Being a parent is one of the biggest challenges a person ever experiences. Being a stepparent is even harder. If every family needs goals, blended families need them even more.
Think of a family like a ship. Parents are the captains of the ship, and as captains, we need to make sure our family arrives at its destination safely. In every sea, there are storms and calm waters, and we need to prepare ourselves for every ride.
What do ships need in order to move? They need two coordinates. They need to know where they are and where they are going. Without them, we don’t know how much supplies to take, what direction to take, what to avoid and where to stop on the way to have some fun.
Families are the same. We must be very clear about where we are going. We must have goals and targets, and it’s important to consider everyone on board in order to lead them best.
Parents are not the bosses. We are the leaders of the ship. Without goals, we might sail the same route our parents did…
Goals are even more important for stepparents, especially if their stepchildren are only with them part time.
Stepparenting is like being a supply teacher
Being stepparents is hard because we were not there from the children’s first day. We don’t know as much about them as their biological parents do. And we don’t have the same level of connection and trust.
Stepparents are like supply teachers. They come into unfamiliar territory, where the rules are different from their own. Sometimes, the kids take advantage of their position and can make the stepparents feel out of place.
So, what can you do?
First, forgive the kids for doing it. They are also victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that sucks.
Second, acknowledge they’re developing a good skill. As growing people, they are learning to manipulate the world to suit their needs. In this case, they are trying to regain control over their life. It’s a good sign – an indicator that they are normal. Don’t take it personally, because it’s not about you.
It’s very important for stepparents to establish good relationships with their stepchildren without the biological parent’s presence. Do some fun things with them so they can accumulate good memories with you.
If you only do cool stuff when their biological parent is there, the relationship is not real. They might consider you the reason their parents are not together anymore, so when all your interactions include biological parent, the biological parent gets stuck in the middle.
The children can then control the situation by applying pressure and forcing their mom or dad to choose between you and them. You need to avoid this situation.
Setting ground rules
When setting ground rules, it is important to coordinate and agree everything with your partner first.
Then, use phrases such as “Your dad and I have decided that in our house, kids go to sleep at 9:00”, or “Your mom and I have decided that in our house, we speak to each other with respect”.
This way, the kids know you both expect the same thing and don’t see you as a threat. It’s OK to have different rules in “this house” or “our house” than in the “other house”.
However, never say bad things about the child’s “other house”. If you have anything bad to say, don’t! Just say, “In this house, these are the rules” or “It’s OK if you your mom allows you to… in her house, but in our house, we do it differently”.
In the book Motivating Kids, I wrote hundreds of ideas and tips to help motivate children and teenagers. If I had to sum up the whole book into two items, they would be:
1. Know the difference between motivating kids and pushing them
Motivating means helping them do something they want to achieve. Pushing means trying to make them do things you want to achieve.
We have brain mechanisms that resist pressure. Yes, we can put pressure on kids to do things we want, but that will not motivate them. It will only make them resent us.
Pressure might make them obey, but obedience is dangerous, because it guarantees they won’t be able to take care of themselves in regular life. If you put pressure on your stepchildren, you are raising them to be pushovers.
2. Know the difference between internal and external rewards
We raise children to become dependent on external rewards (approval, grades, candy). Our entire system focuses on it. We need to switch both home and school to internal rewards.
Because external rewards create dependency. It’s like taking a drug to fix an emotional wound, and becoming addicted to it. Think of external rewards as drugs and we, the parents, are the drug dealers.
We need to teach our children to reward themselves, instead of using their need for external approval as a manipulation tool to make them do what we think they should.
Motivating teenage stepchildren
The rules that apply to young kids also apply to teenagers. The difference is that teens are smarter, and they’ve studied their parents and the world around them for years. They are sensitive to manipulation. They intuitively know the difference between pushing and motivating and they will resist within seconds of pushing.
With teens, you need to genuinely be interested in helping them and supporting them with whatever they want. If they “smell” that your actions are for you and not for them, they will shut you off.
For stepparents it is harder to show the child you have genuine interest because they may initially see you as an enemy which creates an issue with trust.
My suggestion is to use phrases like “I understand” instead of your judgment, disapproval or opinion. “I understand” is not saying “I agree” or “I think the same”, “I approve” it is just and acknowledgement of their opinion, even if you think differently, this is what they need.
Teens need to know it is OK for them to think differently and express their discomfort without being “punished” for it.
Ask them, “What would you like to do?” and act as a facilitator, not a judge. Show genuine care by asking, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” and keep asking until they come to ask for something.
And when they do, be kind! Don’t patronize.
Think of it like teaching babies to walk. You don’t push them. You stand in front of them with your hands open wide and encourage them, “I will catch you when you fall”. And when they fall, you pick them up, hug and comfort them, and then, it goes again.
More often than not, motivating and nurturing emotional skills is done by moms, because dads are not around most of the day. Therefore, stepmoms have more of a challenge motivating stepchildren than stepdads do.
Shared custody means that half of the time, no one takes care of the child’s emotional state. They’ve lost some trust for both their biological parents, and still need to develop trust for their stepparents (mostly stepmoms).
Until they trust you, act like a teacher or a counselor. Nothing is personal. It’s not about you. You are there to help THEM.
Trust is born when you pass the child’s test of genuine care. Being a teacher, life coach, counselor or facilitator requires confidence, so work on your confidence. Breathe deeply, relax, then engage.
Challenges in every family
It is important to remember that there are parental challenges in every family. Not every challenge you have is because you’re a stepparent. Some of them are simply because of your individual personalities. So, try not to “go there”.
Even in my own family, I don’t feel as comfortable with each one of my children. That’s normal!
Some kids are “mommy’s kids” and others are “daddy’s kids”. When kids are young, most are “mommy’s kids” (not all but most), again making life harder for a stepmother. Not because there’s something wrong with her, but because the children might not have as good a relationship with their dad.
In most cases, this is natural. Dad hasn’t been with the kids as much, so they just don’t click with him as well. On the other hand, if they have a good relationship with their dad, and introducing a stepmother goes well, the challenges may not be as big.
Kids that have a good relationship with their father may even encourage him to start a new relationship and be more welcoming towards a new stepmom.
Encouraging teens to be themselves
One of the challenges teens face is trying to find the balance between significance and love and connection. Parents and stepparents can help in that process.
My book Be Special Be Yourself for Teenagers covers these specific topic using stories about teens.
If I could sum the ideas in the book, they would be:
- Teach your children they are special. Start early if you can
- Help them develop and internal GPS. Teach them to trust their own judgment and develop critical thinking. It will help them navigate their world better
- Teach them the moto “What other think about you is none of your business” (including what their parents think)
- Tell them, “We live with ourselves more than anyone else. To find peace, we need to follow our own values and beliefs”
- Do not compare between your biological children and your stepchildren
- Teach them to follow their dreams and pursue their hobbies
- Have the same rules for every child in your care
- Help them appreciate their own skills and abilities
- Tell them that, no matter what happens, they can choose to be bitter about it or better for it. Give examples from your own life to show we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control what we do about it. This is not about saying, “Life’s tough. Deal with it”. It’s about saying, “I see the situation is uncomfortable for you and you didn’t choose it. Let’s not find anyone to blame for it, but figure out how be stronger, more confident, happier and kinder for it”
Stepparents are not enemies. Neither are stepchildren. If blending the family happens with confidence and kindness, the kids can have 4 people that love and support them.
That’s a big gain! You just need to help them see it.