Let’s face it, you stepparents have it tough. Kids are primed to see you as a threat. Exes are primed to be suspicious, or worse. Even Disney has perfected the art of vilifying your role. So, I thought I’d invest some space to offer support.
What unique challenges do stepparents face?
Healthy stepparents face multiple challenges. To name a few:
• Trying to reassure stepchildren that you are not trying to replace a birth parent.
• Trying to reassure the ex that you recognize, respect and value his or her critically important role and authority.
• Figuring out what’s in bounds and out of bounds in terms of parenting your stepchildren.
• Trying to avoid showing favoritism for your birth children over your stepchildren.
• Trying to be empathic with your spouse about his or her angry or hurt feelings towards the ex without worsening or supporting any ongoing tensions.
Phew, not easy stuff.
What is an ideal situation for stepparents?
It always takes fewer words to describe health than it does to describe illness. An ideal situation is one in which your spouse and his or her ex cooperate in parenting, your role as a stepparent is supported and valued and your stepchildren are allowed and encouraged to develop a healthy relationship with you.
What are some strategies a stepparent can do to promote wellness when the situation is not ideal?
I would offer the following 10 tips:
#1: Have a frank discussion with your spouse and come to an agreement about what parenting tasks you may and may not do.
#2: Avoid contact with the ex if that relationship is toxic. Let your spouse manage that.
#3: Complete one hour of special time each week with each of your stepchildren (and birth children for that matter). (Click here for a free download on how to do special time, or see Chapter One in my parenting book for a fuller explanation.)
#4: Do all that you reasonably can to promote healing and cooperation between your spouse and his or her ex.
#5: Try to put out of your head any desires to have your spouse or your stepchildren compare you favorably to your spouse’s ex. Having these desires makes you human. Not feeding them puts you on a high road.
#6: Try to avoid fueling conflict between your spouse and his or her ex. I find that some stepparents, who are in doubt about the security of their relationship with their spouse, view cooperation with the ex as a threat. In these instances, the stepparent gets upset when the other two parents get along; moreover, there can be efforts to try to stir the coals of conflict. However, any sense of security born out of conflict between others outside of the relationship isn’t very secure; moreover, this sort of a dynamic promotes increased stress for everyone, especially the kids.
#7: Try to avoid focusing attention on perceived losses in court. For instance, you may believe that your spouse pays too much support or gets paid too little support, and that this negatively effects your standard of living. Focusing on this is not only akin to chewing on glass, but can distract you from the truth that intimacy and happiness are poorly associated with income.
#8: Try to avoid the idea that bloodying the ex’s nose in court is a win. From the view of a narrow lens that may be true. But, looking at things through a wider lens, which is always closer to reality, will usually show that when the ex is bloodied, the kids often end up getting bloodied too, sooner or later, in one way or another.
#9: Try to avoid supporting disputes over “monkey heads.” I use the term “monkey heads” for property or access that have little REAL value, or that have little value relative to the value of the birth parents getting along. Epic disputes over monkey heads are common. Who gets uncle Bob’s dining room suite. Whether I get reimbursed for the hardwood floors I put in the house. Whether you or I get the Monday after Christmas. On and on it goes, wars over monkey heads. Meanwhile, the kids take most of the psychological shrapnel. Try to be the voice of reason in these disputes. Try to disavow your spouse of the idea that s/he is loosing something really important when surrendering a monkey head.
#10: Don’t try to force quick intimacy with your stepchildren. While one can empathize with a hungry farmer shouting at the corn stalk to grow, one knows that certain good outcomes take time and patience. If you are generally loving and kind, and mostly do well in the parenting game, it’ll come as much as circumstances outside of your control will allow.
Do you have other tips for reducing divorce tensions?
Sure do. Just enter “divorce” in the search box above.
Good luck. And, please also keep in mind that a good child psychologist knows how to work well with these issues. For a referral, click here.