but telling them they were wrong just pushed them away. Sometimes I’d say I really hope that works out for you.”
Part of being a teen or young adult is experimenting, finding the limits, and sometimes (or often) making stupid choices – and that’s part of learning and living. Just stand by them and gradually they’ll turn to you. We don’t like to get to get unsolicited advice; neither do they!
One more thing: As a stepparent, kids may be afraid you will reject them, so they reject you first. If you pull away for any reason – including not following your advice – that tells them that you are not 100% committed to them and not safe to trust.
9. Make them wrong for having emotional baggage.
Everyone has baggage and you have no idea what they’ve been through. Your Bonus Kids will have baggage and it might be around their mom or dad or both parents. They may be unsure if they can trust you and not begin there for them and showing you care no matter what can really support them to know they’re ok and aren’t alone.
My youngest daughter told me that she could tell me things she would never have told her mom. As an adult, she told me how important it was that I was always there.
10. Punish them when they defy your boundaries without having a discussion.
Teens will often push on boundaries (or ignore them) for a number of reasons. They want to fit in with their friends, or they resent you parenting them when you haven’t made an effort to connect with them or resent both of you for limiting their freedom when they are “almost adults.”
If it happens, expect them to push on boundaries to test you and their dad. They may also remind you their birth mother is more lenient to guilt you into letting them do what they want.
Listen, talk through pros and cons, and ask questions to understand what doesn’t work about the boundaries. Maybe you can make some adjustments. Kids who always push the limit can be reminded that if they want to be trusted they have to prove they can be trusted. Kids who follow the rules may be able to have more flexibility because they understand why the rules are important and can be trusted to be in communication.
Make sure they understand why the boundaries are so important. It’s important to have these conversations from the context of love and respect. Help them understand how they gain more privileges when they understand and follow the rules.
11. Everyone does their own thing. Spend family time all together
Have family time at dinner where everyone gets to share something about their day – such as something they are struggling with or was difficult for them, and something they want to celebrate. Share in their accomplishments.
Create special family time on the weekends. Watch movie at home where every time someone else picks a movie appropriate to all the kids. Physical activity such as catching balls, playing softball or volleyball, or tennis. Takes walks in a nearby park or visit a park area nearby. Learn about birds and hang a hummingbird feeder. Pick out wind chimes for the tree in your back yard. Have family card games everyone enjoys. Go to a farmer’s market – and teach kids about fresh fruits and vegetables. Dancing such as copying TikTok dance moves or even meditating together for a few minutes, slowing down and taking long, deep breaths.
Have everyone take turns cooking or helping the cook depending on their age – Sunday breakfast pancakes, make pizza from scratch, or a healthy salad.
Make a list of ideas and each weekend pick at least one thing everyone can do. Have fun no matter what happens – you’re all together.
Did I miss anything else you should never do as a stepmom? If so, please let me know.
Often our challenges as a stepparent (or a parent) are because we lack certain relationship skills that are important.
Take the Relationship IQ Quiz and find out your IQ. It can help you see how you can strengthen your skills with your husband and your stepchildren to ultimately strengthen your family and your marriage.
Originally posted on YourTango.com