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How do I become a better stepparent?

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When it comes to the image of stepparents in popular culture, the stereotypes that come to mind range from the wicked to the saintly. From the cruel and jealous stepmother of Disney’s Cinderella to the saintly, too good to be real Brady Bunch characters, stepparents are often inaccurately portrayed as either extremely good or bad characters. But the truth of the matter is, stepparents are real people with complex challenges and they play a critical role in creating and maintaining healthy families. The U.S. Census reports that 50 percent of first marriages and 67 percent of second marriages end in divorce, so it’s plain to see the vital role stepparents play in creating a successfully blended family.

But how does a new stepparent create a loving, nurturing relationship with their stepchildren to help create a happy and secure home environment? Here are some helpful tips to consider:

1. Go slow: As a stepparent, you are walking into an emotionally fragile environment where a child has been separated from one of his or her biological parents either because of death, divorce or other reasons. Because of this, a stepparent should step into their new role in a delicate and easy going manner. If you come off as insincere or trying too hard to forge a new emotional bond, a child will most likely be unresponsive. Instead, take your time and let the relationship develop slowly and naturally. 

2. The grieving process: If you are a stepparent coming into a new marriage that was preceded in a divorce between two living parents, be aware of the grieving process a child will go through. Your stepchild will not only have the grief about the dissolution of his or her family but also because of the bouncing back and forth between two households (in the case of shared custody). Keep in mind that a child may also identify the new stepparent as the reason his or her parents split up which can cause feelings of anger and hostility. The best advice here is to just give the child time and space to adjust and always be there to listen to the child’s fears or concerns. If a parent has passed away, work with the stepchild to find ways to honor the parent’s memory. In either case, some children may need help from an objective source like a counselor or member of the clergy to help deal with the loss of a family unit or parent.

3. The first meeting: When a child meets a new stepparent or stepparent to be, there is typically a lot of nervous expectations on both sides. The child may be angry, anxious or confused and the new stepparent may be nervous or even a little intimidated. Because of these reasons, the first meeting between a stepparent and a stepchild should be kept brief. Stepparents should avoid bringing gifts as it may seem insincere and an emotional bribe. A short meeting with friendly greetings can be the first tiny step to building a long and meaningful relationship.

4. Making new traditions: Stepparents can work wonders by creating new traditions and adventures with their stepchildren. Talk to a child, listen to what they like or dislike and get their feedback on things you can do together as a family. Whether it’s playing a board game, biking, cooking together or doing an arts and craft project, these special activities can help the new family bond in entertaining ways.

5. Names: A stepparent and a stepchild should discuss what name to be used when referring to one another. Ask the child if they want to be referred to as your step daughter or daughter and let the child know your preferences. Should they call you by your first name, mom (or dad) or some other nickname? Be aware that the first name choice may also change as the two of you begin bonding together.

6. Part-time parenting: If your stepchild has shared custody with both his or her parents, the child most likely spends time in two households. But even though your stepchild may not be a full-time resident in your home, resist the urge to treat the child as a special guest. If they do, they won’t feel like an authentic part of the family. Instead, include the stepchild in normal routines as if they live with you full time to include doing chores, doing their homework, and maintaining other household and family responsibilities. And if there are step-siblings in the house, do your best to treat all the children equally in all instances.

7. Communication: Lastly, the key to building any good relationship is to have open and honest communication between a stepparent and a stepchild. Also, be sure and keep the lines of communication open with your partner about parenting and things like discipline—especially if this is your first experience in parenting. By listening to one another, sharing feelings and respecting everyone under the same roof, a blended household can be one of the most successful families on the block. 

By ABC Quality Team on July 28, 2020