Step-parenting 101

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How to make step-parenting work

Growing up an only child, Maureen had hoped that when the time came for her to start a family, she would go for the same number. Life served her something different. She met and fell in love with a man, a widower, who had three children. The two got married, and it wasn’t such a rosy union at the beginning, and it definitely was not her picture of what the first few years of marriage should look like. “It was as if I was walking on egg shells all the time when it came to parenting his children,” she says. She didn’t want to seem like she was trying to replace their mother, and to get them to like her, she was more permissive than she admits she would have been had they been her biological children. She started taking their side when their father disciplined them, and this affected the marriage. And what did she get for her troubles? “They still didn’t like me,” she says. She could still sense some hostility from them, and the “I didn’t sign up for this” moments drove her to complete emotional exhaustion and disillusionment.

Parenting is hard, and step-parenting is even harder. Blended families come with unique challenges. In Maureen’s case, there’s the fact that the children were still grieving, and she had to respect that. It was an exercise in patience, she admits, and considered giving up many times. Studies show that parents facing three roles—that is, parenting children of your own from a previous relationship, your partner’s children from a different relationship, and your children in the current relationship—are more likely to be more depressed than parents in conventional families. How do you ensure they all get along? Here’s how to go about it.

Communication Is Key

There are a lot of things you need to work out before the union, and this calls for open communication before and during the union. For example, what are your expectations? How and who will discipline the children (at the start of the relationship, experts advise that the biological parent should be the disciplinarian, otherwise it would be harder for the step-parent to establish trust and form a bond with the step-children)? How would you divide up chores and financial responsibilities? Where will you go on holiday?  Communication should be open and frequent, even after you’ve blended the family to make sure everyone is on the same page, and because it is important for you to present a united front when parenting.

Manage Your Expectations

How realistic are your expectations? Do you expect to swoop in and make everyone get along within the first few months of the union? News flash: It may not prove to be so easy. In fact, you may be in for disappointment if that’s your expectation. Beware of the optimism bias trap, a situation where we sometimes believe that just because something was hard for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean it will be hard for you. Reports show that most step-families have a short shelf life. But that won’t happen to you, because you are different, you are not everyone else, right? Well, we hope so, but avoid the optimising bias by arming yourself with information while still hoping and working towards the best. We’re not saying that you should lower your expectations; make them realistic. It might take a few years for everyone to know each other and trust each other. That will require plenty of patience and, yes, work (it is, after all, a relationship and relationships require work).

Create Family Rules

You’ll need to sit down as a family and create new family rules. Family rules are important. For instance, studies show that when you set rules around food, young children tend to make healthier food choices as the years progress. Away from food, other studies show that family rules impact other areas of life positively. When you have guidelines around television watching and other sedentary activities, studies show that children offered rules and guidelines that tend to be healthier. Set rules around tech use, online behaviours, foods they can and cannot eat, chores, etc.  Make sure the rules are clearly defined, and outline clearly what the consequences of breaking them will be, and be consistent enforcing them. Be sure to listen to everyone’s opinion when setting rules. Blended families are unique in that everyone is coming in from a household that probably had different rules and different views on rules, add to that the fact that you all still don’t know each other that well. Take it slow; coming on too hard will only push the children away.

Take Care of Yourself

This is old news but worth repeating – you cannot take care of others well if you don’t take care of yourself. As we earlier mentioned, parenting can be stressful, and step-parenting is even harder becomes it comes with more and unique challenges. Studies show that depressed mothers tend to parent more harshly, and this can lead to behaviour troubles in children. The same applies to depressed fathers. Have a positive relationship with yourself for a positive relationship with your blended family. Self-care includes getting enough rest, better sleep, spending time with yourself and your partner.

Don’t Put Romance on The Back Burner

Amid the transition, it is easy to put romance on the back burner. A growing number of studies show that children can negatively impact marriage, and it is easy to understand why. You’re all trying to be good parents and spend the whole time making them a priority that you forget about the partner. Don’t let parenting sizzle out the romance. A strong bond with your partner will make for better family relations. Spend time alone, and do things that don’t involve the children. Have date nights, and don’t talk about the children or parenting during your time alone.

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