This article originally appeared on the Gottman Institute’s blog.
Being a parent brings so many joys and so many challenges. Parenting looks different for every person and family based on ethnicity, geographic region, and size. Being a stepparent can be even more challenging as the children move from one home environment to the next. It is important for every child to feel included in all their home environments.
Here are some of the most significant messages that should be shared and felt by children who live in homes with stepparents:
You decided to partner with another adult who happens to have children of their own from another relationship or marriage. You inherit these children by choice. When you decide to join with an individual who also has children, this comes with a unique responsibility and should be taken seriously. Ideally, you will have met, interacted with, and gotten to know the children in advance. However, if that didn’t happen, take a step back and be intentional about developing that relationship with their children. Prioritizing your relationship with your partner’s children sends a clear message of acceptance.
You are my child who happened to be born before we met
It is hard enough for children when they are unable to live together with both parents/caregivers under one roof. For many children, it can be a traumatic and heart-breaking adjustment coming to terms with having a different family. Some children may not be happy with their parent’s new partner or spouse and may take it out directly on the stepparent. It is important not to take that personally since it is not about you. It is about them. Allow them to grieve. Give them space. Communicate acceptance, empathy, and validation. There is no need to rush the process. Provide stability and a sense of consistency to help them rebuild the family system they lost.
We don’t give up on any child
If you had a rocky start with your stepchild, continue to be an emotionally and physically stable adult who plans on being in their life and their parent’s life for the long-term. If you had a smooth start, then continue to build and nurture that relationship by remaining connected with the child, asking about their thoughts, dreams, and wishes. Ideally, co-parenting will make this process easier if it is possible to do so. When children see all parents/caregivers working together for their benefit, they feel safe and secure.
We continue to take steps together
This occurs through healthy and consistent communication with the co-parents, teachers, and children. What’s even more important is to communicate directly to the co-parent and not through the child. If you disagree with something done by the biological parent, express your concerns in private with your partner and not in front of the child. Also, be honest about the child’s behavior when they’re with you and curb the temptation to try to make it sound as if there are no problems in your home. Try not to over-compensate or make excuses for the other household. If one home is strict, you might feel tempted to be lenient. This is an expected response, but not helpful. Communication is key and it is important both households meet in the middle.
Have family meetings often and discuss openly what the kids and you (the stepparent) would like to be called. Brainstorm name ideas until you find one that feels right. No need to rush the process.
Finding a title and a name you all feel comfortable with matters. It creates a sense of identity, belonging, and even safety for all family members involved. You are not trying to replace their biological parent, but you are still an important figure in their life.
We will be supportive of our stepchildren without overstepping boundaries
Maintain a consistent weekly, monthly, and holiday schedule. Of course, plans will change, but developing a schedule created collaboratively helps instill a sense of security and predictability for the child.
When the children spend the week or weekend with you, try not to be the “fun house” in an attempt to be liked by the child. This can create tension between you and the biological parent since children may have a difficult time transitioning back.
Talk about discipline, privileges, and rewards across households to remain consistent, reduce confusion, and communicate a unified front. This helps reduce the likelihood the child will play parents and caregivers off one another as well. They will know all adults who are responsible for their care speak openly and will receive the same message regardless of which house they’re in.